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Freedom House: freedom declines again

Freedom House released its 2010 Freedom in the World survey, which sadly, shows overall freedom declining around the world for the fourth straight year. The report designates a total of 89 countries as free, 58 as partly free, and 47 as not free. Last week, I asked Freedom House Director of Research Arch Puddington about some of the more surprising developments from this year in freedom:

We’re concerned about the self-assurance, even arrogance of some of the big authoritarian countries. China, most notably, but also Russia, Venezuela, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.  They have their own systems they’re going to go their own way. With China what we’ve seen is that there’s a new effort to influence how the rest of the world talks about China and sees China. The Chinese bullied a book fair in Germany and a film festival in Australia, as well as  events in Taiwan, Korea and Bangladesh, because the Uighur question or other controversial events might come up at these events. This sort of thing is a concern. 

I was surprised to see a slight improvement in Zimbabwe's score, though it's still designated as one of the world's least free countries:

 

It was principally because of the agreement that was reached that brought the [Movement for Democratic Change into the government. This gave Morgan Tsvangirai the prime minstership and led to the swearing in of a parliament dominated by the MDC. These are modest improvements but we felt they merited a small increase.

Honduras lost its status as an electoral democracy because of this year's coup. I asked Puddington how Freedom House dealth with the controversy surrounding the coup, which some felt was a legitimate response to President Manuel Zelaya's own abuses of power:

We are very sensitive to the nuances of Honduras. We recognize that this was not the equivalent of what happened in Argentina under the generals or Chile under Pinochet and we don’t call it a military coup. It was a coup of the courts and the military elites. Removing [Zelaya] from office and was done willy-nilly consitutionally. Exiling Zelaya crossed the line in our view, especially in a region like Latin America with its history of coups.

I asked Puddington if he thought the Obama adminstration's democracy promotion efforts were adequate. 

This is the fourth consecutive year we’ve seen decline, so we’re not going to blame Obama for what’s happened. I would say that we’re not satisfied with his policies. He still seems to be unclear about what those policies will be, but he's now coming around to something a little more concrete and coherent. There was a period in the last year where the adminstiation wanted to do the opposite of everything the Bush administration did and that attitude infected the Obama administration's development of a pro-democracy policy. I think that they’re now getting over that mindset but we’ll still have to see.

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John Yoo on Jon Stewart, II

Well, I just watched John Yoo -- a member of the Office of Legal Counsel during the George W. Bush administration and the author of the infamous "torture memos"  -- on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. It was among the more excruciatingly awkward spectacles I've seen on television. (I've always admired Stewart's willingness to have his shows inform, not just entertain, no matter how strange it makes the viewing.) At the end of the show, with Yoo off the stage, Stewart made the point himself, recommending his viewers overseas play the tape if they catch any high-value detainees. It was one of, by my count, four jokes in the second half of the broadcast.

Why so awkward? The two never engaged. They questioned and parried. They talked past one another. Stewart couldn't catch Yoo in a lie, couldn't call his arguments what they were, and clearly seemed frustrated. He had brushed up on Yoo's infamous briefs. He wanted to engage Yoo. But the lawyer -- as brilliant a legal mind as there is in the United States, some insist, dressed in a gray wool suit, looking every bit the professor -- simply explained away.

The answers to the questions sound rote to my ears by now. (Before joining Foreign Policy, I worked at The New Yorker, and spent months researching for staff writer Jane Mayer's book The Dark Side, which is all about the extralegality of the Bush approach to the war on terror.)  Concerns about the legality of harsh interrogation only come up during wartime, Yoo says. The White House asked him to define the legal limits of interrogation, and he defined them as best he could, he says. Nobody had ever addressed what interrogation is legal and what isn't, he says. We do not use law-enforcement standards during wartime, he says -- we don't read terrorists their Miranda rights when we arrest them in places like Pakistan.

Yoo established such arguments in his briefs from his tenure at OLC. Since then, the legal establishment, and the government, has cast them aside. The question of what the U.S. government can and cannot do to prisoners of war is clearly delineated in both U.S. and international legal codes. The U.S. government  has confronted such questions every single time it has sent a soldier or a CIA operative overseas, anywhere from Vietnam to Kosovo, and detained suspected enemies. I was disheartened not to hear more push-back -- oh, to have, say, Harold Koh or Greg Craig in Stewart's seat! -- but not surprised.

But Yoo made a secondary argument, which I hadn't seen him make before -- one about partisan politics. When Stewart first welcomed Yoo onto the stage, he asked him how it felt to come on television knowing the animus against him. Yoo described it as the same animus Stewart, an avowed liberal, gets from hard-line conservatives. Later in the broadcast, Yoo said that some people cast aspersions on the Bush White House for the same reason that some people do on the Obama White House.

I fail to understand how despising the creative rewriting of U.S. law -- how massively, secretly expanding the powers of the executive to allow the government to torture -- is a partisan issue. Yoo and his associates, the Jay Bybees of the past administration, did the United States -- Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, communist and libertarian, whatever political stripe --  a tremendous disservice with their irresponsible legal freelancing. They saw the limits of the law. Rather than delineating them in black and white, they rewrote them in vibrant, torturous color.

Take just one example. It's Yoo we have to thank for the short-lived classification of harsh interrogation methods as legal as long as they do not cause organ failure. He apparently culled the language for the description from a medical textbook and turned it into law without any precedent. There's nothing partisan about seeing that for what it is.