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The Republican Party’s latest Internet video shows then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008 saying, “Guantanamo, that’s easy. Close down Guantanamo … ” This video is becoming an instant classic, as recent events in Washington demonstrated with sudden clarity.
Mainstream American opinion asserted itself, disproving conclusively the idea that the 2008 U.S. election constituted a dramatic shift leftward. To the contrary, the president’s efforts to appease the Democratic Party’s left wing on issues like detaining terrorists at Guantanamo Bay and “enhanced interrogation techniques” have backfired badly. For the first time since his Jan. 20 inauguration, President Obama is on the defensive politically. Washington’s “conventional wisdom” is now that, contrary to the campaign theme of “change,” President Obama has largely retained the Bush administration’s detention and interrogation policy. Since it is still early in the Obama presidency, comparisons with its predecessor are not surprising. But the real issue is whether the president is losing so much political capital and credibility on national security that he cannot repair the damage. Consider the full measure of his political disarray:
First, by an overwhelming 90-6 vote, the Senate eliminated from the president’s budget all funds to close Guantanamo. As Daniel Inouye, the Democratic chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, said, the president lacked “a coherent plan” for dealing with the detainees, a far cry from the “easy” decision to shutter “Gitmo.” Initially, therefore, Democrats sought to retain the funding by requiring the president to submit such a plan, but even that compromise was too hard. Democrats had to agree to eliminate the funding entirely to protect themselves politically.
Second, less noticed but perhaps more important, the Senate then voted 92-3 to require a classified threat assessment for every Guantanamo detainee before he is transported elsewhere. This has to be a frightening prospect for the administration. With the news media dutifully reporting the threat assessments (which will surely be leaked) before any arrive in America, this will become a story that never dies, to the president’s continuing political detriment.
Third, President Obama deliberately scheduled a speech defending his position immediately before a previously-scheduled speech by former Vice President Dick Cheney. The competing arguments were broadcast back-to-back by the major cable news networks, and received wide media coverage. But rather than calming the political environment, the contrast only made the issue more prominent, not least because of the unprecedented debate between a president and a former vice president. That is a new definition of a president on the defensive.
Finally, the substance of President Obama’s remarks showed how far he had shifted from the “easy” campaign days. He proposed to hold terrorist suspects indefinitely without trial, thus reaffirming one of the Bush administration’s core tactics. Civil liberties advocates reacted with horror; one of them said “if [the detainees] cannot be convicted, then you release them. That’s what it means to have a justice system.” This comment underlines the fundamental gap in perception between the Democratic Party’s left wing, and the Bush and Obama administrations (and the overwhelming majority of the American citizenry) on the other–namely, that the issue of terrorism is not about law enforcement, but about war. Before long, the debate moved to whether terrorists from Gitmo could be held in maximum-security U.S. prisons, another debate President Obama should not want. Federal courts could decide that the detainees’ legal status changes when they arrive on American soil, thus bringing many of them closer to release from prison. Holding them with other prisoners, rather than isolating them at Guantanamo, facilitates resuming contact with fellow terrorists and recruiting new adherents in the prisons. These dilemmas underscore that Guantanamo’s inmates are not common criminals, but a special threat that requires special treatment.
The war paradigm, based on state-versus-state conflict, is not entirely perfect for dealing with terrorism, but it is far superior to the law-enforcement paradigm. That is why enhanced interrogation techniques and detention facilities like Gitmo are required, at least until a new paradigm to deal with terrorists emerges, although none is in sight.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s recent confusion and embarrassment over the extent of her knowledge of “enhanced interrogation techniques” is yet another facet of her party’s dilemma. If these techniques are so obviously abhorrent, why did not Pelosi and others object to them at the time they were briefed? That is why she has so conveniently “forgotten” about the briefings.
Her troubles, however, and Obama’s, are far from over. Terrorists are not simply bank robbers or petty vandals, but enemies of Western civilization. They are the barbarians of our time, and the law-enforcement approach appropriate within constitutional democracies simply does not apply to their belligerent and uncivilized war of terror against us. To conclude otherwise would be to ignore the recent lesson in reality. Whether President Obama learned that lesson remains to be seen.
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.
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