As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, March 23, 2009

Good Obama Meets Bad Obama Mid-Answer

Barack Obama says all the right things in this riposte to Dick Cheney about Guantanamo, right up until the point where he makes a distinction between terrorist suspects and suspects of any other criminal stripe:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I fundamentally disagree with Dick Cheney. Not surprisingly. You know, I think that-- Vice President Cheney has been-- at the head of a-- movement whose notion is somehow that we can't reconcile our core values, our Constitution, our belief that we don't torture, with our national security interests. I think he's drawing the l-- wrong lesson from history.

The facts don't bear him out. I think he is-- that attitude, that philosophy has done incredible damage-- to our image and position in the world. I mean, the fact of the matter is after all these years how many convictions actually came out of Guantanamo? How many-- how many terrorists have actually been brought to justice under the philosophy that is being promoted by Vice President Cheney? It hasn't made us safer. What it has been is a great advertisement for anti-American sentiment. Which means that there is constant effective recruitment of-- Arab fighters and Muslim fighters against U.S. interests all around the world.

STEVE KROFT: Some of it being organized by a few people who were released from Guantanamo.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well there is no doubt that-- we have not done a particularly effective job in sorting through who are truly dangerous individuals that we've got to-- make sure are not a threat to us, who are folks that we just swept up. The whole premise of Guantanamo promoted by Vice President Cheney was that somehow the American system of justice was not up to the task of dealing with these terrorists.

I fundamentally disagree with that. Now-- do these folks deserve Miranda rights? Do they deserve to be treated like a shoplifter-- down the block? Of course not.

STEVE KROFT: What do you do with those people?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I think we're going to have to figure out a mechanism to make sure that they not released and do us harm. But-- do so in a way that is consistent with both our traditions, sense of due process, international law. But this is-- this is the legacy that's been left behind. And, you know, I'm surprised that-- the Vice President is eager-- to defend-- a legacy that was unsustainable. Let's assume that we didn't change these practices. How-- how long are we going to go? Are we going to just keep on going until-- you know, the entire Muslim world and Arab world-- despises us? Do we think that's really going to make us safer? I-- I don't know-- a lot of thoughtful thinkers, liberal or conservative-- who think that that was the right approach.

If Obama could spend every day reacting to Dick Cheney quotes, I imagine it would please him and his staff greatly. But he could have ended with the fundamental disagreement that the American justice system is not up to the task of dealing with terrorists. But I guess politics intruded, or some knee-jerk reaction toward moderation, and Obama makes a truly puzzling hedge, that terrorist don't deserve to be treated like shoplifters. On the grounds of their post-conviction sentence, that makes perhaps some sense, and maybe on bail being set, but not at all on the grounds of anything else. You cannot set up parallel justice systems, that's the entire point of disagreeing that it's insufficient to deal with terrorists. A process of indefinite detention with good intentions remains a flawed process.

This is a troubling pattern. I mean, continued airstrikes against Al Qaeda suspects in Pakistan may be legally justifiable. They may be consistent with international norms. They may even be effective in the short term. But they inspire the exact same passions among the citizenry being bombed, especially when those bombs are errant and hit things like wedding parties and peaceful villages, that Obama condemned Dick Cheney for inspiring with his indefinite detention and torture process at Guantanamo. Since entering office Obama has stepped up the unmanned Predator drone attacks dramatically, in a continuum with the Bush Administration's practice after Pervez Musharraf left office. The strategic consequences are not only immense but PRECISELY AS OBAMA OUTLINED with respect to Guantanamo. Obama seems mindful of the long-term strategic impact of engaging the Muslim world and winning the battle of public opinion, and yet there are very legitimate consequences to airstrikes that can kill civilians, anger populations, and disrupt political dynamics in an unstable country. In fact, that's supposed to be WHY we're sending more troops to Afghanistan.

Colin Cookman writes:

While these strikes may bear some meaningful short- and medium-term successes, as a long-term strategy their value is less clear. Research from the RAND Corporation into the case histories of 648 terrorist organizations that carried out attacks between 1968 and 2006 found that only 7 percent were successfully eliminated through direct military force. This is in contrast to 43 percent who dropped their violent activities after some form of political accommodation and 40 percent who were broken up successfully through some combination of local policing, infiltration, and prosecution.

I imagine that the President has weighed the costs and benefits and decided that short-term disruptions in Al Qaeda leadership are worth the price. And there's the time-honored Democratic practice of "looking tough" in the White House. But the dissonance between the stated vision and reality is a little bit hard to swallow.

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