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Sunday, May 24, 2009

The "Tortured" Defense of Obama's National Security Policy

President Obama is really losing the debate over national security. One of the signs is that this is the only defense I have found of his policies, and his speech. Now, I don't read far left blogs like Daily Kos, the Huffington Post, and liberal favorite Salon so I am sure that there are defenses. That said, I have found very few in the so called MSM and since they are his cheering section and acolytes that is really saying something. Another good way to see just how badly the president is losing the debate is how tortured the defense of his policies are by his defenders. This piece, by Ruth Marcus, isn't the most tortured piece but its certainly up there.

First, Marcus lays out the three caricature positions that Obama's critics have accused him of being on national security: 1) a Bush clone 2) a dangerous and naive liberal and 3) a kinder and gentler Bush. Then, she spends the rest of the piece attacking each of these characterizations. By doing so, through the process of elimination, she tries to make the case that in fact President Obama is number 4) Obama inherited a minefield and is attacking it with pragmatism.

First of all, any of these characterizations is likely too simplistic. As such, you can attack any of them with a specific policy example and use that specific example as "proof" that Obama's isn't that caricature. First, Marcus spends several paragraphs essentially getting her talking points from the White House itself. She calls the situation a "mess" and says that Obama is only dealing with these issues because Bush was more concerned with usurping power than finding "due process" than President Obama wouldn't be dealing with this.

It's ironic that Marcus believes that President Obama has been caricatured when she uses every opportunity to caricature his opponent. The reality is that it wasn't President Bush that created a mess but the terrorists themselves. On many levels, their very existence is a legal black hole. That's why many military folks believe the best justice is one carried out and ended on the battlefield. Yet, Marcus believes that Bush did what he did not because he was dealing with the same thorny legal, ethical and geopolitical issues, but because he was drunk on power.

Had the Bush administration put in place basic elements of due process and fairness from the start, had it not been so determined to exalt executive power at the expense of coequal branches, Guantanamo would not be the toxic symbol it has become. Had the Bush administration not tainted evidence with its "enhanced interrogation techniques," perhaps more detainees -- and the most dangerous of them -- could be tried and convicted.

Most that have visited GITMO believe that the caricature of it is nothing compared to reality. It's ironic that Marcus believes that Bush turned GITMO into a "toxic symbol" because the constant drum beat of supposed human rights abuses by people like her was what went a long way toward creating this "toxic symbol". As for enhanced interrogation, Bush's main priority wasn't getting evidence that could be used in court but getting information that would stop further attacks. This seems to be a "minor point" that folks like Marcus seem to miss.

Obama may in fact convict many more of the detainees that he apprehends but by removing these techniques we simply aren't going to get as much information. This reality Marcus doesn't attract because in her world, giving due process to our enemies in war is more important than winning that war.

Marcus uses this false premise to then attack the first three caricatures.

So the caricatures of answers (a) "disappointing sellout" and (b) "naive liberal" are both wrong. Sometimes -- ending the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques," releasing the Office of Legal Counsel memos on the same -- he has embraced the "liberal" side. Sometimes -- reaffirming a broad state secrets privilege, reviving military commissions, envisioning a legal mechanism for preventive detention -- he has come down on the "conservative" side.

Which makes (c) "kinder, gentler Bush" the most intriguing wrong answer. This argument has been made most extensively by Jack Goldsmith, head of the Office of Legal Counsel under George W. Bush. Writing in the New Republic, Goldsmith asserted that Obama has "copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit. Almost all of the Obama changes have been at the level of packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric."

It's true that Obama hasn't taken a strictly liberal or conservative position on national security. You can find both positions. For instance, he still believes that we can dialogue with Iran and he's continued the terrorist surveillance program. Like I said, all three of the first answers are themselves caricatures and so easily to dismiss. That doesn't make Marcus' view any more serious though. In fact, she spends only one paragraph defending it.

This is true only if you define "the Bush program" as what the courts and, to a shamefully lesser extent, Congress, had forced Bush to do by the end of his administration. Even similar-looking positions contain important differences whose significance Goldsmith minimizes. Obama suspended and then revived the military tribunals that Bush put in place -- but with improvements on excluding information obtained by coercion, limiting the use of hearsay and expanding access to lawyers.

More important, where Bush resisted any encroachments on executive power, Obama welcomes sharing power and responsibility. "Our goal is not to avoid a legitimate legal framework. In our constitutional system, prolonged detention should not be the decision of any one man," he said. "If and when we determine that the United States must hold individuals to keep them from carrying out an act of war, we will do so within a system that involves judicial and congressional oversight."

That's not glitzy rhetoric cloaking the same old policy. It's smart change, dangerously overdue.

To say that Obama is a pragmatist because he has added cosmetic changes to the military tribunals, tribunals that candidate Obama condemned, is the height of a journalist carrying water for a candidate. No one but the biggest ideologue believes that any of these changes will do anything of substance and are done only as a face saving measure. Candidate Obama made clear the problem was the tribunal system itself. He proclaimed boldly that our criminal court system could handle their trials. Now, Marcus is trying to re write history by making these changes something they aren't.

Then, she takes things a step further. Because Obama proclaims in vague words to work "within a system that involves judicial and congressional oversight", this makes Obama's policies so different from Bush's. In fact, GITMO was always under congressional oversight and cases that started there wound up in the Supreme Court. So, just because Obama says that things will be more transparent, full of oversight, and within the confines of our laws doesn't mean that 1) they weren't before and 2) they will be anymore legal now.

Those of us on the right that have criticized his policy haven't criticized everything reflexively. I believe it is naive to think that reaching out to Iran will do anything but give the Iranians more time to advance their own agenda. It's rather clear now that Obama decided to close GITMO without thinking it through, something Bush's opponents attacked him on relentlessly with Iraq policy. We further believe that releasing the memos was a naked act of politics that does nothing to advance our foreign policy agenda. We agree with his decisions to continue the terrorist surveillance program, renditions, and doubling down in Afghanistan. Though, we'd also like Obama to admit his naked hypocrisy and to admit that it's much easier to criticize a President's policy than to make it himself.


Anonymous said...

"Now, I don't read far left blogs like Daily Kos, the Huffington Post"

Is there anything you would consider "just" left rather than "far left"? Or do you just summarily label everything to the left of Ronald Reagan "far" as a way to make them sound illegitimate enough that you don't have to seriously consider it?

mike volpe said...

Sure. The new Republic is just a liberal online magazine. Slate and Politico are both somewhat non ideological.

I didn't think that labeling Daily Kos as far left was controversial.

Anonymous said...

Why would you choose to mention non-ideological media outlets when I asked you about liberal outlets? It betrays a "liberal until proven otherwise" mentality in your viewpoint about the media.

mike volpe said...

What are you talking about? I mentioned Daily Kos and Huffington Post in passing to point out that I am sure that there are those outlets that are defending the President on this issue but I don't read every single outlet.

Now, you are fixated on some argument that is happening in your mind only. Like I said, I don't think it is controversial to call Daily Kos far left. Beyond that, your argument is in your mind only.

Anonymous said...

I asked why you mentioned Slate and Politico as being non-ideological when I asked you what you considered liberal but not far left.

To reiterate, I'm asking about your comment, not your post.

mike volpe said...

I thought of them. I gave you some publications that I didn't think were "far left".

The piece analyzes Marcus' defense of Obama's national security policy not which publication is far left, liberal, and non ideological.

You are fixated on a throw away line about Daily Kos being far left. That has almost nothing to do with the piece itself.

simon said...

Why dont you read far left blogs?