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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Obama's GITMO Speech Analysis

The text is here.

You gotta hand it to President Obama. He spent nearly an hour criticizing, in a scathing manner, all parts of President Bush's anti terror policies, but he was able to slip this in.

That is what I mean when I say that we need to focus on the future. I recognize that many still have a strong desire to focus on the past. When it comes to the actions of the last eight years, some Americans are angry; others want to re-fight debates that have been settled, most clearly at the ballot box in November. And I know that these debates lead directly to a call for a fuller accounting, perhaps through an Independent Commission.

I have opposed the creation of such a Commission because I believe that our existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability. The Congress can review abuses of our values, and there are ongoing inquiries by the Congress into matters like enhanced interrogation techniques. The Department of Justice and our courts can work through and punish any violations of our laws

That makes sense. Why go through the painstaking process of things like a truth commission, and show trials, when you can just stand up in front of a national television audience and spend an hour pronouncing the previous administration guilty.

It's also ironic, not to mention disingenuous, that Obama is such a scathing critic of Bush's anti terror policies. That's because more often than not he has kept exactly those policies all the while criticizing his predecessor. He kept rendition, the terror surveillance program, the military tribunals, the prison at Bagram remains the same, and in fact his policies are so similar that it prompted Jack Goldsmith to give Obama high marks exactly because Goldsmith felt Obama was copying Bush.

Former Vice President Cheney says that President Obama's reversal of Bush-era
terrorism policies endangers American security. The Obama administration, he charges, has "moved to take down a lot of those policies we put in place that kept the nation safe for nearly eight years from a follow-on terrorist attack like 9/11." Many people think Cheney is scare-mongering and owes President Obama his support or at least his silence. But there is a different problem with Cheney's criticisms: his premise that the Obama administration has reversed Bush-era policies is largely wrong. The truth is closer to the opposite: The new administration 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. This does not mean that the Obama changes are unimportant. Packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric, it turns out, are vitally important to the legitimacy of terrorism policies.

Obama has made a habit of creating exactly these sorts of straw men arguments in attacking his opponents. So, it should surprise no one that Obama is simultaneously condemning the whole of Bush's anti terror policies while essentially keeping those same policies in place. Once again, and far too often, he wants to have it both ways.

On the substance of the speech, there were specifics almost everywhere except in the most important place. He laid out his vision for the GWOT. He laid out his vision for the GITMO detainees. They would be split into several sub categories and dealt with appropriately within those categories.

There's just one thing we still don't know. We don't know where they will go. It's easy to criticize the whole of the GITMO policy, as Obama did, when you don't have to answer the most important question. Obama can put everyone into a neat little sub category. He can determine how to adjudicate each of them from there, but unless he explains where they will go, it's all a bit irrelevant. The key question, where will they go, still remains. I don't know if anyone else noticed but after four months he still can't answer that fundamental question.

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