There was yet another of those grand pronouncements from President Barack Obama on Monday — exercises in Orwellian doublespeak: The White House declared that while the president was still committed to completing “the difficult challenge of closing Guantanamo” Bay detention camp, he was instructing his Pentagon to resume trying detainees before military commissions there.
Republicans loved it, calling the president’s new executive order an indication that Obama had finally “seen the light” on the need for military tribunals, and on how hard it would be to shutter the detention facility, as he vowed to do on his first day in office. Rep. Peter King, of New York, the Republican chairman of the House committee on homeland security, praised the decision as yet another “step in the right direction.”
But liberals and political independents, whose support for the president has steadily eroded based on Obama’s earlier policy waffles, denounced the move as hypocritical and cynical — yet another example of presidential leadership by default.
It was also, they asserted, a prime example of Obama’s penchant for saying one thing and doing the opposite. Calling the move “troubling,” the ACLU said it indicated that the president had chosen to “institutionalize unlawful indefinite detention,” creating a “new normal” when it comes to combating terrorism.
While we agree with the president that military commissions are, as the White House put it, an "important tool in combating international terrorists," this is the third time in less than a week that President Obama’s rhetoric and actions have been strikingly at odds.
The most dramatic example in foreign policy is the president’s stance on Libya. Calling Moammar Gadhafi’s killing of his own people “outrageous” and asserting that the deranged dictator had lost all “legitimacy” and should step down, Obama has nevertheless shied away from imposing a “no fly” zone over Libya to ground Col. Gadhafi’s air force or providing other overt military aid to the rebels.
In this bloody stalemate, psychology is playing an important role in determining the outcome of the struggle. Obama’s inherent caution — normally a useful instinct — is likely to play strongly to Gadhafi’s advantage.
No one is recommending an invasion of Libya with American or NATO forces, but Obama seems unwilling to take any concrete steps beyond sanctions and denunciations to provide the rebels with the help they so desperately need. Gadhafi is consolidating his forces. America looks weak and diffident.
On the domestic front, too, there are telling examples of the president’s calculated passivity. The president has lamented rising gasoline prices triggered by the uprisings in the Middle East, but has not indicated that he may begin tapping into the nation’s strategic petroleum reserves, a move that would signal to America’s friends and foes alike that Washington is prepared to counter soaring oil prices that could threaten the nation’s, and indeed much of the world’s, financial recovery.
Vagueness and caution, however, undoubtedly have been political virtues for President Obama. The president’s decision to pursue military trials for Gitmo detainees, for example, enables him to look tough and show resolve against accused terrorists.
Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri — the presumed instigator of the attack on the USS Cole — is likely to be the first detainee, or among the first, to be tried by a military tribunal at Guantanamo now that the ban has been lifted. Such a trial could reassure restive swing voters who have been increasingly skeptical of Mr. Obama’s tentative approach to the waves of protest that have swept the Middle East.
A well-timed trial of a high-profile defendant at Gitmo would be the strongest possible rebuttal to a Republican-orchestrated drumbeat that the administration is soft on terrorism.
Plus, President Obama may be able, at least temporarily, to assuage his left flank by asserting that such detainees will eventually be tried before federal civilian courts, knowing full well that no such trials are likely to be held that could jeopardize his political fortunes before November 2012, if ever.
The Congress ensured that by passing a ban on moving detainees to the U.S. for detention or trial, which undercut Obama’s plan to try some of those being held there in civilian courts on American soil.
Make no mistake about it: Obama's decisions on Gitmo are a boon to his critics on the right who favor indefinite detentions and military tribunals there. For despite asserting that he remains firmly committed to civilian trials on American soil, the net result will be what many on the right have argued is the only practical solution to combating policy — indefinite detentions and military tribunals at the place the president so dramatically vowed to close.
Co-authored by Douglas Schoen.
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