Moves anger liberal Democrats
By Stephen Dinan (Contact) | Sunday, May 17, 2009
Even as congressional Democrats feuded last week with the CIA in what at times seemed to be a throwback to the 1970s, President Obama was headed in the other direction in what may have been his most active week yet as commander in chief.
He pushed through the House a spending bill to finance the war in Afghanistan and reversed himself, deciding to fight the release of photos purportedly showing humiliating treatment of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr. Obama also announced he would have some detainees at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, tried by military commissions, putting him at odds with much of his liberal political base, but winning striking praise from Republicans who contrasted his sober decisions against the accusations of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that the CIA has lied to her and Congress continually.
"I think you see the difference between a man who understands the war and the threat and a politician who is bent on political revenge," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican.
"What's driving Nancy Pelosi is this hatred of [former President George W.] Bush, and being in bed with the hard left," Mr. Graham said. "Contrast that with the president of the United States, who's making some pretty intelligent, well-reasoned decisions about trying to clean up the old system but not throwing it out."
Congressional Democrats took a wait-and-see approach toward Mr. Obama's Friday decision to allow some military commissions to try terrorism suspects, but that and his other actions last week earned the president the ire of part of his political base.
A leader of the antiwar group Code Pink said she now wonders at what point her organization should begin to refer to Mr. Obama as a "war criminal."
"To see all of these turnarounds is very disappointing," said Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink. "I think he's afraid of alienating a lot of these military and their families and the right-wing media that has just attacked him viciously."
For the Democratic Party, which has spent the decades since the Vietnam War worried about alienating voters concerned about national security, Mrs. Pelosi arguing with the CIA while Mr. Obama was pursuing difficult decisions on military tactics was stark.
Among his moves was to reverse his decision from last month and tell his lawyers now to fight the release of photos showing U.S. troops purportedly humiliating and possibly abusing detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan; to push through a war-funding bill that would finance his plans for troop-deployment levels in Iraq and expanding the war in Afghanistan; and to announce that he will, in fact, allow some detainees being held at a the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay to be tried by military commissions, with some added legal protections granted.
Faced with charges of flip-flopping on the commissions, the White House said any confusion was on the part of others.
Press secretary Robert Gibbs, asked about Mr. Obama's statements during the campaign on detainees, instead pointed reporters back to Mr. Obama's stance as a senator in 2006, when military commissions were being debated in the Senate and before Mr. Obama announced his presidential campaign.
"I don't think there's been in any way, shape or form a migration on where he stood on the issue of military commissions from 2006 to today, 2009," Mr. Gibbs told reporters.
Still, when it came to decisions such as the one to fight the release of the photos - reversing a White House decision last month - Mr. Gibbs said sometimes there are adjustments, and said that's normal for a president.
"I think anybody that doesn't take into account facts as they are, facts as they change, in making a decision - I think the president would believe that of course one would make a decision based on the most up-to-date, readily available information. I think to do otherwise would be to short-change, in many ways, the importance of the decision that you make," he said.
Outside the White House, the Obama administration continued to advance its plan to expand the war in Afghanistan - something Mr. Obama clearly campaigned on during the campaign, but which many in his own party are wary of.
House Democrats who were wavering on the vote last week on a spending bill to fund the expanded war received gentle pressure from the White House, and some Democrats told activists they were willing to give Mr. Obama some leeway now on the issue.
The bill passed 368-60, with 51 of the "no" votes coming from liberal Democrats.
Requests for interviews made to nearly a dozen liberal Democratic leaders were turned down or not answered Friday, but in statements, some of those Democrats said the administration should be cautious about its goals and urged more money to go to political development rather than to military funding.
The White House bristled at the charge Mr. Obama was ending up with the same policies as Mr. Bush.
Addressing reporters at his daily briefing, Mr. Gibbs said: "You started out on Monday questioning why we were being so opposite of George Bush in all these questions. And on Friday I'm answering questions about why are we so much like George Bush on all these questions. I'll let you guys discern what period of day that all changed."
Congressional Republicans resisted the comparisons to Mr. Bush, and instead praised Mr. Obama for the way he's handled national security questions.
"What I see here is the difference between being a candidate for office and being commander in chief is unfolding before your eyes," Mr. Graham said. "In the first 100 days, the president has learned more about the nature of our enemy than he did as a candidate. He's consulted with our commanders. I think he appreciates the way the enemy operates and the threats we face."
He said the next test will be how Mr. Obama handles the question of indefinite detention for the few detainees who cannot be put on trial but who the military deems a sufficient threat that they must be held.