The conservative reaction to President Obama’s national security speech has been muddled. Is he actively undermining the successful fight against terrorism that followed Sept. 11, or shamelessly adopting most of the anti-terrorism policies of the Bush years? The verdict can hardly be both.
The speech itself involved a rhetorical sleight of hand. It used a ringing, unqualified language of civil liberties to justify a set of Niebuhrian national security compromises (including military commissions and the indefinite detention of terrorists who cannot be tried but pose a continuing threat). The gap between aspiration and application was massive -- an obvious attempt to appease Obama’s leftist base with civil libertarian and anti-Bush rhetoric while maintaining the policy tools necessary to conduct an ongoing war on terror (whatever that conflict is now called).
In spots, the speech seemed to recognize this contradiction. But Obama put the blame for this state of affairs entirely on his predecessor and the “mess” he created. “The problem of what to do with Guantanamo detainees,” Obama said, “was not caused by my decision to close the facility; the problem exists because of the decision to open Guantanamo in the first place.” Of course, President Bush did not create the detainee problem. The terrorists created the problem of what to do with enemy combatants, wearing no uniforms, who want to murder Americans. Bush struggled with the challenge of where to put them. But the problem would have existed even if Obama had been president in 2001. No location for imprisoned terrorists is particularly good -- as Obama himself is discovering. But self-pitying complaints about the burdens of history are not attractive in a president.
As a policy document, however, Obama’s speech was hardly surprising or radical. I have previously criticized Obama’s release of the Justice Department memos, which has opened the CIA to endless, distracting testimony and litigation. It’s a mistake he may already regret. But the rest of the policy in the speech seemed reasonable. Guantanamo has become a liability and Congress needs to step up and be part of a solution. The mechanics of the closure are difficult, but it eventually must be done. Obama continues to oppose a circus-like commission and the release of old photos damaging to the military.
Jack Goldsmith, former head of the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, makes a strong case that the Obama administration is continuing many Bush-era anti-terrorism policies with only small modifications. This is not merely because Obama has been sobered by his presidential responsibilities. The policies of the Bush administration also evolved over time, becoming more legally established and sustainable. Even as both Obama and former Bush officials seem determined to emphasize their differences, there is significant policy continuity in the fight against terrorism between the administrations -- as you’d expect from serious professionals committed to the defending the nation.
The starkest difference seems to be on the issue of waterboarding. This is an important argument -- but hardly a current one. The practice, used on precisely three terrorists, was discontinued by the CIA five years ago. Other interrogation techniques -- from exposure to cold, to slapping, to prolonged standing -- continue to be debated. But the Obama administration has been less definitive on these matters, appointing a task force to determine whether CIA methods, in some cases, can be harsher than Department of Defense methods. One suspects Leon Panetta and others would like a little flexibility in the aftermath of a possible future attack.
In the end, Obama’s speech was rhetorically irresponsible and, for the most part, substantively defensible. That is not ideal. But it is better than the reverse.
By Michael Gerson | May 22, 2009; 1:06 PM ET