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Pitfalls in Obama’s ‘surgical’ tack on detainees

President Barack Obama is facing criticism from the right for his plan to bring terror suspects to prisons on American soil and from the left for hewing too closely to George W. Bush’s approach.
/ Source: The New York Times

As President Obama defends his national security strategy, he faces a daunting challenge. He must convince the country that it is in safe hands despite warnings to the contrary from the right, and at the same time persuade the skeptical left that it is enough to amend his predecessor’s approach rather than abandon it.

Arguably on the defensive over policy for the first time since taking office, Mr. Obama is gambling that his oratorical powers can reassure the public that bringing terrorism suspects to prisons on American soil will not put the public in danger.

At the same time, he must explain and win support for a nuanced set of positions that fall somewhere between George W. Bush and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Rather than an easily labeled program, Mr. Obama is picking seemingly disparate elements from across the policy continuum — banning torture and other harsh interrogation techniques but embracing the endless detention of certain terror suspects without trial, closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, but retaining the military commissions held there.

“A surgical approach,” the president called it in his address on Thursday at the National Archives.

Reductionist debate
But surgical approaches are rarely satisfying to those on either end of the political spectrum who tend to dominate political dialogue in Washington, particularly when it comes to an issue as fraught with emotional resonance and moral implications as the struggle against terrorists.

In the reductionist debate in Washington, either any sacrifice must be made to win a pitiless war against radicals, or terrorism does not justify any compromise with cherished American values.

“Both sides may be sincere in their views, but neither side is right,” Mr. Obama said. “The American people are not absolutist, and they don’t elect us to impose a rigid ideology on our problems. They know that we need not sacrifice our security for our values, nor sacrifice our values for our security, so long as we approach difficult questions with honesty and care and a dose of common sense.”

In his rebuttal speech across town, former Vice President Dick Cheney in effect argued that absolutism in the defense of liberty was no vice.

“In the fight against terrorism there is no middle ground, and half measures keep you half-exposed,” Mr. Cheney said shortly after Mr. Obama’s address. “You cannot keep just some nuclear-armed terrorists out of the United States. Triangulation is a political strategy, not a national security strategy.”

The debates over Mr. Obama’s latest decisions — to establish a legal basis for holding detainees indefinitely without charge and to withhold photographs of past abuse while reauthorizing military tribunals with greater due process — have become a proxy for a broader struggle that could shape his presidency. With the economy in dire shape, Mr. Obama would prefer to focus on domestic issues and put the polarizing security-versus-liberty argument of the Bush years behind the country, but it stubbornly persists.

With Mr. Cheney accusing the president of endangering the country and liberal allies expressing outrage at what they perceive as his betrayal of progressive principles, the White House concluded that it had no choice but to address the matter head-on.

Mr. Obama has never lacked confidence in his ability to educate and win over people when it comes to complex and combustible issues, as he tried to do on the issue of race in the campaign last year or on abortion in his commencement address on Sunday at the University of Notre Dame.

“The issue skewed off into a lot of different directions in the last couple of weeks,” David Axelrod, the president’s senior adviser, said in an interview.

Mr. Axelrod expressed confidence that the public would grasp the new multilayered approach articulated in the speech. “It was a thoughtful speech that treated the American people like adults,” he said.

‘Pandora’s box’
Yet even as the White House argued that Mr. Obama always recognized the complexity of the issues before him, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Thursday acknowledged some surprise at the difficulties involved. Speaking with reporters at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, he described going through portfolios on “every single detainee” at the detention center at Guantánamo Bay.

“We knew we were inheriting a system that was not functioning,” Mr. Biden said. “We knew we were inheriting a system that was causing us great difficulty around the world.” But he suggested that the administration’s approach had been shaped by what it learned after taking office.

“It’s like opening Pandora’s box here,” Mr. Biden said. “We don’t know what’s inside the box. Now we know a lot more than we did in January.”

Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Cheney used the term “ad hoc” to scorn the other party’s policy toward terrorism. But the case-by-case approach of the current White House — officials there describe it as pragmatic — has generated confusion and disappointment across the political spectrum. While Mr. Obama dismissed concerns among fellow Democrats about “30-second commercials” attacking them as weak on terrorism — “I get it,” he said — the reality is that the debate could replay in harsh fashion in the midterm elections next year.

Great political risk seen for Obama
James Jay Carafano, a national security expert at the Heritage Foundation, said Mr. Obama risked being left with no supporters on either side for his program.

“The people on the left know there’s more in common than not between the Obama policy and the Bush policy,” he said. “And the people on the right know there’s a credibility problem because there’s a gap between what he tells the left and what he’s doing.”

Sarah Mendelson, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who led a commission study that urged the closing of Guantánamo, said the fusion of Bush and anti-Bush policies was untenable. “They’re literally trying to combine these paradigms,” Ms. Mendelson said. “And that means nobody will be happy.”

Nicholas Kulish contributed reporting.

This article, "Obama Faces Pitfalls With ‘Surgical’ Tack on Detainees," first appeared in The New York Times.