22 May 2009

P^5 and the Politics of National Security

There's an expression you probably know: 'lack of prior planning makes piss-poor performance.' It's corollary is 'your failure to plan is not my problem.' The 'problem' with the second phrase is that when the President of the United States fails to plan (acting on ideology or political expediency or both), it is the country's (and possibly the world's) problem. We saw that with some of the decisions made by President Bush, and we're seeing it again with President Obama. Yesterday's speech did nothing to alleviate concerns in Congress and among the public that there is a concrete plan in place to deal with the detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison. While the President laid out what the categories of prisoners are, and some general ideas for those categories, he made no specific statements of what plan he proposed for them. Indeed, rather than proposing something specific, he kept whining (yes, I used the word - he sounded exactly like my eight-year-old at times) that it's not his fault and that he's inherited a mess from President Bush and that the problem is hard. The Weekly Standard pointed out that President, while talking nicely about not pointing fingers and using divisive language, spent much of his time doing just that. 'While insisting "we need to focus on the future," President Obama devoted much of his speech on terrorist detainees today to denouncing the policies of President Bush's administration. He faulted everyone in Washington for "pointing fingers at one another," yet pointed his own finger frequently, and critically, at the Bush administration. Obama said America's problems won't be solved "unless we solve them together"--in a divisive and partisan speech certain to alienate Republicans and conservatives.' He wound up the speech by again pushing off his responsibility by talking about collective decision-making with Congress. Oversight is important, but Congress typically likes to have a plan of some kind presented to them for debate and modification. The President seems to want someone else to take responsibility and tell him what to do.
On a somewhat smaller, although telling, note, the President evidenced in his speech several internal contradictions (whether they're internal to him alone or to his administration is difficult to tell). During the campaign debates the President made repeated statements about governing pragmatically rather than from idealism. It seems from yesterday's speech that he doesn't quite buy that rhetoric. In one moment he said, "But I believe with every fiber of my being that in the long run we also cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values. The documents that we hold in this very hall - the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights -are not simply words written into aging parchment. They are the foundation of liberty and justice in this country, and a light that shines for all who seek freedom, fairness, equality and dignity in the world. ... I know that we must never - ever - turn our back on its enduring principles for expedience sake." But in the very next breath, the President went on to say, "We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and keeps us safe."

Why should minor moments such at the tension between idealism and pragmatism matter? In part, because the evidence the real difficulty of making national security decisions. Josh Gerstein laid out some of the difficulties in a catchy article on Politico.com yesterday. The opening sentences read: 'During the campaign, it all sounded so simple. Shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison, which critics around the world called a symbol of U.S. disregard for human rights. As president, Barack Obama has found the specifics of closing Gitmo far more complicated.' I was pleased to hear the President abandon the ridiculous language of 'man-caused disasters' and 'overseas-contingency operations,' acknowledging that we are in fact at war (albeit an unconventional war). 'Now let me be clear: we are indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates. We do need to update our institutions to deal with this threat.' However, he seems unwilling to realize that being a Commander-in-Chief during a time of of war means that the president must make decisions and be fully responsible for them, even if those decisions destroy his political power. I'm not trying to make the argument that President Bush was right in all of his decisions, but I am disturbed by President Obama's unwillingness to put forward his own plan and own up to the consequences that would be attendant on it. Instead, while claiming he wants to look forward, he seems stuck in the loop of continually blaming President Bush for everything he doesn't want responsibility for himself.

President Obama's unwillingness to put forward a concrete plan has caused the Congressional leadership to balk at any closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison, and yesterday's address did nothing to alleviate that concern. Quoted in Politico yesterday: 'Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid warned that Obama’s still needed to lay out a detailed plan for closing the detention center. Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, whose home state of New York will be the venue of the first court battle with a Guantanamo detainee, said Democrats would have “patience” for Obama’s plans. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Obama’s speech “changes the contours of the debate,” but said that Democrats had “felt they were in a vulnerable position because they were being asked to defend a policy that they didn’t know.” “We’re all awaiting the details of the plan and the president is going to come up with one,” Reid told reporters, saying it was “important” that Obama laid out a “broad vision” on Thursday. “The problems of Guantanamo came from the previous administration … But we are wanting and willing to work with him to come up with a responsible solution.”' It isn't President Bush's fault that President Obama has yet to persuade his own party that he knows what he's doing and why.

Part of President Obama's difficulty in persuading his party (or anyone else) lies in the fact that he does have an internal contradiction to resolve: when to govern from ideology and when to govern from pragmatism. He does not want to use enhanced interrogation (or torture, depending on perspective) because it would violate the ideals of the country, but he does acknowledge the imprudence of simply letting sworn enemies free. He wants to close Guantanamo, but knows that some of its prisoners are are dangerous and can not be tried under any system. Vice-President Cheney calmly laid out the primary divisions in view and substance in his speech that followed on the heels of President Obamas'. 'Cheney said made no apologies for what he called "the comprehensive strategy" he said the Bush Administration developed "to make certain our nation never again faced such a day of horror." To Obama, that strategy included breaches of America’s core values in the methods of surveillance, interrogation and detention of terror suspects. To Cheney, the policies reflected powers derived from Article II of the Constitution and from the Joint Resolution of Congress authorizing the use of "all necessary and appropriate force" to protect the American people.'

While the back-to-back speeches were frequently over-hyped in the media as a 'duel,' they served as useful contrasts to each other (Cheney's speech was scheduled several weeks before Obama's). The former Vice-President began by laying out the rationale behind the national security policies of the Bush administration, directly rebuking the idea in the President's speech that the prior policies were ad-hoc. 'Nine-eleven caused everyone to take a serious second look at threats that had been gathering for a while, and enemies whose plans were getting bolder and more sophisticated. Throughout the 90s, America had responded to these attacks, if at all, on an ad hoc basis. The first attack on the World Trade Center was treated as a law enforcement problem, with everything handled after the fact - crime scene, arrests, indictments, convictions, prison sentences, case closed. That's how it seemed from a law enforcement perspective, at least - but for the terrorists the case was not closed. For them, it was another offensive strike in their ongoing war against the United States. And it turned their minds to even harder strikes with higher casualties. Nine-eleven made necessary a shift of policy, aimed at a clear strategic threat - what the Congress called "an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States." From that moment forward, instead of merely preparing to round up the suspects and count up the victims after the next attack, we were determined to prevent attacks in the first place.' Cheney then turned to the general decision-making involved post-9/11, and his primary concern with the current policies. 'To make certain our nation country never again faced such a day of horror, we developed a comprehensive strategy, beginning with far greater homeland security to make the United States a harder target. But since wars cannot be won on the defensive, we moved decisively against the terrorists in their hideouts and sanctuaries, and committed to using every asset to take down their networks. ... By presidential decision, last month we saw the selective release of documents relating to enhanced interrogations. This is held up as a bold exercise in open government, honoring the public's right to know. We're informed, as well, that there was much agonizing over this decision. Yet somehow, when the soul-searching was done and the veil was lifted on the policies of the Bush administration, the public was given less than half the truth. The released memos were carefully redacted to leave out references to what our government learned through the methods in question. Other memos, laying out specific terrorist plots that were averted, apparently were not even considered for release. For reasons the administration has yet to explain, they believe the public has a right to know the method of the questions, but not the content of the answers. Over on the left wing of the president's party, there appears to be little curiosity in finding out what was learned from the terrorists.'

One may vigorously agree or disagree with President Bush's decisions and Vice-President Cheney's defense of those policies and his own role in them, but the contrast between President Obama whining about inheriting a mess that's someone else's fault, and Vice-President Cheney taking responsibility for himself and credit for success is a stark one. As a result of the President's failure to date to present concrete plans; for success the war he has now acknowledged we're in as well as how to close Guantanamo Bay, he is beset on all sides as laid out in US Today: 'Congress stands in the way of the Guantanamo shutdown by withholding funds. Conservatives, led by former vice president Dick Cheney, are criticizing Obama's decision to release Bush administration memos approving the interrogation techniques. Liberal groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union are fuming at his refusal to seek prosecutions, release photos and end military tribunals.' The President needs to grow up, stop pointing fingers, and become a leader. Somehow I doubt he's going to do it anytime soon.

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