Stumping for the presidency, Barack Obama relentlessly assailed what he called the Bush administration’s “dangerous and failed foreign policy.” But with the prospect of taking power just weeks away, imitation is proving to be the sincerest form of censure. Just one month after Obama picked a hawkish national security cabinet, retaining some Bush administration personnel in the process, the president-elect has once again signaled that he intends to follow the outgoing administration’s course in the war on terror.
In a Sunday interview with ABC News, Obama revealed that he was unlikely to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center in the first 100 days of his presidency. That is a stark climb-down from promises Obama made as recently as November, when he indicated that shutting down Guantanamo would be a top priority.
Proximity to power seems to have had a sobering effect on Obama. “It is more difficult than I think a lot of people realize” to close Guantanamo, he explained on Sunday, pointing out, correctly, that its resident detainees are actually “very dangerous.” Obama did not miss the import of that admission, specifically that any closure of the facility would have to be so designed that it “doesn’t result in releasing people who are intent on blowing us up.” Until such a plan exists, Guantanamo will stay open.
Left-wing blogs and anti-Guantanamo crusaders will bristle at that conclusion, but it is the only responsible one. The reality of Guantanamo – a reality that leading Democrats and self-styled human rights watchdogs have spent years obscuring – is that it is home to some of the world’s most dangerous Islamists: Chechen jihadists; Afghan mujahedeen and Taliban fighters; al-Qaeda terrorists from across the Middle East and North Africa. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the architect of the USS Cole bombing in 2000, are two of many notorious names on the Guantanamo roll call.
Bloody experience, meanwhile, has illustrated the dangers of releasing these terrorist captives. As of May 2008, the Department of Defense estimated that at least 36 former Guantanamo detainees are “confirmed or suspected” of having returned to the battlefield. One Kuwaiti detainee, freed from Guantanamo in 2005, joined the jihad against American troops shortly thereafter; he was ultimately killed carrying out a suicide bombing in Iraq last May. At long last, it seems, the president-elect has come to realize what he is really dealing with.
True, there is much Obama still doesn’t understand about Guantanamo. He is under the mistaken impression, for instance, that detainees “have not gone through some adjudication,” when in fact all have undergone at least two levels of review, an initial Combatant Status Review Tribunal to determine their status as enemy combatants and an annual review to determine their fitness for release. Likewise, Obama seems unaware that most detainees, so far from being “tortured” into a confession, have volunteered their terrorist affiliations and in some cases have even promised to kill more Americans upon release. But even with these gaps in his understanding, Obama’s newfound reluctance to shutter Guantanamo is a welcome development, suggesting as it does his growing appreciation for the central role that Guantanamo plays in the war on terror and the terribly real dangers posed by its terrorist denizens.
It is not Obama’s only concession to the hard reality of conducting a foreign policy he once had the luxury of disparaging from the sidelines. In yet another setback for the Democratic base, Obama revealed on Sunday that he would not authorize an inquiry into Bush administration counterterrorism programs like domestic surveillance or the treatment of terrorist captives, explaining that “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”
At odds with his campaign rhetoric, when Obama pointedly promised a sharp break with the Bush administration’s “wiretaps without warrants,” it is also a firm rebuff to Democrats like House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers, who had previously sought to establish a political committee “to investigate the broad range of policies” put in place by the Bush administration in the war on terror – a move more redolent of political retribution than disinterested fact finding. Whatever comes of Conyers’s political parlor game, the president won’t be playing.
This, too, is change one can believe in. For all the outrage over “domestic spying,” the National Security Agency’s “Terrorist Surveillance Program” is both lawful and effective. Contrary to claims that it violates the privacy of all Americans, the sophisticated program specifically targets terrorist communications coming into the United States from abroad. And while many of the details of the program remain classified, CIA director Michael Hayden has confirmed that it “has given us information that we would not otherwise had been able to get.” Indeed, in 2006 remarks at the National Press Club, Hayden observed that “had this program been in effect prior to 9/11, it is my professional judgment that we would have detected some of the 9/11 al Qaeda operatives in the United States, and we would have identified them as such.” Similarly, James Lewis, a senior fellow and director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has noted, “Communications surveillance is the only method that can provide a broad national or global overview of terrorist activity. It is invaluable for security.”
Obama is also right to reject a witch hunt over the Bush administration’s detention policies. To be sure, the administration is not beyond reproach in this regard, and a case can be made that it should have better collaborated with Congress and more fully explained its policies to the American public. But a necessary ballast to such criticism is the fact that those policies have always been fundamentally sound. In particular, the administration was right to deny Third Geneva Convention protections to al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorists. One would hardly know it from hysterical critics like Time’s Joe Klein, but this was a longstanding policy of the U.S. government, predating the existence of both terrorist movements and resting on the unassailable premise that enemy fighters who do not wear uniforms; who hide among civilians; and who clandestinely carry arms do not deserve to be treated like POW’s who obey the rules of war.
As for the specifics of detainee treatment, the open secret is that under the Bush administration terrorist suspects have been treated far better than Geneva Conventions actually require. For instance, the Geneva Conventions state that prisoners of war may practice their religion solely “on condition that they comply with the disciplinary routine prescribed by military authorities.” At Guantanamo Bay, however, no detainee – not even one with disciplinary problems – is denied his right to practice freely. That means that even militant detainees are allowed to read the Koran – the very book that inspires their jihad against the West – and to elect their own imams. All this comes in addition to other generous privileges, including halal meals, imported fruits, flat-screen television and books and first-class medical facilities, specially reserved for detainees.
Thus, at the cost of unknown public funds and needless political division, a credible inquiry into Bush-era detention policies would have discovered the entirely uncontroversial facts that the administration has followed past precedent, except when it has gone above and beyond it to treat detainees well.
It’s too early too tell whether Obama himself will adopt the Bush administration’s counter-terror policies, though his support last June for an intelligence surveillance law detested by liberal activists may be a promising sign. At the very least, it is clear that Obama believes the president has more serious business than doing the bidding of Democratic partisans.
What makes Obama’s latest split with the Left all the more significant is that it comes at a time when troubling rumors about his administration’s foreign-policy plans are proving to be just that. According to leaks last week by unnamed insiders, Obama was ready to reconsider the Bush administration policy of isolating Hamas. But those rumors have been decisively quashed by Obama national security spokesman Brooke Anderson, who told the Jerusalem Post on Saturday that Obama “has repeatedly stated that he believes that Hamas is a terrorist organization dedicated to Israel’s destruction, and that we should not deal with them until they recognize Israel, renounce violence, and abide by past agreements.” Obama may have won Hamas’s endorsement, but the terrorist group won’t have a friend in the White House.
Obama has also sounded a note of hard-headed clarity about Hamas’s sponsors in Iran. From promising diplomacy-at-all costs on the hustings, Obama has come around to the view that the Iranian regime is anything but a reasonable negotiating partner. During his Sunday interview, Obama called Iran “one of our biggest challenges,” adding that “not only is Iran exporting terrorism through Hamas, through Hezbollah, but they are pursuing a nuclear weapon that could potentially trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.” Obama continues to press for engaging Iran for the time being, but his judgment that Iran must not be allowed to have a nuclear enrichment program seems certain to lead him toward the combination of limited diplomacy and stiffer sanctions that has defined the Bush administration’s approach.
Before chalking all this up to pragmatism by the president-elect, it is worth considering that there are other factors at play. As a candidate, Obama could make a virtue of condemning the Bush administration. As commander-in-chief, he inherits responsibility for fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while keeping the country safe from ever-present terrorist threats. Some substantive differences will surely emerge over time, but it seems increasingly likely that, when all is said and done, an Obama administration will adopt many of the policies that kept the country safe since 9/11. It’s no wonder that the antiwar Left is feeling betrayed. After eight years of President Bush, what it wanted was a choice. What it got is an echo.