- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 6, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Ted Rall is hopping mad. The syndicated columnist and president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists is denouncing President Obama as “useless” and “dangerous,” and he’s demanding that Obama “step down now.”

Long afflicted with Bush Derangement Syndrome, Mr. Rall has his knickers in a knot now because he thinks Mr. Obama has a plan for “preventive detentions.” He claims to have seen “reports in U.S. state-controlled media” saying so. While these reports imply “Obama’s shocking new policy would only apply to Islamic terrorists,” Mr. Rall is certain that, “In practice, Obama wants to let government goons snatch you, me and anyone else they deem annoying off the street.”

If you read the entirety of Mr. Rall’s column - and I don’t recommend that unless your initials are G.W.B., in which case it may brighten your day - you will eventually realize Mr. Rall is using “preventive detentions” interchangeably with “prolonged detentions” - a somewhat different concept in reality, if not in Mr. Rall’s fevered brain.

But this does illustrate something interesting: When it comes to national security - the set of policies intended to protect Americans from their enemies - Mr. Obama has so far not been the president many of his fans on the left had hoped and many of his critics on the right had feared. Mr. Obama is not abandoning what has been achieved - at great cost - in Iraq. He is increasing the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan. He appears to appreciate the high stakes in Pakistan.

Also consistent with the previous administration, Mr. Obama has retained such anti-terrorism tools as military commissions (with cosmetic modifications), renditions (begun during the Clinton era), and, yes, indefinite detentions of captured enemy combatants (to keep them from returning to the conflict - standard practice during wartime, now as in the past).

So does all this make Mr. Obama a national security centrist? Are former Vice President Dick Cheney and other national security hawks wrong when they warn that Mr. Obama is putting chinks in the armor American has worn since Sept. 11, 2001? Not necessarily.

The decision to close Guantanamo Bay without a viable plan for the combatants detained there was a mistake. True, “Gitmo” has been a public relations nightmare, conflated in much of the media with the notorious Abu Ghraib. But dangerous terrorists are housed at Guantanamo. It could be both risky and unlawful to place these individuals in stateside prisons alongside ordinary convicted criminals.

Also: What might have been a serious debate over interrogation techniques has been mishandled. Instead of trying to balance the need for intelligence on terrorist operations with the desire to respect civil liberties even in the most extreme cases, an attempt has been made to criminalize past policy decisions and demonize those who made them. Meanwhile, al Qaeda operatives now sleep more soundly, secure in the knowledge that, if captured, the worst that will happen is that some CIA agent of Satan will attempt to establish a “trusting” relationship with them.

Finally, it is becoming apparent that Mr. Obama’s diplomatic “surge” to stop the nuclear weapons and missile development programs of Iran and North Korea is proving unproductive. Still, Mr. Obama is not yet pressing Congress to give him the tools he would need to squeeze Iran’s rulers by cutting off their gasoline supplies - the most promising of possible economic sanctions.

And the Obama administration still plans to reduce spending on comprehensive missile defense - the only nonnuclear, nonviolent and entirely defensive means available to render enemy missiles harmless and worthless.

Mr. Obama’s national security experience is thin. The advice he receives is almost certainly conflicting. If he does what is necessary to protect American lives, he will be attacked by Ted Rall and others who think only in cartoons. But if he does not, Americans will be inadequately defended. Mr. Obama is smart enough to understand what that would mean for him and for the country he now leads.

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

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