President Obama quietly signed an executive order on Monday instituting a system for indefinitely holding terrorist detainees at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo), Cuba. The administration also announced that terrorist trials by military commission would recommence. This is a win for U.S. security, but the country has paid a heavy price for Mr. Obama's on-the-job training in counterterrorism.
The low-key announcements stand in marked contrast with the bombast with which Mr. Obama approached this issue just a few years ago. During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Sen. Barack Obama harshly criticized President George W. Bush's detainee policies. When he took office, Mr. Obama theatrically announced that he would close Gitmo in a year and find a way to give the terror detainees the full due-process rights enjoyed by American citizens. In so doing, he legitimized the complaints of the worst critics of American counterterrorism policies, including the terrorists themselves.
Two years later, some learning appears to have occurred at the White House. The president's hasty "close Gitmo" pledge foundered on practical and political grounds. Contrary to the story line peddled by anti-war alarmists, the Bush administration already had released most of the detainees that had been held there, and those who remained were the hard cases who truly threatened U.S. national security. Trying the detainees in civilian courts raised a multitude of nettlesome questions about public evidence, speedy trials, Miranda warnings and the other aspects of due process that didn't support the Bush administration's warfighting approach.
With civilian trials, the prospect loomed of repeated government defeats in court, or the necessity of simply releasing detainees when no prosecution was possible without fatally compromising intelligence sources and methods. Likewise, Mr. Obama discovered that releasing detainees to their home countries was problematic because in many cases the terrorists would be freed almost immediately upon their return. Of course, members of the Bush administration consistently raised these points, but the Obama team simply brushed them off.
The big losers in this decision are members of Mr. Obama's hardline anti-war base. It is the latest in a string of disappointments to the Code Pinkers, Moveon-ers and other formerly Obama-loving peaceniks. The surge in Afghanistan and the ever-lengthening timetable for withdrawal provided them with one regret. The widening and intensifying use of drone aircraft as a counterterrorism tool was another. Now the Gitmo detainees are back in their cages for good. The distraught workers in the peace movement have to be asking themselves how much more they can stand before they begin to mutter the words "Obama" and "war criminal" in the same breath.
The White House detainee policy volte-face vindicates the policies of President George W. Bush. At the very least, Mr. Obama should apologize to his predecessor for smearing his reputation so thoroughly during the 2008 campaign. Our novice commander in chief has learned the valuable lesson that talking about being president, at which Mr. Obama was so adept, is a far cry from actually being president, at which he clearly is not.
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