Tuesday, January 13, 2009


It would be a good thing if American politicians were obliged, in addition to swearing to abide by and protect the Constitution, to take something akin to the physicians’ Hippocratic Oath. Dating from ancient Greece, this pledge begins with the laudable commitment “to do no harm.” Such a promise from Barack Obama with respect to the national security portfolio seems particularly in order.

On the face of it, the president-elect appeared to be doing the next best thing during his appearance on ABC’s Sunday morning program, “This Week.” He told interviewer George Stephanopoulos that he agreed with the common-sensical advice recently proffered to him by outgoing Vice President Dick Cheney on another television program: “Before you start to implement your campaign rhetoric you need to sit down and find out precisely what it is [the Bush administration] did and how we did it. Because it is going to be vital to keeping the nation safe and secure in the years ahead and it would be a tragedy if they threw over those policies simply because they’ve campaigned against them.”

In response, Mr. Obama gave a quite statesmanlike reply: “I think that was pretty good advice, which is I should know what’s going on before we make judgments and that we shouldn’t be making judgments on the basis of incomplete information or campaign rhetoric. So, I’ve got no quibble with that particular quote.”

Unfortunately, the president-elect then went on basically to reaffirm his troubling “campaign rhetoric” with respect to several of the things that the Bush administration has had “going on.” In particular, he reaffirmed his determination to fulfill his pledges to: preclude completely the further option of using “aggressive interrogation techniques”; close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay; and begin negotiating with the Iranian mullahs.

With respect to interrogations, Mr. Obama essentially said that if the Army can do without the sort of aggressive techniques (including waterboarding) that the CIA has resorted to on a few but necessary occasions (notably, with great effect on Sept. 11, 2001, mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed), then the country should forgo their use altogether. Only by such self-restraint, he claimed, would we be “adhering to our core values and ideals.”

On Guantanamo Bay (a k a “Gitmo”), the president-elect ruefully observed that “it is more difficult [to close] than I think a lot of people realize.” And yet, he made a point of reiterating the stance he took on the campaign trail: “We are going to close Guantanamo.”

As to the Iranian regime, Mr. Obama summarized the dangers it presents: “We have a situation in which 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.” He might have added that the mullahocracy has signaled a willingness to use its Bomb to “wipe Israel off the map.”

The president-elect nonetheless went on to proclaim that “We are going to have to take a new approach. And I’ve outlined my belief that engagement is the place to start.” He undertook to “respect the aspirations of the Iranian people” while signaling what he (euphemistically) called our “certain expectations in terms of how a[n] international actor behaves.”

In these three examples, at least, it appears that Team Obama may pay lip service to the idea of doing no harm - that is, refraining from undoing policies and dispensing with capabilities the outgoing administration found essential to the national security, unless and until it has had an opportunity to disprove that was the case - but the president-elect appears to be merely going through the motions. Were he truly prepared to put the country’s security ahead of his campaign promises, the following considerations should govern:

- Forswearing use of vigorous interrogation techniques under all circumstances would be tantamount to unilaterally disarming ourselves of key weapons in the face of adversaries who are trained, if detained, to resist other forms of questioning - and will, in any event, claim to have been tortured by our forces.

- As a terrific new book by Lt. Col. Gordon Cucullu, titled “Inside Gitmo: The Truth Behind the Myths of Guantanamo Bay” (www.InsideGitmo.com), makes clear, shuttering Guantanamo Bay will hand our enemies a significant victory insofar as it would eliminate the state-of-the-art, highly secure detention/interrogation facility we need safely to house their captured colleagues, many of whom are among the most dangerous people on the planet.

- With respect to Iran, its government’s behavior has not been that of a responsible “international actor” since it was seized by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theocratic revolution. The supreme aspiration of the vast majority of Iranians is actually to be free of the brutally repressive mullahs who have afflicted them for 30 years. Treating with their oppressors in the name of “respecting the will of the Iranian people” can only serve to perpetuate the latters’ suffering, while intensifying the danger the regime poses to us, as well as them.

In these and other areas, the Obama defense and foreign policies have the potential to do much good or considerable harm to the national interest. Truly heeding Dick Cheney’s wise admonition would increase the chances of the former outcome.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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