Saturday, June 6, 2009

Make it so

In an essay about Barack Obama’s May 21 remarks on national security, Byron York says:

It’s often said that Obama is learning what it means to be commander in chief, now that he bears the burden of the nation’s security. Governing, it is said, is different from campaigning. But do you really believe Obama didn’t know what was involved in closing Guantanamo back when he was giving all those campaign speeches? It is simply not credible to argue that Obama, during the campaign, didn’t know that our foreign allies would not take Gitmo prisoners, didn’t know that transferring them to our domestic prisons would involve significant risks and didn’t know that American communities would not welcome terrorists as neighbors.

I’m sure that Obama was aware of all the difficulties York lists and understood quite well that they made closing Guantanamo difficult - perhaps impossible - for the Bush Administration. However, I’m also sure that Obama believed those difficulties would not be problems for him: he was certain the Guantanamo situation would resolve itself as he wanted it to when he decreed that it would do so.

I first put my interpretation of this belief on Obama’s part into words as a comment in response to TigerHawk wondering what on earth Obama could be thinking in proposing his new tax structure for overseas profits. The more I see Obama in action the more accurate I think my interpretation is so - for future reference - here’s a self-citation:

Obama believes the world will arrange itself as he wants. I know there are people out there speculating that he has some type of narcissistic disorder or something but I think his belief is based partly on his conviction that he himself is Good with a very capital “G” and partly on past experience. Heaven knows he’s had millions of people telling him he’s practically the Second Coming and I imagine that his combination of intelligence (however facile); symbolism; and charm (although it’s lost on me) have generally meant much of the world *has* arranged itself as he wants.

Thus Obama believes corporations not paying lots and lots of taxes is Bad and he therefore is going to tax them. He assumes our allies will want to do whatever they can to help him and it never occurs to him that they may react badly to one of his policies.

There’s been a pattern of this: Closing Guantanamo is Good and the issue of what to do with the prisoners there will simply resolve itself. Trashing big financial institutions is Good and it never occurs to Obama that those same institutions may not thereafter be champing at the bit to go into business with the government in the PPIPs. Stress-testing the banks is Good and it never occurs to anyone that if banks “fail” there may be a crisis of confidence; surely if Obama says “All is well” everyone will believe him. Releasing the OLC memos is Good and Obama seemed to assume he could then just say, “And now we’re done with that” and everyone would say, “Good job, glad that’s over with.”

This is actually pretty funny when you consider that the term “reality-based community” comes from an account a reporter gave of his discussion with a Bush aide:

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

The hubris of an Administration that believed it could create the reality it wants is nothing compared to the hubris of a President who believes the rest of the world will create the reality he wants.

In the case of Guantanamo, however, the rest of the world did not respond as desired to his hand-waving, make it so approach. That is, no host nations sprang forward to take the terrorists off his hands; the Congress had the temerity to ask for a detailed plan before providing the funds for Obama to do as he saw fit with the prisoners. So now Obama has been forced to make “remarks” and propose an actual plan. Or, more accurately, a plan for a plan: he’s told us more about what he’s going to do but he still hasn’t actually told us exactly how he’s going to do it.

I have fewer objections to Obama’s remarks than many other commenters on the right and the left. There were some odd elements such as Obama insisting that some Republicans wanted Guantanamo closed and that Guantanamo had done more harm than good. Those references belong in an environment where closing Guantanamo is not a done deal, where people need to be convinced about this decision. Maybe this is just more evidence that Obama cannot get out of campaign mode but it seems, well, odd.

It’s also odd that went out of his way to emphasize this:

Meanwhile, over 525 detainees were released from Guantanamo under not my administration, under the previous administration. Let me repeat that: Two-thirds of the detainees were released before I took office and ordered the closure of Guantanamo.

I’m not sure what point Obama is trying to make. Perhaps he’s saying that since Bush released prisoners there’s no reason for him not to do so. Perhaps he’s saying that those unlikely to be dangerous have already been released but that seems an unlikely point from a man who wants to close Guantanamo. Perhaps he’s simply trying to argue that there are so few people left, no one should care if they all get out. Again, it’s odd - and perplexing.

The Bush-bashing is unnecessary of course and I wonder if it’s beginning to be counter-productive. Imagine if Obama had simply said that the previous Administration took actions that seemed reasonable to them but that he, Obama, disagrees and believes we are better served by trying something else. In fact, if Obama was half as smart as people think, he should go further than that. He should be saying that because of the former administration’s unceasing efforts to keep us safe, the country is now in a position to close Guantanamo. That would take a lot of the wind out of Dick Cheney’s sails - although it would also make it harder for Obama to insist Guantanamo is “a mess”, a characterization which will serve as a nice cover if closing it doesn’t go smoothly.

Once you get past those problems, though, Obama is trying to establish a set of procedures for dealing with the prisoners at Guantanamo that goes beyond just looking them up until the President says they can go. I applaud this effort but I don’t think he’s been very successful - and in my darker moments I think it’s because there simply may not be a better system given the situation we’re in.

The heart of Obama’s speech is his division of the inmates at Guantanamo into five groups (Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres...):

1) Try some in criminal court.

2) Try some via revamped military commissions.

3) Release the ones the court has said must be released. This is where it gets interesting: where are we going to release them? Are we going to put them back where we found them? Open the gates at Guantanamo and let them wander out? Find foreign hosts? Or - and this is the $64,000 question - are we going to release them into the United States? Obama didn’t say.

This situation is complicated by the fact that it is against the law. to admit to the United States “any alien who has received terrorist training or has belonged to an organization that promotes terrorism — against anyone.” I don’t think the sheer fact of illegality would deter this Administration but the law will do nicely for nervous Congressmen who don’t want to let prisoners live in their districts but need legal cover for their refusal to arrange things as Obama wants.

4) Send some overseas. Obama says his administration “is in ongoing discussions with a number of other countries about the transfer of detainees to their soil for detention and rehabilitation.” Here again Obama is relying on others to order the world as he desires. It will be interesting to see if they comply - and if so, what their price is.

5) Keep some indefinitely without trial. This is the Bush policy but Obama wants to make it more legal by establishing Congressional and judicial oversight of the executive’s decision to hold onto the prisoners. Ace of Spades has outlined the Constitutional issue with trying to create “legal” indefinite retention and argues the Bush’ system is more justifiable than the one Obama is trying to create. I’m very much afraid that he is correct.

At the same time, Obama’s review process is almost certainly meaningless: if the President says the country needs to hold onto someone because he’s a terrible threat, what Congressman is going to oppose him and take the risk of being the person who released the next Osama bin Laden? Even when so many Democrats were screaming that Guantanamo was another Bush disaster, I suspect it would have been well nigh impossible to find a member of Congress willing to actually take responsibiity for turning any of the prisoners loose. (Depending on how Obama structures this - there’s that lack of detail again - the judicial part may be more interesting.) Obama will be able to go right on doing what Bush was doing while looking like he’s not.

I’m not sure if this makes Obama smarter than Bush or just less honest. I am sure it makes me a lot more nervous.

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