Obama Changes Course on Antiterrorism

Michael Barone

5/19/2009 12:01:00 AM - Michael Barone

/> Step by step, Barack Obama has been reversing himself on antiterrorist policy. Last month, he announced he would not appeal a federal court decision ordering the government to release photographs of terrorist interrogations. This was in line with his decision to release on April 16 four memoranda prepared by the Bush administration Justice Department on that subject.

But that didn't end political debate, as Obama apparently hoped, but heated it up. Dick Cheney demanded the release of memoranda showing whether the interrogations had produced intelligence that saved American lives. Left Democrats protested Obama's decision to rule out prosecution of CIA interrogators, while conservatives decried his refusal to rule out prosecutions of Bush administration lawyers (a matter for Attorney General Eric Holder, he said, as if he couldn't issue a direct order). Word was given out that Holder would decide against prosecutions. Then, last week, Obama reversed himself and said the government would appeal the court order and not release the photographs.

Obama thus raised, apparently unintentionally, the issue of whether the enhanced interrogation methods worked. Cheney said they did, and so did Obama's director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair. His CIA director, Leon Panetta, revealed that Speaker Nancy Pelosi had been briefed on these methods personally in fall 2002 and through an aide in winter 2003 and raised no objection, though she could easily have done so.

Public opinion polling revealed that while about 60 percent of Americans considered some of the interrogation methods torture, about the same number approved of their use. Voters evidently give a higher priority to protecting their fellow citizens than some Democrats do.

This is not the first Obama reversal that has angered the Democratic left. He decided to keep large numbers of troops deployed in Iraq for at least nine months and declined the wish of many in his party to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He announced increased troops levels in Afghanistan and, with his firing of one general and installation of another there, showed he wanted to pursue there something like the Bush surge strategy that worked so well in Iraq.

He announced early he would close the detention facility in Guantanamo but later decided we could hold detainees in custody indefinitely without trial and try them in the Bush administration's military commissions. His administration even threatened to limit intelligence sharing with the British government (with which we shared the secrets of the atomic bomb) if it did not prevent the disclosure in court of the summary of the treatment of a released Guantanamo detainee.

All of which explodes the meme, propagated by left Democrats and mainstream media, that Guantanamo was some kind of gulag and the treatment of detainees a war crime. Europeans cheered when Obama announced Guantanamo would be closed but have volunteered to take few if any detainees. Chairman David Obey of the House Appropriations Committee won't pony up money to send them elsewhere until the administration announces its plans, while Senate appropriations said it will provide money only if they're not sent to the United States.

Why all these Obama reversals? There is a cynical explanation and a non-cynical explanation. The cynical explanation is that candidate Obama was happy to exploit the issue when he was seeking the votes of the many Democratic primary participants who wanted America to lose in Iraq, but now is backtracking when he is facing a larger constituency most of which wants America to prevail and Americans to be protected. You go where the votes are.

I choose to believe the non-cynical explanation. As commander in chief, Obama looks soldiers and CIA personnel in the eyes and shakes their hands, knowing that some of them might die following his orders. It's a terrible responsibility. Look at how the presidency aged Bill Clinton and George W. Bush -- or Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. Listen to Roosevelt's D-Day radio broadcast that in its entirety is a prayer (think of the uproar if Bush had done that!), in which his voice is almost cracking. He knew that thousands of Americans following his orders would die, as more did in the next few days than have in six years in Iraq.

I believe Obama is taking this responsibility seriously. And in doing so he has found himself not indicting but validating the decisions his predecessor took, and any conscientious executive would have taken, to protect the nation.