President Obama's admirers (for a handy list simply consult the White House Correspondents Association website) go into raptures about his measured, intelligent, even balanced approach to issues. Granted, he is intelligent. But measured and balanced? Hardly.
Consider his first official act. Oozing moral superiority, President Obama signed an executive order on his second day in office requiring that Guantanamo be closed within 12 months. The United States need not, he intoned, "continue with a false choice between our safety and our ideals." The president, who had declared the Bush-era military commissions to be "an enormous failure," also suspended those tribunals for four months pending a review.
This is a by now familiar Obama trope. Instead of a complicated world presenting difficult, sometimes even wrenching choices, the world is actually simple for those with the wisdom and virtue to see it Obama's way. There is no difficult choice between using tough methods to extract information from hardened terrorists or not doing so and risking terrible death to thousands. No, in Obamaland all is facile. We will be better people by foreswearing waterboarding and other ugly interrogation techniques and we will be safer as well! We'll be safer because the world, including al-Qaida, which supposedly used Guantanamo as a "recruiting tool," will like us more and be less likely to attack us. In Obamaland we need not give our domestic opponents the benefit of the doubt that they were patriotically motivated non-sadists who truly believed -- after repeatedly trying softer methods -- that mild torture was necessary in a handful of cases.
Of course, the "recruiting tool" argument was unconvincing. Al-Qaida seemed to do most of its recruiting and most of its attacking during the 1990s, before Guantanamo existed as a detention facility. Moreover, people who take pleasure in beheading their captives because they are infidels (as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed personally boasted of doing to gentle Daniel Pearl) are not likely to be motivated primarily by outraged human rights sensibilities. But never mind. The moral high was apparently irresistible and very few in the press were of a mind to question it.