Obama in '08: "I Have Never Supported Engagement with Terrorists"

Posted: Jun 02, 2014 5:06 PM

Barack Obama took considerable heat as a presidential candidate over his openness to negotiating with the Iranian regime without preconditions; he's since followed through on that promise, with depressingly predictable results thus far. In a thinly-veiled swipe at his eventual successor, President Bush criticized that approach as naive. “Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along,” Bush said, drawing a sharp rebuke from Obama (via MenRec):

“It is sad that President Bush would use a speech to the Knesset on the 6Oth anniversary of Israel’s independence to launch a false political attack. It is time to turn the page on eight years of policies that have strengthened Iran and failed to secure America or our ally Israel. Instead of tough talk and no action, we need to do what Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan did and use all elements of American power — including tough, principled, and direct diplomacy – to pressure countries like Iran and Syria. George Bush knows that I have never supported engagement with terrorists, and the President’s extraordinary politicization of foreign policy and the politics of fear do nothing to secure the American people or our stalwart ally Israel.”

In light of the Obama administration's recent engagement with, and major concessions to, the Taliban over the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the above quote can be resurrected as a major 'gotcha' against the president, right? Not quite, according to the White House's technical defense. The Taliban in Afghanistan -- despite a long track record of barbaric acts of terrorism and deep, lasting ties to Al Qaeda -- isn't officially classified as a terrorist organization by the US government. This was true during the Bush administration, too. The White House is getting a lot of mileage out of that technicality amid criticism of the Taliban Five swap, with spokesman Jay Carney invoking the US government's long history of engaging in prisoner exchanges as relevant precedent. The underlying assumption behind this defense is that the Taliban is a legitimate military actor that took Bergdahl prisoner, not a terrorist group that held him hostage (though there has been come internal confusion over that verbiage). So Obama doesn't engage with terrorists...because the leadership of the Taliban doesn't "count." Same deal with the regime in Tehran. They may be the planet's largest state sponsor of terrorism, but they're not "terrorists" per se, so the US is free to engage away. Thanks to some heavy parsing, O's in the clear, and Carney can repeat his talking points with a straight face.

But hang on a second. Wasn't Sgt. Bergdahl reportedly transferred from the Taliban to the Haqqani network? The latter group is featured on the National Counter-Terrorism Center's list of designated terrorist groups. If Haqqani physically had Bergdahl in their possession, wouldn't this deal have necessarily required their buy-in? One of the released "Taliban Five" commanders was, in fact, a Haqqani operative. The Obama administration has declined to seize the Haqqani Network's assets, by the way, allegedly in order to avoid derailing US-Taliban negotiations ahead of America's withdrawal from Afghanistan. All of which is to say that it takes some exceptionally fine hair-splitting to distinguish between the (acceptable) Taliban and (unacceptable) terrorists. And then there's this news:

In a major blow to the Israeli government’s efforts to isolate the new Hamas-backed Palestinian unity government, the US said Monday it would work with the new government, which was sworn in on Monday, and would maintain its aid to the Palestinian Authority. It said it would be “watching closely” to ensure the new government respects the principles of non-violence. The US position is in conflict with the official stance in Jerusalem, which outright rejects the new Palestinian leadership because Hamas remains committed to destroying Israel and is a designated terrorist organization in Israel, the US and the EU.

Palestinians have formed a new "unity government" backed by Hamas, which is US-classified terrorist organization responsible for the deaths of scores of Israeli and American civilians. In spite of Hamas' involvement in the new government, the US will continue to engage and fund it. PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas claims the new partnership with maintain a commitment to nonviolence. The Israelis don't accept those assurances; the Obama administration, at least for now, does. So how does this all work, exactly? Especially as it relates to the administration's guiding foreign policy principle? I'll leave you with another Obama flashback from 2008. As you watch this, keep two things in mind: (1) Obama used a signing statement to reject from the 2014 NDAA's legal requirement that his administration notify Congress of any possible Gitmo detainee transfers 30 days in advance (a mandate with which they openly admit they did not comply), and (2) Jay Carney asserted today that Obama never took a hard stance against presidential signing statements:

Then again, what good are earnest-sounding, good-government Obama campaign promises anyway?