I’ve Seen this Movie Before

19 06 2008

Earlier this week the McCain campaign pounced on Barack Obama’s praise of the recent 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Boumediene v Bush. A narrow majority on the court ruled terrorist suspects at Gitmo have the right to challenge their detention, which is not as radical a notion as many conservatives would have us believe. The writ of habeas corpus has been a time honored principle of our legal tradition since the Magna Carta of 1215.

But the McCain campaign seems to think Obama’s endorsement of the decision provided a good opportunity to illustrate the Illinois Senator’s so-called “September 10th mindset” and how “naive” he is about the gravity of the terrorist threat.

Randy Scheunemann a foreign policy advisor to the McCain campaign reportedly said:

Barack Obama’s belief that we should treat terrorists as nothing more than common criminals demonstrates a stunning and alarming misunderstanding of the threat we face from radical Islamic extremism. Obama holds up the prosecution of the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 as a model for his administration, when in fact this failed approach of treating terrorism simply as a matter of law enforcement rather than a clear and present danger to the United States contributed to the tragedy of September 11th.

I think I have seen this movie before in 2004. It starred President George W. Bush and Senator John F. Kerry. Bush and his cohorts set up a false dichotomy by splitting the national security world with respect to the war on terror into two types. On one side, there were those who championed the use of military force, and perhaps using “harsh techniques of coercion” to obtain information, in order to defeat the “evildoers” and to project power more effectively. On the other side were those who believed in gathering intelligence and an investigatory approach to capturing or killing actual terrorist organizations.

In the 2004 movie, George Bush campaigned as the embodiment of the former and John Kerry tried to dodge being depicted as the latter even as he defended the approach. As a result, George W. Bush impress voters as the candidate who may be strong and wrong, but is better than someone who may be weak and right.

We all know how that turned out.

And now we see that same narrative being invoked to portray Obama as candidate of a September 10th world, given how he is for the rule of law and a smarter approach to containing terrorism. But things have changed since then. Even President Bush in a rare reflective moment confessed to regretting his tough talk on Iraq and other war on terror generally in a 2006 press conference. He also specifically mentioned Abu Ghraib.

Watch it.

Its interesting to see the McCain campaign engage in some of the tough talk that the even George Bush has tried to distance himself from in the past, albeit unconvincingly. Perhaps, the McCain campaign and Republicans generally are still looking for an opening here to wage another Swiftboat like mini-campaign. Of course, Abu Ghraib and Gitmo present different problems, but I do think that the connection between what happens to those who are held indefinitely and larger security concerns in this context is a solid one.

And even if the President chose only to acknowledge the relationship in Abu Ghraib and ignored it in the Gitmo case demonstrates more to the contorted logic that guides the Bushies than it does highlight true differences.

If anything, the principle applies may apply with even greater force to Gitmo detainees, since at least the prisoners of Abu Ghraib are mostly, thought not all, Iraqi fighters captured in Iraq itself as an actual war is being waged. Gitmo, however, contains detainees from various parts of the globe being detained on considerably weaker evidence.

At any rate, Obama refused to concede anything to th McCain campaign this point and forcefully stood his ground on this point. In an interview with ABC News blogger Jake Tapper Obama said, “Habeas Corpus is not designed to free prisoners, what it’s designed to do is make sure that prisoners who are being held, have at least one shot to say, ‘I’m being held wrongly.’”

He also went on to say:

And my position on this, and a whole host of other issues related to battling terrorism has always been clear. And that is that we don’t have to treat these folks as US citizens. We don’t have to treat them in the same way that we would treat a criminal suspect in the U.S., but we should abide by the Geneva conventions. We should at least follow through on the same principles we followed though when dealing with Nazis during Nuremburg, that is not only the right thing to do but it also actually will strengthen our ability over the long term to fight terrorism.

On the merits this is a brilliant point, but I wish Obama made a much tighter connection between how our lack of fidelity to the rule of law only serves to makes us less safe and actively undermines our credibility in the world while fanning the flames of extremism.

Consider what former Navy general counsel Alberto Mora told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week:

[T]here are serving U.S. flag-rank officers who maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq — as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat — are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Watch it.

Critics of the Supreme Court’s ruling, including John McCain, need to consider the type of compelling, if somewhat indirect, cause and effect relationship Mora just alluded to in his testimony when they claim the courts decision and those who support it will embolden terrorists.

That said, while it is true that McCain has remained, for the most part, against torture, indefinite detention, and has recommended that the Bush administration shut down Guantanamo, he’s certainly not above playing politics with this issue.

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