Obama: Call Him Ishmael

Perhaps the most united this country has been in recent memory is in the forceful response to international threats  after the loss of more than 3000 Americans in the 9/11 attacks. The immediate response of the country was to secure itself and to pursue those responsible for the monstrous attacks. Had political expediency been a the primary motivation of the leadership, it would have been possible for Democrats and Republicans  to engage in finger pointing. Both sides instinctively understood that the country would not stand for bickering in a moment of extremus. President George W. Bush is as competitive a politician as you might want to find, but he is a decent person and decency made it impossible to try to put Clinton on the hook for  9/11.

President Barack Obama also seems like a genuinely decent person who wants to move on from divisive issues like aggressive interrogation of high-level Al Qaeda leadership. However, this innate decency gets muted by vicious Left-wing politics. The conflict between personal decency and acquiescence to the mean-spirited Left injured Obama in the presidential campaign when his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, was recorded in making vicious anti-American statements. Obama is falling into the same trap when he allows the “MoveOn” and “Daily KOs” crowd push Obama against the better angels of his nature to revive the controversy about aggressive interrogation.

The angry Left will not be happy unless there are some figurative heads on spikes from the Bush Administration. That is why the Obama Administration released the Department of Justice from the previous administration memos delineated what they consider the limits of aggressive interrogation. There is a line between showing a detainee a caterpillar he is afraid of and pulling out finger nails, and the lawyers were trying to define it. There is something dangerous and deeply antithetical to the legal process to pursue lawyers rendering legal opinions to the clients.

In the immediate aftermath of a devastating terrorist attack in the United States, Khalid Sheik Mohammad (KSM) , a top al Qaeda operative, was captured. The country was concerned about a next wave of attacks against the US. When questioned about this KSM, responded wit  “Soon, you will know.” Faced with this situation, the CIA asked the Justice Department for guidance on how aggressive the interrogations could become before crossing a line into torture. The Justice Department lawyers provided reasoned guidance and decided that waterboarding conducted under a limited set of rules is not torture. Both Democratic and Republican leadership in Congress were informed with apparently no dissent. This scenario hardly seems like the collapse of law. Rather is seems like a legally methodical approach for dealing with a dangerous situation. Imagine if under these circumstances, with a detainee indicating an upcoming attack, with legal opinion permitting the use of aggressive interogation techniques, and proper notification of Congress, the Bush Administration had opted against waterboarding. Further imagine that we were subsequently attacked. It is not clear that Bush would have been praised for his restraint.

Americans are a fair-minded lot at a majority of them oppose investigation of torture allegations.  The Captain Ahab-like pursuit of former Bush Administration officials is likely to be very divisive and likely to unnecessarily squander Obama’s considerable political capital. Moreover to be closely associated with weakness on dealing with terrorists is politically dangerous. Terrorists could get lucky and successfully execute an attack. An Administration not seen to use all the resources at its disposal will be severely damaged.

For his own and the country’s benefit, Obama needs to exert leadership and quash the single-minded pursuits of the angry Left. They can not be placated by  symbolic gestures. They are willing to damage the Obama presidency and divide the country for the prospect of getting a harpoon in the big white whales from the Bush Administration even if the Liberal ship-of-state is sunk.

5 Responses to “Obama: Call Him Ishmael”

  1. Matt Batts says:

    What are you so afraid of? If what was described in the CIA memos was not only legal but prevented another attack, it will be proven in an formal investigation. Your opposition to any truth commission suggests that you fear, on some level, that George W. Bush will be embarrassed or (heaven forbid!) Bush Administration officials would actually have to be held accountable for any crimes that they committed.

    Terrorists could get lucky and successfully execute an attack.

    Truth be told, I suspect that many of Obama’s critics on this matter would welcome such an event.

    When the Supreme Court ruled that detainees in Gitmo had the right to challenge their detention in civilian courts, many conservatives went into full Chicken-Little mode, proclaiming that the Supreme Court put American lives at risk. They’ve recently begun a repeat of this drama with the announcement of plans to close Gitmo. If, after torture is banned, Gitmo is closed, warrantless wiretaps are ended, and the right of writ of habeas corpus is granted to detainees, another attack doesn’t occur, the doomsayers will have been proven wrong. But if another 9/11-type catastrophe happens on Obama’s watch, there will be dancing in the hallways at the Fox News Channel, the Heritage Foundation, Rush Limbaugh’s studio, and every other outfit that wants Obama to fail.

    Do I believe George W. Bush to be a sadist? No. I don’t belive that Bush knew exactly what was being done in his administration, and I am not convinced that he personally would have approved the use of many of these “enhanced interrogation techniques”. In my opinion, it is more likely that rogue elements in the CIA and the Justice Department went behind his back.

  2. Frank Monaldo says:

    Dear Matt.

    I have to admit that your arguments are indeed scary. Your statement,

    “What are you so afraid of? If what was described in the CIA memos was not only legal but prevented another attack, it will be proven in an formal investigation.”

    sounds too much like:

    “What are you so afraid of? If you are not a communist, it will be proven in an formal investigation.”

    The problem in both cases is that there will not be a dispassionate investigation, but rather a kangaroo court seeking to validate its own assumptions. Indeed, the Orwellian name, “Truth Commission” sounds like there is already a conviction and all we need is a trial.

    For example, it is my guess that such an inquiry will not ask about renditions during the Clinton era or investigate Clinton’s boast that he ordered the killing of Osama Bin Ladin. Clinton’s exact words were: ““What did I do? What did I do? I worked hard to try to kill him. I authorized a finding for the CIA to kill him. We contracted with people to kill him. I got closer to killing him than anybody has gotten since.” Does the POTUS have the authority to kill someone on his won order w/o any authorization of hostilities by Congress? Isn’t killing more consequential than waterboarding. Will the “Truth Commission” look at this?

    If an unfortunate attack happens, it is surely reasonable to ask the question whether the current anti-terror strategy can be improved. However, I hope that your suspicion that Conservatives would “welcome” an attack as a bludgeon to use against Obama is not a case of “projection”

    During the debate about the surge in Iraq a significant portion of Democrats believed that the world would be (or perhaps might be) better off if the surge failed.


  3. Matt Batts says:

    Being a communist, while certainly an undesirable character trait, isn’t a crime. Torture is. If atrocities were committed by the government, we can’t just sweep them under the rug.

    I did not say that conservatives in general are rooting for another terrorist attack. But some clearly are. The cover of the recent edition of Townhall magazine features a scare piece by Peter Brookes about terrorists from Gitmo in ordinary prisons in the continental U.S. I don’t know how exactly this would raise the terror threat level, but the Heritage Foundation is clearly trying to frighten people into doing its bidding.

    If someone doesn’t want to be accused of inviting terrorism, then they should not say that every policy or court decision they don’t like will lead to another 9/11.

    That Fox News push poll you cited was obviously designed to to further the network’s agenda to make Democrats look bad. I would like to see Fox News ask Republicans whether they think the world would have been better off if the Obama Administration had botched the rescue of the crew of the Maersk or if they want Obama’s stimulus package to cause a major economic collapse. It might have been more accurate from me to say that there would be dancing in the hallways of Fox News (which you apparently just admitted was conservative) if terrorists flew a airliner into the Capitol while Obama was addressing a joint session of Congress. That would eliminate just about every Democratic office holder in the Federal Government. Fox News contributor Liz Trotta once suggested that Obama should be assassinated. It’s reasonable to supect that she isn’t alone at Fox News in this sentiment.

  4. Dear Matt,

    I believe that you missed the point. I was not making a relative comparison between the anti-Communist hearings in the 1950s or calls now for a “truth commission.” The point is that when politicized, Congressional hearings can do more to settle political scores than to conduct a dispassionate investigation.

    How can we determine that this investigation is politicized? Well, no one is talking about investigating President Clinton for his rendition policy or his recent boast that he ordered Osama Bin Laden killed before there was any Congressional or judicial authorization. That was clearly an extension of presidential power greater than any issue of aggressive questioning.

    I do not suspect that there will be much investigation of the fact that leaders in both parties were briefed on the interrogation techniques with nary a word of complaint. If Speaker Nancy Pelosi was so outraged by descriptions of the interrogation tactics, she could have written a letter of complaint to the President or sought to cut off funding for the tactics used. I don’t expect her role will be questioned.

    You argument about FoxNews polls is weak at best. FoxNews polls are respected and did fairly well in the last election actually over predicting Obama’s electoral performance. You assert that the poll was a “push poll” w/o any evidence. On your suggestion about the rescue off the coast of Somalia, I do know anyone who said that the country would have been better off the crew had not been rescued. Could you find an example.

    You assert that FoxNews was push polling without evidence and suggest without evidence that Conservatives would have preferred a rescue to fail. I submit that your argument falls short.

  5. Matt Batts says:

    FoxNews polls are respected

    By whom? This in and of itself is an assertion without evidence.

    The poll in question was a push poll because it asked a loaded question. I would like you to show at least one example of Fox News asking such a question of Republicans.

    I never said that anyone publicly admitted to wanting Obama to screw up the Maersk rescue. But several conservatives (not all) criticitcized Obama nonetheless. By any reasonable measure, the Somali pirate situation was a victory for Obama. Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, however, bashed the President for grandstanding, and the Fox News website ran a bogus story claiming the Oabma delayed the rescue. They just couldn’t stand to see Obama win.

    Fox News has always hated Obama, even going so far to refer to Michelle Obama with a racist term (they called her a “baby mama”). As the group Media Matters for America has noted, Fox News has even doctored news footage to make the administration look bad. I would hope that you and other conservatives show good judgment and research important issues instead of blindly believing everything that Fox News says.

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