By: Bill Stewart
One of the main Republican fears during last year's presidential campaign was that Barrack Obama simply was not ready to be Commander on Chief. He lacked vital experience. Even Hillary Clinton, Obama's chief Democratic rival, bought into that view with her famous who do you want answering the White House phone at three o'clock in the morning question? Actually, no president answers the White House phone at three o'clock in the morning, that's why there's a switchboard. But that's another matter.
This week, President Obama should have laid those fears to rest with his national security speech in the National Archives building in Washington. It was measured; it was detailed and it was forceful. None of that means he is right, but it does mean he is in command. No president is ever fully prepared for the job, especially when it comes to matters of national defense. National security is simply too complex to be learned on the road during a presidential campaign. Security threats and the intelligence that surrounds them are constantly changing, requiring daily briefings in which previous assumptions need to be reevaluated. That means the ability - and the courage - to change one's mind, if need be. An inflexible mind signifies an ideologue, the last kind of person we need in command. What matters most is good judgment, which means not only the readiness to listen to the experts but the maturity needed to sift through the evidence and make the right choice. Even so, a president doesn't always make the right choice. But the lack of those factors will guarantee that a president makes the wrong choice.
One of President Obama's first acts in office was to declare that he would close down the Guantanamo Bay prison by the end of the year. "Gitmo" had earned the world's opprobrium with allegations of prisoner mistreatment and the questionable legality under which many of the prisoners were held. During his national security speech, Obama repeated his view that the detention of prisoners at Guantanamo, and the use there and elsewhere of "enhanced interrogation techniques," i.e., torture, had harmed our security rather than strengthened it. Following the speech, former Vice President Dick Cheney vigorously defended "Gitmo" and the use of those "enhanced interrogation techniques" as having helped to prevent further terror attacks against the US, and that Obama's actions were undermining US security.
The most troublesome problem of closing Guantanamo Bay is where does the US then put the 240 detainees currently imprisoned at the facility? The US Senate this week voted 90 to 6 to cut from a war-spending bill $80 million Obama had requested to close "Gitmo." Democrats joined Republicans in this act of political and moral spinelessness. No senator wanted it on the record that he - or she - had voted to have suspected terrorists moved to a maximum security prison in the continental US, on the assumption, presumably, that their presence in the US would increase the threat to our national security. It was a charge raised again by the former vice president. This, despite the fact that no one has ever escaped from a maximum security prison. Obama's plan was not helped by a Pentagon report revealing that one out of seven of the 534 prisoners already transferred abroad from Guantanamo had returned to terrorist or militant activity. No doubt the issue will be resolved before the end of the year. But where leadership was called for in the matter of bringing the whole "Gitmo" issue to a close, the US Senate this week failed miserably.
Surrounded by the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, each a cherished symbol and a potent instrument of a nation of laws, Obama stressed that in the struggle against terrorism, we must remain true to both. He said that each of the remaining 240 prisoners was being reexamined by his administration. Some could be tried in US civilian courts. Those who violated the rules of war would face revamped military commissions, a decision that has dismayed liberal activists who say Obama is reneging on a campaign pledge to abolish the commissions. Some could be released while still others could be safely transferred to other countries, a procedure that so far has met with limited success.
The most difficult category of prisoners are those who cannot be prosecuted for one reason or another but who clearly present a threat to US security. These are the ones Obama is proposing to transfer to maximum security prisons in the US. Who else is going to take them? The tooth fairy? It's time to get real, something the US Senate so far is not prepared to do.
President Obama is finally getting into his role as commander in chief. It isn't an easy one, and he has already soured some of his support among liberal activists in the Democratic party. What is clear is that Obama is no radical. He is prepared to break new ground, but look at his closest national security advisors: Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, a seasoned hold-over from the Bush administration; National Security Advisor James L. Jones, a retired marine general; Hillary Clinton, steeped in national defense issues, and Vice President Joe Biden, a frequent visitor to US battlefields as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. They are sturdy supporters of the foreign policy establishment. And so is Barack Obama, even as he seeks to take a new approach.