Guantánamo: Is Obama just a more eloquent Bush?

While President Obama is sticking to his plan to close Guantánamo, he tacitly acknowledges the enormous legal and practical problems that it presents.

You have to hand it to President Obama, said Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post. With the Bill of Rights as his backdrop, Obama last week delivered a “rhetorically brilliant” address at the National Archives in which he pledged fidelity to the “rule of law” and derided the “moral travesties” of the Bush administration’s war on terror. But look past his pretty words. While Obama has tweaked some procedures here and there, he has in fact adopted “huge swaths of the entire, allegedly lawless Bush program.” Obama now agrees that some Guantánamo Bay inmates should be tried by the military commissions he once denounced, and that some prisoners may be held indefinitely without trial. He’s sticking to his plan to close Guantánamo, but he tacitly acknowledges the enormous legal and practical problems that presents. Not that any reasonable American should complain about these flip-flops, said Rich Lowry in National Review. After all, the Bush policies Obama once condemned, and is now adopting, have kept us safe since 9/11. Still, “a less self-consciously grandiose figure might feel the need to reflect on the fact that his simplistic prior positions had not fully taken account of the difficulties fighting the war on terror.”

It is you, my conservative friends, who are being simplistic, said Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post. Obama inherited enormous “messes” from Bush, but he’s dealing with the complex legal problems in a far more “thoughtful,” nonideological way. By renouncing torture and moving to shut down Guantánamo, he has started to repair America’s battered image abroad. He is reforming the military tribunals by excluding testimony obtained by coercion and expanding detainees’ access to lawyers. And while Bush claimed the unilateral power to jail anyone he labeled an “enemy combatant,” Obama will ask for legislative and judicial review of decisions to hold suspected terrorists without trial. “In our constitutional system,” he declared, “prolonged detention should not be the decision of any one man.” Can anyone argue that Bush would have ever said such a thing?

No, but the fact that Obama isn’t as extreme as Bush—or Dick Cheney—does not mean we should give him a free pass, said Joan Walsh in Under his announced new scheme, “expressing allegiance to Osama bin Laden” could be enough to justify endless imprisonment—even if no violent acts have been committed. Obama is very careful to pay lip service to the Constitution, said Glenn Greenwald, also in “But if incarcerating people with no charges and no trial indefinitely isn’t unconstitutional, then it’s hard to imagine what would be.”

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That must all sound nice up in your ivory tower, said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial, but Obama is now operating in the real world. He has full responsibility for making sure the murderous Islamic fanatics housed at Guantánamo do not get another chance to kill Americans. Given that reality, he may yet regret his public-relations stunt of ordering Guantánamo’s closure. Members of Congress from both parties are now lining up to say they will never allow terrorists to be brought to prisons in their states. Meanwhile, a new Pentagon report indicates that one in seven detainees released from Gitmo thus far has “returned to jihad.” So Obama should stop blaming Bush for making a “mess,” since it was he who created his current dilemma—having nowhere to put killers such as 9/11 architect Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. “Tell us again why Gitmo should be closed?”

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