By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
President Obama did what he likes to do when his political initiatives stall—he gave a speech today.
He stood—literally—by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and defended his decisions to ban torture, and to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay.
The long-term impact of Obama's address—given in the great hall at the National Archives—will say much about his powers of persuasion. Republicans have made gains by selling brutality and fear in recent weeks.
In the short term, though, the president has already lost a round to his critics, who have succeeded at getting him distracted and defensive.
The White House tried to ignore the debate, hoping it would die down and go away. But then the House and the Senate, in the last week, rebuffed Obama on Guantanamo Bay. And missteps by Speaker Nancy Pelosi fueled conservative attacks on the issue of "enhanced" interrogation methods.
So, give him this. Audacity directly confronted former Vice President Dick Cheney and other conservatives who have been yakking away, showing their complete misunderstanding of the dynamics of a war on terror.
Obama accused the Bush administration officials of acting from "fear rather than foresight" in the days after the 9/11 attacks, with "hasty decisions" that undermined U.S. efforts in the war against Islamic terrorism.
He inherited "a mess," Obama said. Bush-era officials "trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions" with policies "neither effective nor sustainable."
And now, "we have seen a return of the politicization of these issues," Obama said. "We will be ill-served by ... the fear-mongering" that has "more to do with politics than protecting our country."
Ask General Petraeus. Wars on terror are inherently different. The brutal techniques of unbridled warfare can be counterproductive when employed against groups like the Taliban and al Qaeda.
"They serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists, and increase the will of our enemies to fight us, while decreasing the will of others to work with America," Obama said. "They risk the lives of our troops by making it less likely that others will surrender to them in battle, and more likely that Americans will be mistreated if they are captured.
"In short, they did not advance our war and counterterrorism efforts—they undermined them."
Osama bin Laden and his like know they cannot defeat the United States and its allies in a direct confrontation, but seek to have us destroy ourselves, by adopting panicky, draconian, and disgraceful tactics.
Bush and Cheney fell for it. Obama needs to keep reminding us.
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