January 4, 2010

Defending the President

I didn’t wake up this morning with the intention of defending President Obama. As regular readers of this blog know, I think the guy’s actions are mostly indefensible. Mostly indefensible, meaning that he’s done a couple good things over the past year. And today, in response to a John Bolton op-ed in the Washington Times, I’m going to defend those couple good things.

Bolton, in typical Bolton fashion, begins his op-ed by likening Obama to Neville Chamberlain. Because in John Bolton’s universe, everyone who doesn’t share his shameless blood lust is a cowardly appeaser, and that’s all there is to it. Now how, you might be wondering, is Barack Obama—who’s escalated the War in Afghanistan, continued drone strikes in Pakistan, and, just last month, started firing cruise missiles into Yemen—an appeaser?

Let me allow Bolton to explain himself:

Despite the administration’s verbal about-face on the effectiveness of our antiterrorism efforts within days of the unsuccessful Christmas attack, its fundamental approach remains flawed. Mr. Obama himself has led the charge in shifting from a “Global War on Terror” toward a law-enforcement paradigm, continuing, for example, to press for closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Even today, the administration is treating would-be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as a criminal rather than an enemy combatant, thus losing the chance to gain enormously valuable information on al Qaeda activities and plans.

Contrary to what Bolton claims, it seems clear that Obama’s decision to close Guantanamo Bay can only make Americans safer. By now, it’s been well-established that the prison has played a major part in radicalizing many throughout the Muslim world. In 2006, Air Force interrogator Matthew Alexander reported that, more than anything else, foreign fighters were coming to fight American troops in Iraq because of “the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.” General Counsel of the Navy Alberto Mora reached the same conclusion in 2008. More recently, the Center for Strategic & International Studies concluded that “the United States has been damaged by Guantanamo beyond any immediate security benefits. Our enemies have achieved a propaganda windfall that enables recruitment to violence, while our friends have found it more difficult to cooperate with us.”

It’s also been well-established that “enhanced interrogation,” which Bolton would like us to inflict upon Abdulmutallab and many others, doesn’t work. Yes, the government has elicited valuable information through interrogating terror suspects, but as the 2004 CIA Inspector General Report makes clear [.pdf], there’s no evidence that it obtained any of this information through enhanced techniques. As Jane Mayer has explained: “Torture works in several ways. It can intimidate enemies, it can elicit false confessions, and it can produce true confessions. Setting aside the moral issues, the problem is recognizing what’s true. [Abu] Zubayda, for instance, reportedly confessed to dozens of half-hatched or entirely imaginary plots to blow up American banks, supermarkets, malls, the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, and nuclear power plants. Federal law-enforcement officials were dispatched to unlikely locations across the country in an effort to follow these false leads.”

And Bolton is simply wrong when he writes that, by trying Abdulmutallab in a federal court, Obama has lost “the chance to gain enormously valuable information on al Qaeda activities and plans.” It’s not as though Guantanamo Bay is the only place in the world in which terror suspects can be interrogated. Non-Guantanamo-based authorities interrogate criminal suspects all the time. As Spencer Ackerman explains, even if Abdulmutallab invokes his right to silence, authorities can continue interrogating him; they just can’t use this information against him in court.

Bolton proceeds to attack some of Obama’s other policies, some of which I also think are defensible, but frankly I can’t stomach defending the guy anymore. Not today. Yes, he’s done some good things over the past year, but, when all is said and done, he’s still a liar and a warmonger, one who’s only marginally better than George W. Bush. So with that, I’m going to sign off.

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