Dueling Speeches, Part II

I wrote earlier today that President Obama’s speech today was deeply dishonest. Here’s the first reason why.

Obama portrayed himself, as he so often does, as a uniter, above the political fray. He decried the “politicization” of national security issues. He said that he had “no interest in spending all of our time relitigating the policies of the last eight years,” and that “we need to focus on the future.” He criticized the tendency of politicians “to spend our time pointing fingers at one another.”

Having gotten those pieties out of the way, Obama devoted much of his speech to bashing the Bush administration, in a manner that was unfair when it was not outright false. Here are some of his characterizations of “the last eight years”:

[O]ur government made a series of hasty decisions….all too often our government made decisions based on fear rather than foresight…. All too often, our government trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions….Instead of strategically applying our power and power principles, too often, we set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford…. we went off course….the decisions that were made over the last eight years established an ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable; a framework that failed to rely on our legal traditions and time-tested institutions and that failed to use our values as a compass…. our government was defending positions that undermined the rule of law….over 525 detainees were released from Guantanamo under — not my administration — under the previous administration. Let me repeat that. Two-thirds of the detainees were released before I took office and ordered the closure of Guantanamo….[Guantanamo] is quite simply a mess, a misguided experiment that has left in its wake a flood of legal challenges that my administration is forced to deal with on a constantly, almost daily, basis and that consumes the time of government officials whose time should be spent on better protecting our country…. the court ordered the release of 17 Uighurs — 17 Uighur detainees took place last fall when George Bush was president….the problem of what to do with Guantanamo detainees was not caused by my decision to close the facility. The problem exists because of the decision to open Guantanamo in the first place…. we are acutely aware that, under the last administration, detainees were released and, in some cases, returned to the battle field. That’s why we are doing away with the poorly planned, haphazard approach that led those detainees go in the past…. Instead of using the flawed commissions of the last seven years, my administration is bringing our commissions in line with the rule of law…. whether it was the run-up to the Iraq war or the revelation of secret programs, Americans often felt like part of the story had been unnecessarily withheld from them…. Now, in all the areas that I’ve discussed today, the policies that I propose represent a new direction for the last eight years…. on the other end of the spectrum, there are those who embrace a view that can be summarized in two words — anything goes. Their arguments suggest that the ends of fighting terrorism can be used to justify any means and that the president should have blanket authority to do whatever he wants provided it is a president with whom they agree….we will vigorously protect our people while forge a strong and durable framework that allows us to fight terrorism while abiding by the rule of law. Make no mistake. If we fail to turn the page on the approach that was taken over the past several years, then I will not be able to say that as president.

After that over-the-top attack on his predecessor–is there any precedent for it in American history?–Obama had the temerity to conclude with this plea for unity:

We will not be safe if we see national security as a wedge that divides America. It can and must be a cause that unites us as one people and as one nation.

Right, Barack. You’re a uniter, all right.

More to come.

PAUL adds: Obama’s speech is indeed dishonest, and at multiple levels. For one thing, as Jack Goldsmith has shown, Obama is not “turn[ing] the page on the approach that was taken in the past few years.” He is largely maintaining that approach.

But what strikes me most about the speech is how whiny Obama comes across. He complains that Bush administration policies have created “a flood of legal challenges that my administration is forced to deal with on a constant, almost daily, basis and that consumes the time of government officials whose time should be spent on better protecting our country.”

Has any prior president complained publicly about his workload? And are we to believe that the lawyers who are dealing with detainee challenges would, in the absence of those challenges, be hunting terrorists in the mountains of Afghanistan? If not, what would these lawyers be doing to protect our country? And, if it would really protect the country, why isn’t Obama bringing in extra lawyers to get that work done?

It’s a pity that the Bush administration didn’t leave the Obama administration with no serious legal issues to deal with. But if Bush’s policies helped prevent attacks on the U.S. and helped deal a series of major blows to al Qaeda worldwide, then perhaps dealing with the legal residue is a small price to pay even if it’s Obama who is paying it.

Obama denies (on principle, I suppose) that Bush’s policies had these or any other positive effects. But denial isn’t evidence. Obama — Mr. Transparency — should release the relevant government memos on this subject so Americans can decide for themselves whether Obama should be whining or should (with the rest of us) be grateful.

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