Obama’s double game on dealing with terrorists

Our friend Eli Lake argues that — notwithstanding President Obama’s inaugural address (“we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals”) and his initial executive orders on Guantanamo, interrogations, and CIA secret prisons — the new president is leaving himself wiggle room on fighting terrorism. In fact, Lake argues that “there are a growing number of reasons to suspect that Obama will not be quite as liberal on these matters as his rhetoric might have suggested [and] his supporters might have hoped. . . ”

For example, Obama may have ordered the closing of Gitmo (later on) and suspended all military tribunals there, but that doesn’t mean that all the 243 prisoners will end up in civilian courts. Leon Panetta testified at his confirmation hearing that a cabinet-level review of the cases will determine “what prisoners can be tried, what prisoners can be transferred, what do you do with those prisoners who can neither be tried or transferred for some reason and what will happen with them.”

Panetta also distanced himself from the impression (created by Obama’s rhetoric) that the U.S. will only use interrogation techniques found in the Army Field Manual. Senator Bond, for one, announced that he was supporting Panetta in part because he had “committed to … exploring the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on high-value detainees that may warrant going beyond the Army Field Manual in certain situations.”

Even when it comes to renditions, Lake reports that, in the words of the former CIA general counsel who has worked with the Obama administration, there is no “seismic shift in policy.” According to this source, “the United States will send individuals to other states, and, if those states have a questionable record on human rights, then we will not only seek assurances as we have in the past, but. . .be more rigorous on following up on those assurances.” In all likelihood, says Lake, this means that we will still send prisoners to jails in Egypt and Jordan.

It is curious that Obama is exaggerating his differences with Republicans on these issues. For one thing, he promised to be a post-partisan who focuses on common ground rather than on what divides. More to the point, President Bush’s tough policies for dealing with terrorists was, in the end, perhaps the only major aspect of Bush administration policy that Americans liked.

Obama may be distancing from Bush anti-terrorism policy mainly for purposes of foreign consumption. But if Obama believes that even a sharp break with Bush policy (as opposed to his marginal re-positioning) will cause foreign governments to, say, provide more help in Afghanistan or take Gitmo detainees, he will likely to be quite disappointed. Foreign governments act the way they do based on their perceived interests. Complaints about this or that American policy are merely pretexts and can always be replaced by other excuses.

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