Liberals have long-bemoaned Obama’s transformation from would-be demolisher of Bush’s “War On Terror” architecture to its most effective buttress. Faced with a concerted Republican onslaught on the issue from the earliest days of his presidency, Obama chose to husband his political capital for higher priorities like health care reform and the mid-term elections and never tried to rally the country to his ideals, the liberals argue. If only he’d tried, they say, he could have succeeded in rolling back the Bush era expansion of presidential power and bolstered his own political power in the process, becoming more Lyndon Johnson than Jimmy Carter. Some have even suggested that Obama never intended to follow through on his campaign pledge to close Gitmo and reform terrorism detention and trial policies and that he just said he would to rally his base in the 2008 election.
In fact, Obama tried and failed to implement his campaign promises on the issue and was beaten back soundly by the GOP, independents and occasionally Democrats. After making an unrealistic pledge to close Guantanamo Bay and suspend military commissions two of his first acts in office, Obama faced a broad-based, targeted attack led by Mitch McConnell in the Senate, who identified terrorism policy, along with spending, as a key Obama vulnerability. At first Obama tried to stick with those in the administration who wanted to deliver reform. But independent voters fled the idea of closing Gitmo and centrists inside and outside the administration began backing away. Obama tried to hold the line at Bush’s previously stated positions in a speech at the National Archives in May 2009. But Hill Republicans, sensing a winner, continued to push the policy to the right.
The latest example of the administration’s failed efforts to jawbone the rightward shift in the country on this issue came with the announcement today that the administration would send Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and four 9/11 co-conspirators to trial at military commissions at Guantanamo Bay. Late in 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder had announced that KSM would stand trial in a civilian court in Manhattan. Holder made a run at publicly defending the position at hearings on the Hill, but soon every New York politician, including the state’s two Democratic Senators, opposed it, and Holder and the administration were forced to abandon the plan.
True, Obama let Holder carry the bag and didn’t exactly back him up. But it’s never been clear where the liberal faith in Obama’s ability to turn the country on these issues comes from. For now, the continuing climbdown reaffirms the fact that Congress is in the driver’s seat on detention issues: they’ve passed bills blocking the creation of an alternate detention facility in Illinois and the transfer of high-value detainees to the U.S. for civilian trial. Which leaves Obama trying to slow the process and bolster civilian trials where he can. Though he hasn’t exhibited much enthusiasm for doing that either.