While President Obama's liberal allies are decrying his decision to refuse to release hundreds of additional detainee-abuse photographs, Pentagon officials and nearly 200,000 troops in Afghanistan and Iraq are breathing a little easier. Their argument that the photos could endanger soldiers by potentially inflaming anti-U.S. sentiment swayed the President, who found himself being praised by Republicans and attacked by his fellow Democrats for the move.
But perhaps it shouldn't have come as such a surprise. The new President's decision was just the latest in a series of steps he has taken that move him decidedly toward the political center on issues of national security. No longer a mere senator representing a single state, Obama is now the commander-in-chief, and his reversal highlights the unique burdens that he alone now shoulders. Those pressures are even greater amid two wars Obama did not start, but that will certainly play a large role in defining his legacy. (See behind the scenes photographs of Obama in Iraq.)
Obama, of course, is far from the first Presidential candidate to be pulled from his political base once he has been elected and become responsible to the country and not merely to those who fought hardest to get him into the White House. But he is doing so at a time when his party's anger about the prior Administration is at a fever pitch. Even as Obama is ordering 21,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, spending more money there than in Iraq, and approving the firing of the current U.S. commander, liberal Democrats are talking of giving him only a year to show progress. They fear the country could be sliding into a Vietnam-like quagmire, and the Democractic House caucus is already fraying: on Thursday, 51 of them voted against a $97 billion bill to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
As the photo flap and continuing controversy over the use of waterboarding and other extreme interrogation techniques has shown, treatment of detainees remains a flashpoint. Some Democrats and human-rights activists are upset over the Obama Administration's decision to endorse the Bush Administration's view that prisoners at Afghanistan's Bagram base have no right to challenge their detention in U.S. courts. In a prison closer to home, the Administration is fitfully grappling with Obama's pledge to close the Guantanamo prison next January, perhaps by holding some suspected terrorists indefinitely on U.S. soil. House Democrats are so upset with the fuzzy planning regarding what to do with the 240 detainees still at the Cuban base that they removed $80 million needed to shut it down from Thursday's emergency spending bill.
Obama is expected to announce Friday that he is continuing Bush's controversial military commissions as a way of trying alleged terrorists outside the U.S. judicial system, albeit with additional safeguards for the accused. And in his self-professed desire to look forward rather than backwards, the President has spurned the calls of congressional Democrats for a "truth commission" to air the Bush Administration's dirty laundry. He and his aides know that letting these issues fester as they did Thursday over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's claim that the CIA had lied to her about the use of waterboarding will consume all the political oxygen he needs for his own agenda.
But while habeus corpus rights and the state's secrets privilege are somewhat abstract, everyone understands the power of the photographs from Abu Ghraib released in 2004. The American Civil Liberties Union sued in federal court under the Freedom of Information Act for hundreds of similar photographs. Strictly on legal grounds, it was an easy call for Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department to decide three weeks ago that having fought the release of the photos in federal court, and lost, three times that further appeals would be fruitless. So the Justice Department urged the Pentagon to strike a deal with the ACLU, and both sides agreed the photographs would be released by May 28. (See "Abu Ghraib Aftershocks," photographs documenting the prison abuse scandal.)
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, had been hearing warnings from the combat zones ever since the April 23 announcement of the agreement. In weekly video conferences and private letters, top commanders in the region expressed grave concerns over the possible impact of the photographs. Both Afghan president Hamid Karzai and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki raised similar doubts over the decision, a senior Pentagon official says.
"Why aren't we pursing this?" Obama asked his lawyers last week after listening to Gates' and Mullen's concerns, according to another top Pentagon official. "I don't think we're putting our best national-security argument forward in front of the courts." On Tuesday, Obama informed both Gates and Army General Ray Odierno, the top U.S. officer in Iraq, of his decision to withhold the photos. U.S. lawyers are expected to appeal the case to the Supreme Court. The ACLU was not pleased. "The Obama Administration's adoption of the stonewalling tactics and opaque policies of the Bush administration," executive director Anthony Romero said, "flies in the face of the President's stated desire to restore the rule of law, to revive our moral standing in the world and to lead a transparent government."
Indeed, the courts have already rejected a claim from the government that the photos' release should be barred because of the generic danger it would pose to U.S. troops. But by encouraging government lawyers to consider appealing the case to the Supreme Court, Obama can at least be seen as doing all he can to protect the troops serving under his command. That's critical, given the fact that U.S. troops are fighting Islamic militants in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama has also made it clear that the worsening situation in Afghanistan requires delicate negotiations and cooperation with Muslim, and nuclear-armed, Pakistan. And his reversal has one more advantage: Obama is slated to speak in Egypt on U.S.-Muslim relations on June 4, a week after the photographs were to have been released.