Opinion: Is Obama soft on terrorism?


BOSTON — The old cliche is that Americans trust the Democrats with the mommy issues, education, social welfare and the like, but they look to the GOP for the daddy issues, ie. war and foreign affairs. The former vice president, Dick Cheney, is trying to keep this image of the Democrats alive by constantly criticizing President Barack Obama for being soft on terrorism.

The fact is that Obama’s approach to terrorism has not been all that different from George W. Bush’s approach, especially in Bush’s second term when Cheney’s star was waning. Bush's war in Iraq is being wound down, but has not ended precipitously. Unlike the Bush administration, which practiced “ABC” (Anything But Clinton), Obama has not proclaimed that everything Bush did has to go. The exceptions are torture and the Guantanamo prison, and even there Obama has missed his deadline for closing the notorious prison.

The fact is that Guantanamo had become such a symbol of American brutality and lawlessness throughout the world that it made good sense to close it and send the prisoners somewhere else. It is hardly being "soft" if the prisoners are sent to a maximum security installation elsewhere. But there are political obstacles as Americans say they want no Guantanamo prisoners in their back yard.

It also made good sense, if we are to retain any sort of moral high ground against Muslim extremism, to forgo torture. As the GOP’s last presidential candidate, John McCain, once said: We should stop torturing people because of ourselves, not because it benefits our enemies. But then McCain ran against the Bush-Cheney administration’s record as well as against Obama. 

With 30,000 more soldiers surging into Afghanistan, and with an increase in drone attacks, what are the justifications for accusing Obama of being soft? Torture is one. Cheney is for it. But as Cheney himself put it: “It is the mind-set that concerns me. What the (Obama) administration was slow to do was to come to that recognition that we are at war, not dealing with criminal acts.” And flowing from that is the criticism of trying terrorists in civilian courts.

Cheney, and many Americans, believe that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the "underpants bomber" who tried to blow up a plane on Christmas Day, should not have been given any civilian rights, and put straight into military custody to be tried for a war crime.

But let’s look at that closely. Are we at war with Nigeria, from whence Abdulmutallab came? Well, no, Cheney might have said if asked, but we are in a war against terror and Abdulmutallab is a terrorist.

But what about Timothy McVeigh, the terrorist who blew up a government building in Oklahoma a few years ago? Should he have been tried in military court for war crimes?
Well, he wasn’t a Muslim terrorist, the answer might be.

Are we, then, at war with Muslims? Even Bush went out of his way to say we were not. And for that matter, if we are at war destroying an airplane is perfectly acceptable under the rules of war. How could that be a war crime?

Of course war on terrorism was never an accurate description for anything. Terrorism is a method, not something you can declare war on. The “war” image is often used to mobilize people against something: war on drugs, war on poverty, etc. etc. But it loses its usefulness if it is a war you can never win.

When asked what about Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber" who was tried in civilian court in Boston, in 2001 Cheney said that we didn’t have the repressive laws we have now. “The administration really wasn’t equipped to deal with the aftermath of an attempted attack against the United States in the sense that they didn’t know what to do with the guy,” said Cheney. But now that we have abandoned some civil liberties, according to Cheney, we should not seek to restore them.

It turns out that no harm was done by granting Abdulmutallab his rights. He is reportedly singing like a canary with useful, actionable intelligence. Many would argue that torture can lead the torturers up all sorts of blind allies because people will say anything in order to avoid more pain. Even more pointless, in Cheney’s time harsh interrogations were often based on Communist methods, which were not designed to extract information, but to get show-trial confessions for crimes that not even the interrogators believed the victims had committed.

Many Americans do not want to see a terrorist read his Miranda rights, and, politically, this became a rallying cry. The victory of Scott Brown in Massachusetts, polls show, was influenced by the alleged coddling of the "underpants bomber."

With the capture of top Talib Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar a few days ago, and following the deaths of other Taliban leaders in drone attacks during Obama’s watch, there seems to be no lack of fortitude on Obama’s part. Indeed the escalation of the war in Afghanistan has demoralized some of his anti-war Democratic base.

But the criticism of Obama for softness on terror is not going to go away as long as the politics of fear remains in vogue. It worked very well for Cheney and George W. Bush , and the reality is that if there is a major terrorist attack on this country in the next three years — or perhaps even a minor one — you can count on the politics of fear trumping the politics of hope.