Proliferation Press

A webpage devoted to tracking and analyzing current events related to the proliferation of WMD/CBRN.

Blog-On-Blog: Accessing Jennifer Rubin’s Charge that Obama Triangulates U.S. National Security

Posted by K.E. White on May 22, 2009

At Contentions Jennifer Rubin sifts through the aftermath of yesterday’s Obama-Cheney duel. She takes a firm line: accusing President Obama of a “triangulation game on national security” and being a “president who seems intent on getting the politics right and worrying about the policy later.”

Her specific charge? Obama seeks good politics and not good policy when calling for the end of advanced interrogation techniques and the GITMO closure. These decisions fall into Obama’s ovreall governing strategy, which Rubin describes as: “…to soothe all parties and charm even the most virulent foes of the United States has been Obama’s lifelong modus operand.”

This article will contend the following: First, Rubin fails to show evidence of actual triangulation, only that Obama is discussing security policies that she does not agree with at a time of conflicted public and partisan opinion. Second, she confuses the tools used to advance national security (e.g. what do we do with terrorists suspected of threatening America once detained) with national security priorities (e.g. how America should effectively beat back the terrorist threat).

First, her portrayal of Obama as bargaining between two extremes—hawks and doves in Congress and the public—flys in the face of commonsense, not to mention the substance of Obama’s address yesterday. When Obama evoked the ‘middle’ in yesterday’s speech he was not discussing how he chooses national security priorities, but how transparent and checked executive decisions on national security should be. (While this is a related matter, it is not tantamount to stating: ‘Well some people like GITMO, others don’t—so let’s just move it to Montana and ban torture to whip up libreal support!’) Obama’s positions presupposed the judgement that advanced interrogation techniques and GITMO’s continued operation harm American security. Accessing these decisions is separate from evoking them as triangulation.

By blurring the tools used to obtain national security with actual policies—which, admittedly, can overlap—Rubin is guilty of begging the question. She overlooks this glaring weakness with the Cheney position: the policies instituted by the Bush White House were of questionable effectiveness, controversial at home and grounded on dubious legal reasoning.

It is unquestionable that GITMO, whatever its merits, hurt America’s image around the world. Why then is Rubin so quick to portray Obama’s move to close GITMO as simply a gimmick to get Left-leaning support on other issues? By dodging the issue of whether or not moving detainees from GITMO to a Super-Max prison has any impact on American security, this implication rests on unstated, if not flimsy, assumptions.

Having an unclear standard by which to hold onto detainees has clear dangers. So why when Obama outlines his desire to codify in law their continued detention–even if thise means indefinite detention without recourse to a federal or military court–does Rubin imply this as a cynical attempt at assuaging the Right? This has particular resonance when contrasted with the ad hoc and hasty basis by which the Bush White House released past detainees.

It’s easy to see where Rubin goes wrong within her own post: she uses another writer’s perception that Obama is appealing to a fractured middle ground between doves and hawks that may or may not support them as as proof that Obama has politicized/triangulated national security policy. But even that speculation, if right, fails to prove triangulation. Proving triangulation requires showing incoherent or ineffective policy coming out of the White House in response to opinion polls.

Now, admittedly, I have set a high bar. But it seems next to impossible  to even suggest this in regards to current Obama administration national security actions. Yes, decisions on whether or not to prosecute Bush administration officials and releasing certain detainee photographs have changed. But those changes do not seem the result of public or partisan pressure. They seemed, whether right or wrong, rooted within an evolving sense of what constituted the national interest. While this process can be messy, it’s understandable on issues where there is no readily apparent ‘correct’ course of action.

Furthermore, Bush White House terror prosecutions and detainee photographs do not repreesnt the core of yesterday’s Cheney-Obama debate. The main issues at play are: 1) where to treat and place current and future terror detainees and 2) whether or not to use advanced interrogation techniques on suspected or known terrorists.

On these two issues any charge of triangulation fails. (Note: by triangulation I mean creating policy out of incoherent or contradictory positions to manufacture a public mandate.) Obama started his administration by bucking against political pressure and an unsure public will in ordering the shutdown of GITMO, the cessation of advanced interrogation methods, and the designing of transparent system of detention and prosecution. In yesterday’s speech, after weeks of criticism by the Right and the failure to obtain Congressional funds to close GITMO, what did Obama do? He stuck to his guns.

This suggests a President more interested in forging a sound national security policy than worrying whether or not it is popular to stop certain tools to deliver that end (i.e. certain interrogation techniques and detainee transfers out of GITMO).

Yes, these policies require politics. Closing GITMO requires votes in Congress; ending torture policies demands a President who shows the public why this change is justified; and reconstituting military tribunals and maintaining long-term detentions require congressional action. In no way do these actions prove Rubin’s charge of “triangulation”.

But it’s hard to argue with Rubin on substance. Nowhere in Rubin’s posting is discussion over what makes up the current “national security debate” she considers so important. (I am left to assume this debate expands to detention policies, torture policies and GITMO policies, and not, for example, the US-UAE nuclear deal or current AfPak policy). By failing discuss these policies Rubin (whether by choice or shoddy rhetoric) fails to show whether or not Obama-desired policies help or hinder American security. Hence, Rubin cannot offer a set of policies Obama ‘should’ pursue but has abandoned in order to secure public approval.

But the above assumes Rubin’s post to be a reasoned and dispassionate critique of the Obama administration. Rubin’s final paragraph squashes any such illusion. There she compares Obama’s discussion and desired reform of Bush-era detention and interrogation techniques with the hypothetical case of a President going into war to quell domestic critics. This, on its face, stands as a grossly false comparison. And it only highlights Rubin’s refusal to engage in actual discussion–not to mention here comfort in passing flawed logic off as refined argument.

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