Defense & National Security

When in Doubt, Blame Bush

Listening to President Obama this week as he tried to defend the decisions he’s made on closing Guantanamo, you have to wonder what he would do without George W. Bush to kick around. Obama has yet to offer an acceptable plan to deal with the 240 remaining detainees at Guantanamo when he closes the doors on the detention facility. His fellow Democrats have been so frustrated with his lack of clarity that many of them have now voted, along with Republicans, to deny funding for closing Guantanamo until he comes up with a real plan. But he’s hoping the rest of us will forgive his lack of a workable policy and remember; it’s all Bush’s fault anyway.

The longer President Obama is in office, the less presidential he appears. In a speech at the National Archives on Thursday, Obama wrapped himself in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, but he spent much of his time playing politics. "We are cleaning up something that is — quite simply — a mess," Obama whined, describing the Bush policies as a "misguided experiment that has left in its wake a flood of legal challenges that my administration is forced to deal with on a constant basis."

The underlying message of the speech was: Don’t blame me; blame Bush. "I knew when I ordered Guantanamo closed that it would be difficult and complex," he said. But where’s his empathy for how difficult and complex a decision his predecessor faced in opening Guantanamo in the first place?

It’s instructive to remember the conditions President Bush faced when he opened the detention facility. We were a nation at war with a stateless enemy committed to acts of terrorism against innocent civilians. Three thousand Americans had already been killed on U.S. soil on Sept. 11, 2001, the worst terrorist attack against Americans in history, and we weren’t sure when the next attack would come.

Guantanamo received its first detainees in 2002 when the U.S. was fighting a war in Afghanistan to rid that country of the terrorists responsible for training, planning, and financing the 9/11 attacks. The legal memoranda that laid out how these men would be interrogated, held, and prosecuted were drafted in the same atmosphere. President Obama now dismissively describes this process as "ad hoc" and accuses his predecessors of having made "decisions based upon fear rather than foresight, and all too often trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions." But what he would have done in the fog of war had history put him in the Oval Office in that fateful period?

Obama spent most of his speech criticizing others. What he did not do was lay out his precise plans for dealing with the most dangerous terrorists when he closes Guantanamo. This includes men like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks and highest-value terrorist we have captured to date. He says he’s not going to release KSM or others who "remain at war with the United States," but he simply kicked the can down the road in detailing concrete plans on where he’s going to detain such prisoners and for how long.

"If and when we determine that the United States must hold individuals to keep them from carrying out an act of war, we will do so within a system that involves judicial and congressional oversight," Obama promised. And how, exactly, is that different than the judicial and congressional oversight that prompted the Bush administration to release some Guantanamo prisoners, try and convict others, and participate in endless legal challenges in our courts? Obama believes we should trust him to do what’s right, even though he won’t afford his predecessors the same courtesy.

In a matter of months, KSM and dozens of other terrorists will be taken from Guantanamo and brought to the U.S. Americans deserve to know where these killers will be held. President Obama promises that his administration "will do everything in our power to keep the American people safe." But those are empty words without a detailed plan. The best Obama has come up with so far is to keep in place many of the Bush policies, while denouncing the man who proved he could keep us safe for seven years, George W. Bush.

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