The Page reports a concerted attack by the McCain campaign on Barack Obama’s answer in an interview regarding our ability to try terrorists in courts of law. Obama argued that holding terrorists indefinitely in Guantanamo has been bad for America’s image and hurtful to our success in dealing with the Muslim world, and that the successful trial of the first world trade center conspirators demonstrates that trials are possible.
Note that Obama did not say that prosecution should be the only means of dealing with terrorists.
But how does the McCain campaign deal with Obama’s attempt to reason with the American public in this policy realm? It first misrepresents his position, saying that Obama believes that does not believe in doing anything with terrorists other than “treating them as common criminals,” something Obama never said. Then in a play straight from Karl Rove’s book, it trots out former DCI Jim Woolsey to echo the campaign’s attack on this “September 10 mindset.”
But Obama was making a reasoned argument based largely on facts since 2001, so this can hardly be evidence of a pre 9/11 mind at work.
In fact it is McCain’s position that is, as Woolsey put it, “an extremely dangerous and extremely naive approach to terrorism.”
McCain’s argument that Obama doesn’t understand “our enemies” is simplistic and wrong. This slime of an argument ignores what even Donald Rumsfeld stated in a memo — that we need to keep in mind both how to deal with the already committed terrorists while at the same time impeding the recruitment of others, strengthening norms against terrorist behavior, and recruiting our own allies in other governments and communities to deal with terrorism.
Of course we need to maintain Special Operations and related capabilities for “direct action” against terrorists, and there will be times when intelligence and building court cases may be at odds. Barack Obama has consistently argued for a policy of striking terrorists where we have actionable intelligence. But often securing such intelligence and being able to act depends on the actions of other governments and communities, which in turn depends on a broader climate of relationships and how the US is viewed. Certainly our security would be much better today if we had better access to the Pakistani side of the Afghanistan border — What have Bush or McCain done to advance this? (Recall McCain’s sneering at anyone who advocated putting any eggs in any basket in Pakistan other than Musharraf’s.)
McCain needs to distract from the fact that his and George Bush’s policies precluded an effective attack on Al Qaeda ever since Bin Laden was allowed to escape at Tora Bora. It turns out that the McCain campaign can’t debate policy issues; it can only resort to Rovian name calling.
There is no hope that McCain would change the tone in Washington.
(For an earlier post discussing the politics of terrorism and the importance of maintaining a law enforcement element in terrorism policy, see here.
Update: The Obama Campaign Responds (as reported by The Page.
Also a reader quite properly points to the McClatchy reporting on Guantanamo for elaboration of how the clumsy and prolonged incarceration of detainees has backfired.
Finally, another reader cites Wikipedia to contrast the Republican failure to capture Bin Laden or deal effectively in the Pakistani tribal areas with the successful Democratic administration response to the 1993 attack on CIA employees going to work. According to this account, tribal leaders were key to the attacker being arrested in Pakistan, rendered to the US for trial and, ultimately, executed.