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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Welcome To The Real World, Professor Obama

By trickling out bits and pieces of top secret memoranda regarding interrogation of al-Qaeda terrorists, Barack Obama thought he would have the best of all worlds. Obama believed that exposing the dark side of the war on terror would ingratiate us with the world. At the same time, Obama thought pulling back the curtain slightly would quench those who thirst for details.

Obama was sincere, but hopelessly naive, and now the forces he has unleashed but cannot control threaten to destroy his presidency in its infancy.

As to the rest of the world, Obama proceeded from a fundamental misunderstanding of Islamic fundamentalists. Osama bin Laden and others in al-Qaeda hated us long before there was coercive interrogation. Throughout the 1990s, long before the George W. Bush administration, al-Qaeda launched numerous attacks against us at home and abroad, killing hundreds. The timid response of the Clinton administration only encouraged more outrageous attacks, culminating in 9/11.

Obama's professorial desire to test a theory, that apologizing for Bush would help solve the terrorism problem, puts the cart before the horse. We had terrorism before, not because of, the Bush administration. Obama's actions are a sign of profound weakness which encourages further attacks, and when those attacks come, the foundation of Obama's presidency will be gone. The Bush administration prevented further attacks through aggressive defense, and the American people will not tolerate another attack resulting from weakness and naive professorial theories.

At home, Obama's hope that Bush haters would be satisfied with a little disclosure was equally naive. Obama's decision reflects the fact that he never really practiced law. Any litigator with even modest experience would understand that by giving up information you don't have to give up, and by waiving privileges you are entitled to assert, you merely encourage further demands. Open the door slightly, and you may not be able to close it.

Obama also never ran an organization, so he has no understanding of managing people. As skilled and aggressive a politician as Obama is, Obama's experience is in promoting Obama. Managing turf wars in an organization takes skills which transcend the power of hope. With the possible exception of academia, nowhere are turf wars more petty and vicious than in government.

And that is what is happening on Capital Hill, where Democrats still bitter over the 2000 election have stuck their foot in the door Obama now is trying to close, and they are seeking to push the door wide open for their own purposes.

Despite the lofty rhetoric from Patrick Leahy and others, this is all about retribution for the 2000 election. Democrats have been attacking the Bush administration since he took office, before there was 9/11 or harsh interrogation. And it is very personal for those on Capital Hill who hold grudges. And chief among the grudge-holders is Leahy, who was furious as early as November 2001, that the Bush administration did not consult Leahy about its plans for captured al-Qaeda operatives:
Sen. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said the tribunals are just one of a series of unilateral acts the Bush administration has taken without consulting Congress. "I don't know why all of this has to be done by fiat at the White House," he said yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "Why not trust the normal process of government?" The tribunal policy, along with such others as allowing government agents to listen to conversations between terrorism suspects and their attorneys, doesn't get any support from me -- no support whatsoever," Mr. Leahy said.
The bitterness and fighting between Leahy and the Bush administration continued unabated for 8 years. It was not surprising that Leahy was the recipient of Dick Cheney's famous suggestion as to what Leahy should do to himself. This is a highly personal fight, and Obama has stepped into it. Leahy will run over Obama to get to Cheney, if he has to.

The demands for hearings and prosecutions also are part of a power fight between the legislative and executive branches. In November 2001, Leahy even found Republican legislative support for preserving the legislative branch's turf, albeit not in Leahy's aggressive style:
On Friday [November 16, 2001], Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee and a conservative, joined Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Committee's chairman and a liberal, to sign a curt letter to the attorney general to "suggest" that after Thanksgiving he pencil in "several hours" to chat with legislators.

"The Department of Justice has taken a number of actions since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11," the letter said. "We request that you appear before the committee during the week after Thanksgiving."

The request was a virtual subpoena. Twice in recent weeks, Ashcroft has snubbed invitations to appear before the senators. House members report similar experiences.

"Concern has been rising for some time on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the Capitol," said David Carle, a spokesman for Leahy. "The concern is over the almost complete lack of consultation with congressional leaders or congressional committees as the attorney general has taken one unilateral action after another in the name of the war on terrorism," Carle said.

There is no ego as large as a Congressional ego. Combine that with a history of bitterness of the 2000 election and personal animosity, and you have the makings of a vendetta by congressional hearing. If not interrogation, then it would be something else.

Obama did not create the profound desire for retribution, but he has unleashed it. And it will consume his presidency. This will be a fight unlike anything any of us have seen in our lifetimes, because it involves the nation's most emotional moment since Pearl Harbor. The legal battle lines already are being drawn, fund raising plans drawn, and lawyering up is about to begin. And both sides relish the prospect of a battle.

Obama should not underestimate the destructive power of Congress. Barely three months into his term, Obama's ability to control the agenda is on the cusp. The inimitable Democratic penchant for self-destructive behavior will not be satisfied until Bush has been bashed, even if the ultimate victims are our national security and Obama's legacy.

Welcome to the real world, Professor Obama.

UPDATE: Via Gateway Pundit, note that Republican Pete Hoekstra is calling for any congressional hearings to include an investigation of the damage to national security from the release of the memos. While we're at it, how about including an investigation of the damage done from leaks of classified information reported in the NY Times and Washington Post, as David Frum points out in a very interesting piece on the Jane Harman "leak" issue. (h/t Instapundit):
Two months after Franklin’s sentencing, another leak of classified information hit the newspapers. On Dec. 16, 2005, The New York Times reported the existence of a vast, unknown National Security Agency program to intercept foreign electronic communications.

Unlike the Franklin leak, which was intended to jolt an unwilling bureaucracy into action to defend the country, the Times leak was intended (by the leakers) to sabotage a program integral to that defense. The leak lethally compromised a vital intelligence-collection effort. In terms of its direct and immediate usefulness to America’s enemies, the Times story may count as the worst betrayal of vital national information in a generation.

Needless to say, nobody has ever been prosecuted for that or for any of the other leaks that did actual damage to American security since 9/11, such as The Washington Post leak that revealed the locations of prisons in which high-value al Qaida detainees were being held.
UPDATE No. 2: Proof that great minds think alike. This editorial today in the Wall Street Journal (which I did not see prior to my post, which was prepared last night)(h/t Memeorandum):

Mr. Obama may think he can soar above all of this, but he'll soon learn otherwise. The Beltway's political energy will focus more on the spectacle of revenge, and less on his agenda. The CIA will have its reputation smeared, and its agents second-guessing themselves. And if there is another terror attack against Americans, Mr. Obama will have set himself up for the argument that his campaign against the Bush policies is partly to blame.

Above all, the exercise will only embitter Republicans, including the moderates and national-security hawks Mr. Obama may need in the next four years. As patriotic officials who acted in good faith are indicted, smeared, impeached from judgeships or stripped of their academic tenure, the partisan anger and backlash will grow. And speaking of which, when will the GOP Members of Congress begin to denounce this partisan scapegoating? Senior Republicans like Mitch McConnell, Richard Lugar, John McCain, Orrin Hatch, Pat Roberts and Arlen Specter have hardly been profiles in courage.

Mr. Obama is more popular than his policies, due in part to his personal charm and his seeming goodwill. By indulging his party's desire to criminalize policy advice, he has unleashed furies that will haunt his Presidency.

Related Posts:
Should Law Professors Really Be Running The Government?
Which City Would You Sacrifice?

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  1. Oddly enough it was George W. Bush's desire for retribution that led him to condone torture and invade a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. And, in the end, it consumed his presidency and ended up destroying his party.

    So you guys keep running on torture and fear and paranoia, because it's working out so well for you.

  2. Nail meet your hammer. Great post Prof. Jacobson. Only thing that scares me is the "and lawyering up is about to begin" part.

    How far the release of "classified" docs will go when a lawyer asks for them and a judge thinks it is a good idea.

  3. While we're at it, we should reopen the issue of what led up to 9/11. The 9/11 Commission really settled very little and made a lot of silly "big picture" proposals (e.g., create the DHS, create the ONI) which have added next to nothing (or worse). Michael Scheuer has said that CIA had at least 13 oportunities to kill or capture UBL (which he knows about), not the three (as I recall) that the Commission described. He also has complained that detailed testimony he gave the Commission on highly relevant topics was never mentioned in its reports. That's just one example of what happened because the purpose of the Commission was to spread around blame enough to satisfy the public while not sticking any person or agency with enought to damage their reputations (my pet peeve: the FBI, as has always been the case since J.Edgar) escaped with no one noticing its shabby record of in effectiveness, which continues to this day -- consider for example that it still has no reliable information system).

    I could go on but if we're turning over stones, let's turn them all over.

  4. I think Cheney is hungering for this fight and I know Mark Levin will throw his weight and intellect at the anti-Americans in Congress. That said, I do believe Little Pinch should have been executed for treason, and there are others.

  5. Outstanding post! Keep them coming!!!