It is fitting that President Barack Obama’s much-hyped and anticipated speech on his plan for the detainees currently held at Gunatanamo Bay was delivered in the rotunda of the National Archives building. Throughout his speech, the arguments of a petulant child stubbornly refusing to accept any responsibility for his actions could be heard echoing around the marble hall. The president’s speech was not courageous, uplifting, or forward looking. It was a small speech, especially in comparison to former vice president Dick Cheney’s address immediately after, and revealed the true stature of the man giving it.
President Obama is the master of the political trick of decrying a given act while engaging in it. Throughout this speech, Obama made overtures to looking ahead all the while dwelling on the past. He said he did not want to engage in re-fighting the battles of the last eight years over enhanced interrogations and Guantanamo Bay, then proceeded to do just that, explicitly and implicitly criticizing decisions of the Bush Administration as misguided, illegitimate, and “hasty.”
Of his own decisions to close the terrorist detention center at Guantanamo, the president offered no substantive defense, choosing instead to speak in platitudes and point fingers. His refusal to accept responsibility for his decision, and thus the consequences that may flow from it, was complete, and is best summarized by this passage.
“Indeed, the legal challenges that have sparked so much debate here in Washington in recent weeks would be taking place whether or not I decided to close Guantanamo. For example, the court order to release 17 Uighars – 17 Uighar detainees, took place last fall when George Bush was president. The Supreme Court that invalidated the system of prosecution at Guantanamo in 2006 was overwhelmingly appointed by Republican presidents – not wild-eyed liberals. In other words, the problem of what to do with Guantanamo detainees was not caused by my decision to close the facility; the problem exists because of the decision to open Guantanamo in the first place.“
President Obama offered no rationale for his decision other than the unprovable assertions that Guantanamo has served as a recruiting tool for terrorist groups, likely “creating more terrorists than it ever detained,” and that the facility’s existence has made the United States less, not more, safe. This is the presidential equivalent of pointing at another kid and yelling, “He made me do it!” when the teacher comes. It is not the act of a statesman, nor the argument of a man of stature. It is a dodge, a misdirection, a plea for avoiding the consequences of one’s actions.
At other points in the speech, President Obama presented half-truths and self-serving descriptions designed not to justify the closing of Guantanamo, but to cloud the issue enough in an effort to avoid responsibility for his decision. He took pains to detail the number of detainees released from Guantanamo versus the number convicted, but he did not allude to the reason for the relatively low conviction rate. Part of it certainly has to do with the efforts of “civil liberties” and “human rights” groups to tie the detentions of terrorists at the facility up in court. These are efforts that the president presumably would have supported, given his belief that the detentions were against American law. The effect is to paint a picture of a dysfunctional process for trying detainees, “a mess,” as he so eloquently called it, that only closing the facility can clean up. In truth, however, the mess is as much if not more a creation of the hysterical and unfounded claims and charges leveled against the Bush Administration’s plan for trying the detainees by some of President Obama’s biggest supporters.
In another willful distortion, President Obama insisted that the federal Supermax prisons can handle the detention of hardened terrorists, pointing out that no one has ever escaped from one of the maximum security facilities. But escape is not the issue. Security is. Bringing terrorists who were not already in America to America necessarily makes the country less safe. Housing terrorist detainees in the US makes the locality in which they are housed a terrorist target. This argument of Obama’s, which seeks to deny the reality of his decision, is like a child insisting he did not take the cookies, even as his face and hands are covered in chocolate. It is not accountable and it is not transparent.
President Obama’s address, like most of the rest of his speeches, was long on rhetorical flourish and short on actual details. It was internally contradictory – as when he said that the Bush Administration’s decision on indefinite detentions was wrong, only to announce that his own Administration would be adopting the same practice – self-serving, and petty. And that tells the listener something about the man who delivered it. President Obama showed in this address, more than he ever has, that he is a man of beautiful prose and little substance. Perhaps with more time in office, President Obama will acquire the knowledge and self-confidence that allowed Dick Cheney to deliver the statesman-like address that followed. Our president still has a lot of growing up to do.