Shadow Government

Obama's terrorism strategy: Avoiding the Groundhog Day curse

On the eve of Groundhog Day, it is worth asking whether President Obama's terrorism policy is facing six more weeks of bitter chill. Obama has been forced to backtrack on several signature initiatives -- the commitment to close Guantanamo by Jan. 19, 2010, the commitment to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civilian court in lower Manhattan, and the hounding of Department of Justice lawyers from the Bush era over interrogation-related rulings -- and it has gotten so bad that over at Politico.com they are asking whether Obama's entire terrorism policy is unraveling. It does appear that the triangulation at the heart of Obama's terrorism policy is in trouble, but it is not yet clear what will replace it.

Since the earliest days of his administration, Obama has attempted a deft triangulation: he has rhetorically framed his terrorism policy as a bold departure from the Bush era, but he has kept the lion's share of the terrorism policy infrastructure that was operative under the second-term Bush administration. The "change" was dramatized with high-profile moves drenched in symbolism -- the promise to close Guantanamo, the promise to investigate "abuses" from the Bush era, the release of inflammatory material over the objections of his CIA director, or the insistence on talking about terrorism with the language of law enforcement rather than war. The "continuity" was played down with quiet steps, like using Bush era arguments against habeas corpus or defending military commissions, and less quiet steps like a robust Predator drone strike campaign.

The triangulation worked as long as the media played along, letting Obama's caricature of Bush era policies go unchallenged, rebutting the occasional critique from conservatives like Vice President Cheney by listing areas of continuity, and crediting the symbolic changes with all sorts of positive results like the improvement in global polling on America's reputation.

This triangulation survived the nicks of a number of self-inflicted wounds, most notably the early recognition that the Guantanamo promise had been naïve. But it does not look like it will survive the harsh klieg light attention paid to Obama's terrorism policy in the wake of the Underwear Bomber.

The triangulation depended on Obama having found the Goldilocks strategy -- keeping all the good parts of Bush policies and making changes that only improve, without undermining, those policies. Obama, in reversing course on so many issues, is now implicitly conceding that the counter-terrorism porridge he had been serving was most definitely not "just right."  Indeed, the evidence suggests the contrary -- that the promulgation of "treat terrorism as a law enforcement rather than a war problem" produced the very problems Cheney and others worried about.

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden documents several vital errors.  First, the rush to Mirandize the Underwear Bomber, and the decision to do so without any input from responsible authorities, deprived officials of the chance to do a meaningful interrogation of the captured terrorist. Valuable and time-sensitive intelligence was lost, and is likely unrecoverable.  Second, the Obama administration had failed to stand up the new interrogation unit it claimed was needed to replace the "flawed" Bush approach,  and the Obama team had not even anticipated that the unit might be needed to interrogate terrorists caught on U.S. soil.

More remarkably, current NCTC Director Michael Leiter revealed in congressional testimony another vital error: in the days prior to the terrorist attack, the analysis units responsible for "connecting the dots" were distracted by the need to implement a 20 percent reduction-in-force -- cuts so deep that they would disrupt the effectiveness of any bureaucratic organization, at least temporarily.  The Obama administration has quietly rescinded those cuts and is instead beefing up the analytic capability, but not before the damage to triangulation politics has been done.

To my ear, the most telling indication of the collapse of the triangulation comes from the changed tone from congressional "moderates," centrist Democrats and Republicans who form the base for this Goldilocks approach. On the Democratic side, Senator Feinstein has been subtly but insistently messaging a wake-up call in the form of a warning that more terrorist attacks are in the offing.  On the Republican side, Senator Collins issued a blistering attack on Obama's terrorism policy.

If Obama has lost Feinstein and Collins, he has lost the political props of triangulation.  But the overall political damage to the president is not fatal for the simple reason that the national security damage done by the policies is not yet irreversible.  The administration has taken some good remedial steps, such as coming clean on the botched interrogation effort, rescinding the NCTC cuts, and changing the venue for the KSM trial.

Moreover, there is reason to hope that the Obama administration is now more focused on uncovering and preventing the next attack than in scoring partisan points with its witch hunts into Bush administration "missteps."

In this hopeful scenario, the Underwear Bomber is a "bing" moment enabling Obama to avoid the other Groundhog Day curse: repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Coming clash in the Americas

Apparently, Americans are not the only ones losing affection for the Obama administration, if recent headlines on hemispheric relations are any indication.

Assorted pundits will no doubt argue that no president could hope to meet the grandiose expectations engendered by Barack Obama's campaign and election. And that would be true, but for the fact that those expectations in this case were raised by his own campaign operatives.  

To the extent that hemispheric relations received any attention in the campaign, the Obama team's themes were consistent: that President Bush had "ignored" the region, cared only about drugs and terrorism, and, most cutting, that he was a unilateralist! President Obama, in contrast, would rebuild our tattered relationships based on mutual respect and multilateralism and defuse tensions with Hugo Chavez and other radical populists.

As it turns out, if events continue on their present course, it might not be too long before many in the region start to see the Bush presidency as a golden era of engagement with the United States. It was only a quirk in the calendar that brought Obama to Trinidad in April 2009 for a Summit of the Americas; since then, not much consideration of the hemisphere, only a seat-of-the-pants response to the crisis in Honduras that impressed no one.

Of course, there is still time to right the listing USS Obama in the Western Hemisphere, but policymakers can't be happy about a looming showdown that threatens to once again embroil the administration in a contentious fight about hemispheric relations.

The Secretary General of the Organization of American States, Chilean Socialist José Miguel Insulza, is up for re-election this year after the completion of his five-year term. In recent years, the position has become more high-profile and looked upon as the public watchdog for the promotion, consolidation, and protector of democracy in the region. This has been in response to recent elections of radical populists like Chavez who preach class warfare and proceed to hollow out democratic institutions in their countries until all power is vested in them.

Because of these new demands of the position, Insulza was not the first, second, or third choice of the Bush administration for the post, and nothing that has happened since has disputed the wisdom of those decisions. This was reaffirmed in a scathing assessment this week of Insulza's tenure, contained in a report by Minority Staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the behest of Ranking Member, Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN).

The report is a long overdue examination of the OAS and offers sensible and cogent recommendations as to how the organization can remedy myriad shortfalls to confront current challenges to democracy in the Western Hemisphere. But the unmistakable focus of the report is the necessity of strong leadership in the organization in the defense of democracy.

It states that since the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter gave the Secretary General new and broader diplomatic responsibilities, allowing him to act with greater autonomy in the defense and promotion of democracy, it is imperative that he or she utilize those authorities, including their "bully pulpit," to mitigate crisis situations as well as publicly speak out against internal and external threats to democracy in the region.

On this score, the verdict on Insulza is harsh. The report says that upon entering office, Insulza promised to make the institution more effective, more relevant, and more able to act; but, "After initial high hopes, these challenges have not been met." It notes that Insulza has been "repeatedly accused" of being more concerned about his political fortunes in Chile than the work of the OAS, and notes he is now at odds with Chile's own president-elect after campaigning for his opponent. It castigates him over Honduras, first for failing to act while ousted former President Zelaya was trampling the Constitution, then for his heavy-handed actions that sidelined the organization as an honest broker in the subsequent crisis.

Finally, the report takes Insulza to task for trying to push up the secretary general election to March, thereby shortening the time period to allow for other candidates to come forward. The report will have none of it, saying, "it is essential for member governments to appreciate the importance of this leadership position and the qualities an aspirant must possess. Given the challenges described in this report, no reelection should be rushed or rubber stamped."

If the Obama administration fails to support Insulza's re-election, it will likely pit itself against most of the hemisphere; not only against the likes of Hugo Chavez and his noisy acolytes (who no doubt see his fecklessness as a virtue), but also against more moderate governments in the regime, such as that of President Lula in Brazil, who are all cut from the same leftist cloth as Insulza and would never join the U.S. in an effort to jettison him.

At home, Republicans on Capitol Hill are unlikely to want to see another five years of inaction and ineptitude from an organization that counts on the U.S. taxpayer for 40 percent of its budget and that should be at the forefront of protecting democracy in the region from the predations of the Chavez cohort. If the administration supports Insulza's re-election, they will want to know, just as they wanted to know in Honduras, how it is that democracy and U.S. interests are being served in the hemisphere when we are once again on the side of Chavez and other would-be autocrats.

YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images