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Friday, 22 May 2009

22 May 2009

Here’s a really stupid question for you: Is there any big difference between George W Bush and Barack Obama?

This is how it looked to the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd a couple of days ago, as she imagined a conversation between former vice-president Dick Cheney and former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld:

“You’re running national security now and everyone knows it,” Rummy says. “You got Obama to do an about-face on the torture photos. He’s using our old line about how it would endanger the troops. He’s keeping our military tribunals. His Justice Department invoked our state secrets privilege to try to get that lawsuit on torture and rendition dismissed. He’s trying to stop any sort of truth commission, thank goodness. He’s got his own surge going in Afghanistan. He’s withdrawing from Iraq more slowly. He’s extended our secret incursions over the Afghan border into Pakistan.”

A clever piece of satirical writing? Of course. But like all satire, maybe it also contains a kernel of truth. The former White House legal counsel David Rivkin told me last night that Obama has now “bought into” the view that some of the Guantanamo detainees have to be treated as enemy combatants and will have to be detained indefinitely.

That’s not quite how the President put it in his typically eloquent speech at the National Archives Museum in Washington yesterday. (“The documents that we hold in this very hall -- the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights -- these are not simply words written into aging parchment. They are the foundation of liberty and justice in this country, and a light that shines for all who seek freedom, fairness, equality, and dignity around the world.”)

But when you look at the options he laid out for how his administration proposes to deal with the 240 detainees still being held at Guantanamo (don’t forget: many more than that have already been released by the Bush administration), they don’t look very different from those adopted by Bush, admittedly under pressure from the US Supreme Court.

Some of the detainees will be tried in normal criminal courts; some will be tried by “military commissions” (although with greater rights for defendants and with no evidence admissible if it was obtained using “enhanced” interrogation methods); some will be released; some will be transferred to another country; and some, if they can’t be prosecuted because evidence against them has been tainted in some way, will be subject to a new legal framework, as yet undefined, but understood to imply indefinite detention.

But there are a couple of big hurdles he still needs to jump over. Like who’s going to take those detainees who are released? Members of Congress aren’t at all keen on telling their constituents that a couple of dozen of ex-Guantanamo detainees are about to move into the neighbourhood – and other countries don’t seem too keen either.

As with his U-turn over whether to release more photographs showing US soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama is coming up against the harsh reality of persuading the people he needs to persuade (military chiefs, members of Congress) to see things the same way he does. He prizes consensus, which is another word for compromise, but sometimes that means stopping quite a long way from where he’d hoped to get to.

So his supporters on the left are already disappointed. His critics on the right are suspicious, or dismissive, or both. There are already suggestions that he’s preparing to water down some of his health care reform proposals in the hope of reducing some of the opposition from powerful vested interests. If those suggestions are true, stand by for more unhappy Obama-ites.

None of this means that he is a bad man, or a bad President. Nor does it mean that he will not succeed in at least some of his ambitious plans for changing America. But it does mean that as plenty of people warned him before the election, governing is a great deal more difficult than promising.

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