Saturday, May 16, 2009

This Obama flip-flop in best interest of American people

(Originally published 5/16/09)

In a stunning about-face this week, President Obama decided that his administration will fight the release of more photographs related to allegations of torture by members of the U.S. military, after all.

It is common knowledge that military commanders have serious –- and well-founded, if not openly voiced –- concerns about the impact those photos could have on recruitment efforts by terrorist organizations. But White House officials didn't want anyone to confuse strategizing with shot-calling. So in announcing the president's change of heart, they were quick to emphasize that although he had intently considered their counsel, military brass had not "pressured" him into the move.

Those on the left reacted Obama's reversal with a level of scorn, disdain and fury previously reserved only George W. Bush. They say Obama is breaking a promise to hold culpable soldiers accountable for their conduct. But the military has already conducted investigations into these activities and punished those responsible. In this case, accountability does not require full public disclosure of all the evidence –- in this case, the photos –- because American soldiers would face very real risks if they were released.

The left stubbornly dismisses this reality. Worse, they seem to tacitly consider those risks a tolerable cost, dead and wounded American servicemen and women collateral damage, in their reckless pursuit of a principle that has no basis in reality.

But there is something else to note here: The growth that President Obama is showing in his ability to collaborate with, listen to and create effective policy with American military commanders.

As a candidate for president, Obama showed little promise on military matters. His opponents seized on his lack of military experience, charging that Obama would be, at best, a weak and unpredictable commander-in-chief.

Within 48 hours of becoming president, Obama kept a campaign promise to the left by announcing that he would close the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay within a year. Since then, he has learned that signing that executive order was a lot easier than following through. Foreign leaders who denounced the detention facility are unwilling to accept displaced detainees; in addition, most lawmakers of both political parties want no part of those detainees reaching American soil.

Perhaps that experience -– delivering the promise without developing the plan –- taught Obama to take a more deliberative approach to military affairs. He extended his timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq based on advice from military leaders, and White House officials announced yesterday that although they will be tweaked to include expanded due-process rights for detainees, Obama will retain the military tribunals begun by President Bush. Both of these moves stand in stark opposition to Obama's often-heated rhetoric against them on the campaign trail.

In short, the president is showing an admirable willingness to break campaign promises if he comes to believe he was wrong to make them in the first place. And that's good news; the only thing worse than a bad campaign promise is a bad campaign promise that's kept.

Legal observers believe that the photos will eventually be made public anyway, so some observers are suggesting that the president is maneuvering -– enough to be able to say he opposed the release in case it does have lethal consequences for American troops abroad, but not enough, and not in time, to be able to stop it completely.

That debate -– principle or politics -– will continue. But regardless of the motive or timing, President Obama has done the right thing on this issue. This is one case where a politician-s flip-flop was in the best interest of the people he serves.

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