Obama to Surrender?

If what the Washington Post reports is true, then the Obama administration is on the verge of capitulating to Republican hysteria and moving the trial of the alleged 9/11 plotters from a civilian court to a military commission.

Americans will be lucky if they ever see Khalid Sheik Mohammed put to justice. The military commissions only managed to try three cases throughout the entire Bush administration, while more than a hundred were tried in federal court. Military lawyers aren't used to trying terrorism cases, so by the end of the Bush administration, the civilian lawyers in the Justice Department were being dispatched to help the proceedings along. The Obama administration will have sacrificed a likely conviction for a military trial that will now be seen by much of the rest of the world as illegitimate. In doing this, the Obama administration has cemented the bipartisan consensus that the rule of law is a joke, and that something as important as a fair trial is subject to the whims of political elites and their short-term interests. This decision would perpetuate the myth that terrorists are supernatural bogeymen rather than thugs. KSM was not captured on a battlefield, he is not in any sense a soldier, as say a captured Taliban fighter might be. He is a criminal.

The GOP is simply moving to the right of whatever position the Obama administration takes. Obama took the Bush position of being able to choose arbitrarily the venue to try suspected terrorists, and the Republicans moved to his right, demanding military commissions for any foreign Muslim accused of terrorism. Obama, like Bush, wanted to close Guantanamo. But when he made moves towards doing so, the GOP decided they wanted to keep it open forever. Obama can take as many political steps to the right as he wants, the GOP will take two steps farther because there isn't any objective here beyond making the president look weak. Politically speaking, the path of expediency has the dual features of projecting cowardice and failing to pacify the administration's critics. As Spencer Ackerman writes, "Obama can fight and win. Or he can compromise, demoralize his base, and the GOP will continue to roll him."

It isn't all the president's fault. The Democrats have assumed their usual fetal position on national security at a time when the president polls high on the issue, Pakistan is hemming up high-level members of the Taliban and the front pages are filled with news of high level terrorist leaders being vaporized by drone strikes. The last administration presided over the worst terror attack on American soil, led the country into an unnecessary war, and disgraced the country with torture. Still the Democrats cower in fear. If they won't stand up for the rule of law now, when the facts are on their side, imagine how they'd react if, G-d forbid, there were to be another terrorist attack. If the GOP wanted to dust off the Sedition Act, Democrats would politely ask whether they were in the mood for the 1798 version or the 1918 version.

Obama said that the choice between our security and our ideals is a false choice. He was right. The real choice was always between our ideals and our politics, and if the above story is true, then Obama will have made the obvious, if profoundly disappointing, choice.

-- A. Serwer

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