I don't know if you noticed, but our president can give a helluva speech. His time as a constitutional lawyer has endowed him with the kind of rhetorical reverence for the rule of law that I find incredibly touching. Whenever our nation has been at its worst, the promises of our founding documents have led us through. I know I'm not the only American who feels this way, and this president, more than any other in my lifetime, knows how to evoke that kind of pride.
The most important part of the president's speech wasn't the policy--he said little that was new. He condemned the use of torture in no uncertain terms, and rejected the idea that such methods are necessary to protect national security. He recommitted to reforming the "State Secrets" doctrine, which his administration has used in much the same manner has his predecessor despite promises to the contrary. He reiterated his commitment to trying as many suspected terrorists as possible within independent Article III courts, said that the military commissions would be revamped to be consistent with our legal obligations and be limited to trying those who had broken the laws of war, and he referred to the "third category", those who the government believes are dangerous but cannot be tried. Herein lies the most dangerous path for us as a country--whether or not you believe these men are guilty, the fact is that detention without due process is a fundamental violation of the same laws that Obama called "the source of our strength through the ages." I am skeptical that this power, once invoked, can ever be restrained. As for the photographs--Obama seemed to reassure human rights groups that they would ultimately be released yesterday--the idea that a government can shield scrutiny of its own wrongdoing based on national security reasons is a dangerous precedent to set.
The most important part of the president's speech was the framing of our national conversation around this issue. On Guantanamo, he reiterated that the prison has "set back the moral authority that is America’s strongest currency in the world." This is important, but it's secondary to another point the president made, that the creation of Guantanamo was not an issue of security but of shielding suspected terrorists from our judicial system. He spoke of the argument that has raged over the past few weeks, perhaps referring specifically to Dick Cheney when he referred to arguments that "are calculated to scare people rather than educate them; words that have more to do with politics than protecting our country." He reframed his positions on national security, much as he does with all political issues, as standing between two "two opposite and absolutist ends," those who would never "put national security over transparency" and those who believe the Nixonian dictum that "that the President should have blanket authority to do whatever he wants."
I don't buy this framing. The fact is that there is no middle ground when it comes to due process. With his soaring and sincere rhetoric, the president has done an incredible job of selling his kinder, gentler War on Terror, and ultimately, the American people will likely have his back, if only because they trust him. In a sense, Barack Obama may be far more dangerous than George W. Bush when it comes to violating our civil liberties; where the American people feared the excesses of Bush, they trust wholly in the sincerity of Barack Obama. At least for now.
-- A. Serwer