On his detention and interrogation policies, Obama faces two right-wing critiques. They are equally wrong, I believe, and also contradict each other. The first is Cheney's:
Once you go into a wartime situation and it's a strategic threat, then you use all of your assets to go after the enemy. You go after the state sponsors of terror, places where they've got sanctuary. You use your intelligence resources, your military resources, your financial resources, everything you can in order to shut down that terrorist threat against you.
When you go back to the law enforcement mode, which I sense is what they're doing, closing Guantanamo and so forth, that they are very much giving up that center of attention and focus that's required, and that concept of military threat that is essential if you're going to successfully defend the nation against further attacks.
The second is a version of Victor Davis Hanson:
Guantanamo is still open, but there are no longer "enemy combatants" there (Perhaps the name of the camp can be changed next?)...
And this, rhetorically putting words into Obama's mouth:
“On matters of protecting civil liberties, I assure the American people that I have examined the Patriot Act, the FISA accords, and renditions and I have discovered that they, in fact, do not shred our Constitution. I will, however, shut down Guantanamo Bay but must keep it open another year and appoint a task force to study the issue."
The first critique is that Obama has taken the country back to an entirely pre-9/11 footing, and is abandoning the notion of a war against Jihadist terrorists altogether. The second is that he is continuing Bush-Cheney policies but doesn't have the intellectual honesty to say so. Whatever else one might say about these two arguments, offered often in tandem on the right, the first thing to note is that they cannot both be correct.
It's still early days in the administration and the reviews of a complex policy thoroughly integrated over seven years into the federal bureaucracy have yet to be completed. But we can say, I think, two things. The first is that Obama absolutely has retained the concept of war as the definition of what he is doing against Jihadism. That's why rendition - not extraordinary rendition to torturers - but rendition of potentially lethal terrorists not easily or quickly prosecuted through the criminal law has been retained. That's why the Obama peeps have defended the right of the president to detain prisoners under the laws of war, at Gitmo temporarily, and elsewhere. That's why drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan continue. So Cheney is simply misleading in a self-serving and lazy way. Surprise!
Hanson, for his part, also misses a critical fact: the removal of the term "enemy combatant" is meaningful and essentially means an end to the notion of a presidential dictatorship. It means restoring the rules of war and the laws of war to the rule of law, as enacted by the Congress, and in treaties approved by the Senate. By restoring the rule of law in warfare, Obama has not abandoned executive freedom to make strategic and battleground decisions. He has undergirded this with the constitutional framework in which the Congress determines the laws of war. Since torture is clearly illegal, it has been abolished, making future real prosecutions of terrorists possible, removing an indelible taint from all intelligence and evidence, and reining in a very un-american paradigm of a permanent presidential protectorate that has the inherent power to ignore the constitution. And this he has done. This is a huge difference. It does not end the war paradigm, but it places it within the traditional legal and constitutional framework of all previous wars.
Obama always told us this. He told us that he was not a pacifist, just opposed to dumb wars. He said he wanted a more intense drive against Jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He just opposed the war in Iraq as irrelevant in the grand scheme of things to the war that began on 9/11 and opposed the dictatorial, illegal and unconstitutional over-reach of the Bush-Cheney executive. What we've seen so far is totally in line with that, and the sensible calibration of the war to more prudential, constitutional and legal grounds is neither surrender nor mere p.r..
It's change we have every reason so far to believe in.