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Obama in tough fight on security

As President Barack Obama defends his national security strategy, he faces a daunting challenge.

He must convince the country that it is in safe hands despite warnings to the contrary from the right, and at the same time convince the skeptical left that it is enough to amend rather than abandon his predecessor's approach.

On the defensive over policy for perhaps the first time since taking office, Obama is gambling that his oratorical powers can reassure the public that bringing terror suspects to prisons on American soil will not put them in danger.

At the same time, he must explain and win support for a nuanced set of positions that fall somewhere between George W. Bush and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Obama said Thursday that he would transfer some detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to secure facilities inside the United States despite resistance from Congress, which passed a $91.3 billion military spending bill Thursday night shorn of the money Obama needs to close the prison. Obama also proposed "prolonged detention" for terrorism suspects who cannot be tried, a problem he called "the toughest issue we face."

The president is picking seemingly disparate elements from across the policy continuum — banning torture and other harsh interrogation techniques but embracing the endless detention of certain terror suspects without trial, closing Guantanamo but retaining the military commissions held there. "A surgical approach," Obama called it in his address at the National Archives.

But surgical approaches are rarely satisfying to those on either end of the political spectrum, particularly when it comes to an issue as fraught with emotional resonance and moral implications as the struggle against terrorists. In the reductionist debate in Washington, either any sacrifice must be made to win a pitiless war with radicals, or terrorism does not justify any compromise with cherished American values.

"Both sides may be sincere in their views, but neither side is right," Obama said. "The American people are not absolutist and they don't elect us to impose a rigid ideology on our problems. They know that we need not sacrifice our security for our values, nor sacrifice our values for our security, so long as we approach difficult questions with honesty and care and a dose of common sense."

In his rebuttal speech across town, former Vice President Dick Cheney in effect argued that absolutism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

"In the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground and half measures keep you half exposed," he said shortly after Obama's address. "You cannot keep just some nuclear-armed terrorists out of the United States. Triangulation is a political strategy, not a national security strategy."

The debates over Obama's latest decisions — to establish a legal basis for holding detainees indefinitely without charge and to withhold photographs of past abuse while reauthorizing military tribunals with greater due process — have become a proxy for a broader struggle that could shape his presidency.

With the economy in dire shape, Obama would prefer to focus on domestic issues and put the polarizing security-versus-liberty argument of the Bush years behind the country, but it stubbornly persists.

With Cheney accusing the president of endangering the country and liberal allies expressing outrage at what they perceive as his betrayal of progressive principles, the White House concluded it had no choice but to address the matter head on.

Obama has never lacked confidence in his ability to educate and win over people when it comes to complex, combustible issues, as he tried to do on the issue of race in last year's campaign or abortion in his commencement address at the University of Notre Dame.

Both Obama and Cheney used the term "ad hoc" to scorn the other's policy toward terrorism. But the case-by-case approach of the current White House — officials there describe it as pragmatic — has generated confusion and disappointment across the political spectrum.

While Obama dismissed concerns among fellow Democrats about "30-second commercials" attacking them as weak on terrorism, the reality is the debate could replay in harsh fashion in next year's midterm elections.

Obama in tough fight on security 05/21/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 22, 2009 6:22am]
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