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Triangulating National Security

Peter Baker has a thoughtful analysis on the dilemma Obama faces in trying to be all things to all people in the national-security debate:

Arguably on the defensive over policy for the first time since taking office, Mr. Obama is gambling that his oratorical powers can reassure the public that bringing terrorism suspects to prisons on American soil will not put the public 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.

That highly political balancing-act is problematic, especially when it comes to national security. Baker explains:

Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Cheney used the term “ad hoc” to scorn the other party’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 Mr. Obama dismissed concerns among fellow Democrats about “30-second commercials” attacking them as weak on terrorism — “I get it,” he said — the reality is that the debate could replay in harsh fashion in the midterm elections next year.

James Jay Carafano, a national security expert at the Heritage Foundation, said Mr. Obama risked being left with no supporters on either side for his program.

“The people on the left know there’s more in common than not between the Obama policy and the Bush policy,” he said. “And the people on the right know there’s a credibility problem because there’s a gap between what he tells the left and what he’s doing.”

But there is more at issue here than just “will it work?” It is odd in the extreme, as Dick Cheney noted in his speech and as his daughter Liz pointed out in several TV appearances yesterday, to play the triangulation game on national security. That’s a modality for domestic affairs — balancing competing interest groups and trying to ease out a working majority in Congress. But it has never been an accepted — or acceptable — tactic on national security. Indeed, presidents from Truman to Reagan to JFK to, yes, Bill Clinton, separated domestic horsetrading from formulation of national security policy. For all his shortcomings, Clinton didn’t go to war in Bosnia as political gambit nor did George H.W. Bush make the decision to not press on to Baghdad in the first Iraq war in order to calm the Left in America.

This method of trying to soothe all parties and charm even the most virulent foes of the United States has been Obama’s lifelong modus operandi. He has unlimited faith in his rhetorical skills. But this begs the question whether foreign policy should be formulated on its own merits or whether it is simply a function of what he can “sell.” Leadership involves setting a course, persuading others to follow, and steeling oneself against the inevitable criticism with confidence that in the end, good policy makes for good politics. Somehow that has eluded the president, who seems intent on getting the politics right and worrying about the policy later. It’s a dangerous game — and as Baker points out, likely fruitless.



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