Commentary Magazine


Cohen vs. Obama

When Richard Cohen sounds like Dick Cheney, the Obama administration is in a heap of trouble:

There is almost nothing the Obama administration does regarding terrorism that makes me feel safer. Whether it is guaranteeing captured terrorists that they will not be waterboarded, reciting terrorists their rights, or the legally meandering and confusing rule that some terrorists will be tried in military tribunals and some in civilian courts, what is missing is a firm recognition that what comes first is not the message sent to America’s critics but the message sent to Americans themselves.

Not even a generally sympathetic liberal columnist like Cohen buys the hooey that the administration didn’t “lose anything” when it Mirandized the Christmas Day bomber:

Administration officials defend what happened in Detroit and assert, against common sense and the holy truth itself, that they got valuable intelligence — and so what more would you want? But Abdulmutallab went silent before terrorism experts from Washington could get to him. It has been more than a month since he last opened his mouth, and even if he resumes cooperating — a deal may be in the works — he now knows just a bit more about the present-day location of various al-Qaeda operatives than does Regis Philbin.

It seems that there is now general agreement even from the liberal punditocracy that Obama got it very wrong. He and his minions in the Department of Justice forgot — or never understood – that, as Cohen puts it, ”the paramount civil liberty is a sense of security.” If not only the cabal of neocon critics but also card-carrying liberals agree that Obama has “shown poor judgment” and neglected citizens’ entirely justified concerns about their personal safety, then the president is in a perilous position indeed. He must scramble back from the limb he has crawled out on, reverse a host of policy choices, re-establish his bona fides as a resolute commander in chief, find personnel who can implement a not “Not Bush” policy, and devise new rhetoric to express appreciation for the security of those he swore an oath to defend.

That’s a tall order, certainly. But Obama can always tell us how “hard” these issues are, how long and intense was his rumination about them, and how none of this really vindicates his critics. Whatever rationalizations he needs, I’m sure he and his spinners can come up with them. But what is key is that he reverse his entire approach to terrorism — before he permanently loses the trust of not just pundits but the vast majority of voters, and more important, before we have not a close call but a disaster on his watch. If the unthinkable happens, there will be no one else to blame and, I suspect, no mercy shown by an electorate increasingly skeptical about Obama’s competence as the commander in chief in a war for the survival of our civilization.