While insisting "we need to focus on the future," President Obama devoted much of his speech on terrorist detainees today to denouncing the policies of President Bush's administration. He faulted everyone in Washington for "pointing fingers at one another," yet pointed his own finger frequently, and critically, at the Bush administration. Obama said America's problems won't be solved "unless we solve them together"--in a divisive and partisan speech certain to alienate Republicans and conservatives.
If any president has gone to such lengths to attack his White House predecessor as Obama did today, I don't recall it. True, presidents have blamed the prior administration for problems they inherit, but I can't think of a president who did so as aggressively and with such moral preening as Obama.
There was a reason for this. His speech was a dodge because when it came to the issue at hand--what to do with the 240 remaining terrorists imprisoned at Guantanamo--he had no answer at all. Instead, the best he could do was elaborate on the five categories in which his administration has pigeonholed the detainees.
He reiterated his intention to shut down Guantanamo, though he didn't repeat the artificial deadline for closure (next January 22). But he didn't offer a plan for dealing with prisoners so dangerous they can't be released, citing Khalid Sheik Muhammad, the mastermind of 9/11 as an example.
Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress are demanding a plan before they appropriate funds for closing Guantanamo. Obama said he's still working on that, four months after he announced the prison would be closed.
Nor did he say how he would overcome the objections of Congress (and public opinion) to bringing some terrorists to the United States for trial. And he didn't explain how he would get foreign countries to accept some 50 Gitmo prisoners after his initial efforts to persuade them failed.
Obama attacked the Bush administration for having set up the prison at Guantanamo in the first place to house terrorists seized after 9/11. But he didn't present an alternative. He didn't say what he would have done with those prisoners had he been president at the time.
Why give the speech then? Obama wanted to counter criticism for having decided to shutter the prison before figuring out what to do with the prisoners. And his tack was simple: blame everything on the Bush administration and dwell on the tough interrogation tactics the administration used on captured terrorists, tactics Obama said amounted to torture. He described his role as "clean[ing] up the mess" left by Bush.
Not only that, Obama blamed the Bush administration for violating the Constitution, for setting American "principles" aside as "luxuries we couldn't afford," and for failing "to use our values as a compass." And that was only for starters.
The Bush war on terrorism "likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained," he said. He cited no authority for that claim.
Obama's sensitivity to attacks on his Guantanamo policy was underscored by the timing of his speech. It was scheduled at roughly the same time as a speech by former Vice President Dick Cheney. As it turned out, Cheney began his speech at the American Enterprise Institute moments after Obama finished his at the National Archives.
Cheney has emerged as the most prominent critic of Obama's anti-terrorist policies. He defended waterboarding, among other "enhanced interrogation tactics (EIT)," and said it was legal, justified, and "the right thing to do." He said the tactics gained significant information from terrorists about planned attacks and "prevented the violent death of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands," of Americans.
Obama's decision to abandon EITs was "unwise in the extreme" and "recklessness cloaked as righteousness," Cheney said. "Half measures leave you half exposed."
For Obama, being forced to answer criticism by a former vice president had to be slightly embarrassing. The president normally tries to position himself as rising above mere disagreements over politics or policies. That he couldn't do so on these issues suggests that Cheney's criticism has been effective.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.