Fantasies

05.01.13

Should a New York Times Columnist Know What She's Talking About?

Apparently not. Dowd, apparently miffed by Obama's remarks about Aaron Sorkin's liberal fantasy at the correspondents' dinner, which were obviously aimed at her, is at it again today, riffing on some of Obama's remarks at the press conference yesterday:

"But, Jonathan,” he lectured Karl, “you seem to suggest that somehow, these folks over there have no responsibilities and that my job is to somehow get them to behave. That’s their job. They are elected, members of Congress are elected in order to do what’s right for their constituencies and for the American people.”

Actually, it is his job to get them to behave. The job of the former community organizer and self-styled uniter is to somehow get this dunderheaded Congress, which is mind-bendingly awful, to do the stuff he wants them to do. It’s called leadership.

This is ridiculous. It is their job to behave. What we mean by behave is act in some remotely vague way how our founders hoped legislators would act, which most certainly does not include opposing anything and everything of importance that the president proposes. I can guarantee you that no one read those paragraphs this morning with more pleasure (assuming they read them, or had someone read them to them) than John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. The Sorkin-Dowd liberal fantasy lets them completely off the hook, and they know it, and they love every column by people like Dowd and Ron Fournier that proceeds from the assumption that Obama should just be more like the presidents in the movies.

Silly an opinion as it is, it's just an opinion and she's entitled to it. But now we get to actual facts. Dowd writes of Gitmo detainees:

It’s true that Congress put restrictions on transfers of individuals to other countries with bad security situations. But, since 2012, Congress has granted authority to the secretary of defense to waive those restrictions on a case-by-case basis. The administration hasn’t made use of that power once. So it’s a little stale to blame Congress at this point.

Factually true as far as it goes. But it's widely known in national-security circles that that waiver language is highly problematic and was intentionally designed to make any defense secretary or president think really really hard before releasing anyone. Here's the language in the 2013 defense authorization act, which it took me about eight minutes to find this morning. Go to section 1028(b).

I tried to copy and paste it in here, but I couldn't. The long and short of it is that the conditions ("security certifications") that must be met for the release of any detainee are highly onerous and quite obviously designed to make doing so a huge political risk. All this is well-known in national-security and civil-liberties circles. Well-known. Not even to add one sentence of this context is highly misleading to readers. I guess spending eight minutes finding the language of a bill is harder than believing in presidential fairy dust.

UPDATE: I composed this post rather hastily, before I had to take my daughter to school; hence, the repeating myself in those last two grafs. I was also frustrated that for some reason the language from the bill wouldn't copy and paste into the text box, so I was all farblondjet there.

Now, more seriously, the response tweets included one from Armando of Daily Kos, whom I don't know but have enjoyed reading for years, who wrote:

"the conditions for release of detainees designed to make doing so a huge political risk." So Obama can't take risk??

That's a fair point. Maybe Obama should be more willing to take risks on this. But I can well imagine what he is thinking. He releases Yemeni national back to Yemen. Nine months later, there's an attack on the US embassy in Yemen; let's say again resulting in a couple of deaths. Headline: Ex-Gitmo Detainee Involved in Embassy Bombing.

That is an automatic ticket to impeachment. That point is inarguable, right? So I have to admit I'd think long and hard about it if I were president, and I bet deep down Armando would, too.

The problem, according to some experts I've spoken to about the waiver language, is that it's not written in good faith. It's written in bad faith. Now, there is legitimate concern about recidivism rates among terrorists, which are calculated at 28 pecent. That's something, law or no law, any president and secdef would need to take seriously while pondering any release.

But the waiver language is not written to say, Mr. President, use your best judgment. It's written as a trap. And it's true in this case that Democrats went along, but it was likely that the Republicans would have filibustered the defense authorization bill, accusing the Democrats of insisting on "soft on terror" positions. It might also be noted that Obama did threaten a veto over some of these provisions. He didn't do it, but even to threaten it could be scored as "risky" inasmuch as he opened himself up to accusations of being squishy on terrorists.

It's the same old story: congressional (and largely though not wholly Republican) bad faith. Maybe if the Democrats hold the Senate in 2014, and Obama will know that the Republicans can't remove him from office in a partisan witchhunt, then he'll be a little more willing to take some risks along these lines, who knows.