One of the biggest traditional liabilities of the Democratic Party, particularly since the election of Ronald Reagan, has been its perception as weak on national security.
The end of the Cold War gave the party a new lease on life, but 9/11 propelled Bush to office. His comparative incompetence, particularly in waging a wasteful and prolonged “nation building” effort in Iraq, turned back the dial towards a more realistic and restrained foreign policy championed by Obama.
That said, Obama misreads the public if he thinks all but a few of us care much about the long-suffering detainees in GITMO or whether Khalid Sheikh Mohammad was water-boarded or much else that Bush did in the wake of 9/11 to treat al Qaeda as a military problem to be dealt with by military means, including targeted killings, streamlined military tribunals, and prolonged preventitive detention for the duration of the conflict.
Bringing Khalid Sheikh Mohammad to Manhattan for a civilian federal trial is the repudiation of all of these efforts, for which GITMO itself is only a symbol. The prospect of a circus, complete with condemnations of America, divulgence of our intelligence apparatus, and lengthy and cumbersome procedures is the wrong tool for the job and will do much to demonstrate why al Qaeda is a different kind of problem from an ordinary criminal conspiracy.
Let us only hope that the lesson is not written in blood in the form of a spectacular escape, a terrorist attack on the trial site itself, the murder of a federal judge, or, perhaps worst of all, an acquittal based on the application of civil liberties inappropriate and unearned by foreign enemies of the United States.