Military tribunals make perfect sense for members of al Qaeda. These individuals are non-citizens, their prosecution often depends on sensitive intelligence, and their presence in American courtrooms would be disruptive and a security risk. In war, military tribunals have been used from the Revolutionary War forward, and their streamlined procedures, ability to hold proceedings in secret, and capacity for swift justice recommend them over civilian procedures designed for ordinary crimes. Of course, the years-long delays in trials for Guantanamo Bay prisoners and the failure, since 9/11, to execute huge numbers of al Qaeda members in our custody suggests the “swiftness” part is not taken seriously enough by the executive branch. By contrast, in World War II, Germans using American uniforms to infiltrate allied lines and disrupt American units during the Battle of the Bulge were summarily executed. But, even so, these tribunals are preferable to the alternative, even if their potential efficiency has not bee employed to great effect.
So it is with a mixture of happiness and schadenfreude that I learn the Obama adminsitration is going to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammad in a military tribunal down in Guantanmo Bay. Recall that Obama and many of his supporters preened self-righteously about the demerits of preventitive detention, the need to accord al Qaeda detainees full POW status, the evils of military tribunals, the inhumanity of drone attacks and much else during the 2008 campaign and before. That is, the left didn’t only rail against the War in Iraq, where they had a point. They also railed against every aspect of the war against al Qaeda.
On both fronts–preventitive war and the use of cedures for terrorists–Obama is in retreat. He is realizing that most Americans don’t really give a fig about terrorists, they want them killed or captured, and simply have the minimal humane concern that innocent goatherders be returned to their families if they can be reliably identifiied. We all know, and Obama and his buddies forgot, that the burdens of proof are shifted in wartime and that we must err on the side of safety, particularly as we face a foreign, ruthless, and uncivilized enemy that deliberately hides among civilians. It is not America’s fault that the innocent Afghanis and al Qaeda terrorists appear similar; it’s al Qaeda’s, with their ragamuffin appearance and terrorist tactics.
I’d like to think this decision is a sign of Obama growing in office, but it appears more like simple triangulation. Just as he dropped his lifelong obsession with gun control once he became president and realized it was political dynamite, it’s obvious that his views on foreign policy and the law of war were mostly campaign props, instincts developed from years in liberal Hyde Park, rather than well thought out positions. Here he has been temporarily burdened by the incompetent Eric Holder’s “true believer” implemntation of these principles, but Obama’s political instincts are not so terrible than a guaranteed loser–such as a face off with 9/11 Families in NYC–is going to be pursued to the bitter end. Even on his signature issue, race and American identity, he left his pastor of 20 years when it became a problem.
We are reminded from all this and much else that Obama is not a man of high principle; his chief principle is his love of self and his interest in political survival. And thus all that “hope and change” rhetoric is now quite obviously a bunch of gliterring genrealities uttered by a thoroughly ordinary politician.