Obama's Gitmo Tribunal Move: From Campaign Poetry To Governing Prose

President Obama, April 1, 2011.

President Obama, April 1, 2011. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

There was some irony Monday that President Obama's re-election campaign started on the same day his administration reversed itself and said it would now hold military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay for terrorist suspects, including Khalid Sheik Muhammad, the alleged chief planner of the Sept. 11, 2011 attacks.

The web video that was part of the re-election announcement was muted, a far cry from the grand rally in Springfield, Ill. in which the president announced in 2007 his first campaign for the White House.

It symbolized the difference between campaigning as a would-be president and as the White House incumbent.

Similarly, the tribunal decision underscored the difference between campaigning and governing. The idealism of a freshman senator running for the White House was forced to bend to Washington's inescapable political realities.

It was yet one more proof of the adage that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose.

As a presidential candidate in 2007 and 2008, no candidate was more poetic than Obama as he sought to contrast what he saw as his adherence to human rights and the U.S. Constitution versus President George W. Bush's ends-justify-means approach.

In an August 2007 speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center titled "The War We Need To Win," Obama said:

I have faith in America's courts, and I have faith in our JAGs. As President, I will close Guantanamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists.

Obama may have had faith in the American system of civil justice, in legal advisers like Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe who counseled that Guantanamo could be closed and even in his own powers of persuasion.

But he ran into a fierce political buzzsaw of resistance to having Guantanamo detainees tried in U.S. criminal courts.

The NIMBY syndrome strongly kicked in when New York lawmakers considered the actual possibility of terrorist suspects the Bush Administration had long called the "worst of the worst" being tried in Manhattan.

So the president appeared to have little choice but to let go of his campaign pledge. He would just have to deal with the political downside of being frequently reminded that he broke one of his most memorable promises of the 2008 campaign.

It didn't take long for the reminders to start coming. At Monday's White House briefing by press secretary Jay Carney, a reporter asked:

Now that the president is officially running for reelection, how
does he explain this reversal to his supporters, many of whom voted for him in part because of his commitment to closing Guantanamo and ending the military tribunals?

MR. CARNEY: Well, as you know, Julie, the president's commitment
here is this: those who are suspected and accused of participating in those heinous attacks be brought to justice. That is his primary
concern. For details on this decision, I think you are going to hear
from the attorney general at 2 p.m. today, who will have a lot more to say about this, so I direct you to that press conference.

REPORTER: But in terms of what the president will — his supporters who will look at this and say that he is going back on a promise he made during his 2008 campaign, what's his message going to be?

MR. CARNEY: Again I would refer you to the attorney general's
statement later today, but I think that the president's primary
concern here is that the perpetrators — the accused perpetrators of
that terrible attack on the American people be brought to justice as
swiftly as possible and as fairly as possible.

Fortunately for Obama, there's no serious primary challenger for the Democratic nomination who could make his reversal an issue with the president's political base.

And since Obama finally came around to the Guantanamo position generally held by Republicans, he's now somewhat neutralized if not fully insulated himself from GOP attacks on this national security issue; they can still criticize him for pledging to quickly close Guantamo and hold trials in the criminal courts system in the first place.

Perhaps the worst of this is that when the president eventually starts to stump for his re-election in the poetry of a campaign, Monday's decision could serve as a prose reminder of the limits on his ability to govern.

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