Obama braves lonely ground on Guantanamo

May 22, 2009 12:00 am

, WASHINGTON, May 22 – President Barack Obama is betting that his popularity and the power of his arguments will sustain him on risky political ground on Guantanamo Bay that neither his critics nor his supporters care to occupy.

Vowing to shut the "war on terror" prisoner camp within a year but to retain elements of Bush-era military tribunals to try the most dangerous detainees, Obama Thursday tried to quell a debate that seems to be slipping from his control.

He blasted Republicans who brand him soft on terror, and liberals and civil libertarians who say he is betraying their hopes with a halfway house solution.

"Both sides may be sincere in their views, but neither side is right," Obama said, speaking in the shadow of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution at the National Archives.

"The American people are not absolutist, and they don’t elect us to impose a rigid ideology on our problems," he added.

The president’s argument took opposing views, knocked them down and then assembled his own strategy.

But it was an open question whether such a nuanced approach could break through the shrill debate on Capitol Hill.

On a compelling day of political theater, unrepentant former vice president Dick Cheney rode into battle, refusing to disown the harsh interrogations carried out under former president George W. Bush which Obama has banned.

Cheney identified Obama’s search for a way between two extremes as a fatal flaw which would expose America to terrorist attacks.

"In the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half-exposed," Cheney said.

"You cannot keep just some nuclear-armed terrorists out of the United States; you must keep every nuclear-armed terrorist out of the United States."

But Obama may not worry too much about picking a fight with Cheney, a remnant from an administration which ended with rock-bottom approval ratings.

A ABC/News Washington Post poll last month found that 62 percent of those asked approved of Obama’s conduct of the US anti-terror campaign.

A CNN poll this week found that only 35 percent of Americans had a favorable view of Cheney.

Even so, and under fire from liberals and Republicans alike, Obama needs to address softening support on his Guantanamo closure plan from members of his own party.

On Tuesday, several Senate Democrats joined Republicans in a vote stripping 80 million dollars Obama had requested to shutter the Guantanamo from a 91.3-billion-dollar war spending bill.

Democratic lawmakers, many of whom face reelection next year, seem loathe to support the transfer to US jails of high-value Al-Qaeda terror suspects.

"Senate Democrats look forward to reviewing the details of the administration’s plan when it is released, and to working with the president to keep Americans safe and bring to justice those who seek to do us harm," Senate Majority leader Harry Reid said Thursday.

Republican minority leader Senator Mitch McConnell sought to drive a wedge between Democrats and their president.

"A big, flowering campaign speech is fine, but what the Congress voted for yesterday is not for a speech, but for a plan," he said.

John Boehner, the top Republican in the House of Representatives, was even more curt. "Where is the plan, Mr President?"

In the speech, Obama argued that Guantanamo cost the United States more in a sullied national image and soiled moral authority than it would to close it.

"America must demonstrate that our values and institutions are more resilient than a hateful ideology," Obama said.


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