President Obama will try Khalid Sheik Mohammed at a facility he vowed to close and by a process he harshly condemned.
In finally deciding to try the 9/11 mastermind at Guantanamo Bay before a military commission, the president is personally acting out Winston Churchill’s adage about America always doing the right thing after exhausting all the alternatives.
#ad#In one of his first acts as president, Obama signed an executive order to shutter Gitmo within a year. In late 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder followed up by announcing that he would try KSM in New York City. Ever since, it has been one reversal after another in a legal version of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. The administration now hopes to return to the situation circa January 2009, when it cut short KSM’s military trial to embark on its long, pointless meandering.
Where does George W. Bush go to get his apology? The prior statements of Obama and his top officials on Gitmo and the commissions are an embarrassing farrago of amateurish, self-righteous posturing — tripe more fit for the opinion columns of a student newspaper than for the counsels of government.
Sen. Obama maintained that we “compromised our most precious values” in setting up “the detention cells of Guantanamo”; that Gitmo and the military commissions represent “a legal framework that does not work”; and that Gitmo is a terrorist recruiting tool. It is to this ineffectual, terrorist-recruiting system that violates everything we hold dear that President Obama now looks for swift justice in the matter of KSM.
One might think that this turnabout would cause Obama and Co. to reconsider their harsh denunciations of policies they have made their own. Judging by Holder’s strangely combative press conference announcing the KSM decision, however, they’ll never admit they were wrong — just stymied by a foolish Congress reflecting the backward views of Americans unenthusiastic about high-profile terror trials in their backyards.
Holder said the administration will work to overturn congressional restrictions on bringing Gitmo detainees into the U.S., a cause so quixotic it makes Holder’s original plan for a KSM trial in the Big Apple look levelheaded and well considered by comparison. The AG is loath to let the dream of civilian trials die. He denounced “unfair and often unfounded criticism” of the civilian justice system, fuming that it’s “not only misguided, it’s wrong.”
Yet it’s not an affront against the system to question its suitability for a task for which it was never intended: trying alien combatants who committed an act of war against us. These enemies of the United States don’t deserve the rights and privileges of American citizens. Nor do they deserve a gigantic media soapbox in a forum allowing them to put on trial our War on Terror.
They should get basic due process, in a system built for the special circumstances of an ongoing war, in a place that’s safe and doesn’t entail massive new security measures — in other words, military commissions at Guantanamo Bay. If Gitmo didn’t already exist, we’d have to invent it.
If Obama’s crew had been capable of any sympathy for U.S. officials coping with an unconventional war, they might have realized that Guantanamo Bay wasn’t created on a mere whimsy, or for the sole purpose of blackening the reputation of the United States. In their self-congratulatory naïveté, they refused to see that Gitmo had nothing to recommend it except that it was better than any alternative.
By the end, even President Bush wanted to close the place. The problem then — as now — is what to do with all the people we know are dangerous but don’t have the evidence to put on trial. As we’ve released more and more Gitmo detainees, more and more have been returning to the fight.
The Obama administration should have greater appreciation for this and other hellish dilemmas now. It’s called growing up — the hard way.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.