At the height of the 1988 Presidential campaign, then-candidate Vice President George H. W. Bush stood at the podium of the Republican National Convention in New Orleans and uttered six words that helped seal his election as the 41st President of the United States: “Read my lips, no new taxes!” With a cheering crowd roaring approval, Bush solidified the support of wary conservatives behind his candidacy and rode it all the way to the White House.
Two years later in summer 1990, amidst very difficult budget talks with a fairly hostile Congress, President Bush reneged on his famous pledge and did what he promised he would not do – raise taxes. The reaction by hard-line conservatives who were long suspicious of Bush’s conservatism was merciless. Regardless of the conditions of the economy, the Federal budget, his less-than-strong negotiation position, and his nearly flawless performance in assembling an international coalition to defeat and remove Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from Kuwait, there was nothing he could do that could redeem him in their eyes. Bush’s broken promise was a big reason why conservative writer and pundit Pat Buchanan ran against him in the 1992 Presidential primaries and the conservative base abandoned him during his re-election effort, making Bill Clinton’s successful presidential campaign against him that much easier. After one term, one of the most qualified (and decent) men ever to occupy the Oval Office was told to move along.
Now, fast forward from 1988 to the year 2000, where a young Senator from Illinois stands before enthusiastic audiences from Iowa to Denver to Chicago and the steps of the U.S. Capital promising to close down the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Catering to a liberal base that wanted to do anything that was opposite of the 43rd President, George W. Bush, the crowds enveloped him with cheers and carried him forward to the White House via a landslide. Then-candidate Obama’s promise became one of the cornerstones of his national security vision and one that he was anxious to enact as soon as possible. He wasted no time in seeking to fulfill that promise when, on his second day in office, he signed an Executive Order to close the Guantanamo facility and deal with its challenging inhabitants.
Obama declared at the signing of the Executive Order closing the facility that we were restoring the “moral high ground” of the United States in its war on terrorism, and that our country does not have “to continue with a false choice between our safety and our ideals.” It was a bold declaration to the nation and the world, but Obama did not say what to do with those housed at the camp. Rather, he tasked people to figure out what to do with the Guantanamo residents.
A funny thing seems to happen after two years. Reality sets in and the promises that candidates make that give them rousing cheers, pander to political bases and garner votes to put them well over the top, confront a bruising reality called the real world. Reality bites, and this is one of those times for Barack Obama.
That brings us to the news of the past few days. Guantanamo will stay open, its residents will stay put and military tribunals will make a comeback faster than Charlie Sheen can say, “Duh, Winning!”
I find the hypocrisy of this situation illuminating. For years, both during the campaign and during his presidency, President Obama mercilessly piled on President Bush and his Administration for Guantanamo, decrying its moral depravity. In reading Bush’s recent memoir, Decision Points, the former president is fairly clear he wasn’t particularly thrilled to have a facility like Guantanamo in operation either. But when it came time to find a place to put those captured on the battlefields of war on terror – those who could have intelligence on potential attacks on the U.S. homeland or its military forces – something needed to be done with them. For better or worse, Guantanamo became that home.
I fully understand and respect why people are not happy about Guantanamo. Truth be told, I’m not overly thrilled with having it either. At our heart and core, we are a nation of laws and principles, and Guantanamo challenges those on many levels. Those laws and principles will always stand fast, but there are no easy solutions in dealing with people who don’t belong to a country, are not part of any recognized military force, and whose sole existence is hell-bent on your country’s destruction and murder of its citizens. No president of either political party or ideology would in their right mind seek to release any such individual with the chance that they would execute such acts. It is not just politically unfeasible, it violates the 37-word Oath of Office that every President raises their right hand and swears to uphold.
At the present time, the President is in no immediate danger of losing members of his liberal base. Despite their annoyance with him over his decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the lack of a public option in his Healthcare bill, they really have no place to go. Activist liberal leaders such as Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), former Gov. Howard Dean and former Sen. Russ Feingold have all declared that they won’t challenge President Obama in the Democratic primaries, but Obama’s flip-flop on this issue is still worthy of note.
For all of the incessant talk about “change,” there is a big, bad, tough and ugly world that is in the “inbox” of whoever resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That is never going to change. The pandering of political candidates proclaiming that they will make everything upright and wonderful flies in the very face of those realities. In the end, those realities end up biting you in the keister. That’s the reality that the Obama Administration now has to deal with. The President made a pandering promise that he can’t keep and never had a chance of keeping in the first place.
I wonder if anyone will remember that in two years?