The Ripon Forum

Volume 44, No. 2

Spring 2010 Issue

Learning Lessons the Hard Way

By on October 24, 2014


A high priority for President Obama has been to improve the international perception of the United States and its policies.  He has made numerous trips abroad, making speeches to appeal to foreign audiences.  Here at home, he has faced criticism that he is “apologizing for America.”

The President’s “image rehabilitation” mindset is not a new development. One of his major campaign themes was that “America’s ability to lead is set back because we are perceived as arrogant.”  He has told Europeans we have been dismissive, even derisive. Accordingly, upon taking office the President lost no time in his quest to gain greater international popularity when he announced on January 22, 2009, he would close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within a year.

Some people heralded this move as an important symbolic gesture.  But the GTMO decision is much bigger than that.  A number of fundamental legal and policy issues surrounding our effort to protect the nation from terrorist attacks come together at Guantanamo. Among the questions are: does every captured terrorist have the full due process rights of American citizens?  How much should we weigh the opinion of foreign governments and publics in formulating our national security policies?  Is the effort to stop terrorist attacks primarily a war or a criminal enforcement action?

The facility at Guantanamo is ideal for housing and trying terrorists.  It is a carefully controlled environment.  It is largely new constructions and state-of-the-art. It is isolated, simplifying security concerns, with detainees finding it difficult to escape and sympathizers finding it difficult to reach.

Perhaps more importantly, Guantanamo facilitates treating captured terrorists as enemy combatants rather than affording them the full rights and privileges due to U.S. citizens.  The precedent for doing so is strong. Presidents have detained enemy combatants in every major conflict in our history.

The President seems to be learning the hard way that when it comes to national security, style does not relegate substance irrelevant.

The legal and policy issues that converge at Guantanamo are more than symbolic.  They have serious implications for our security. In fact, we saw a glimpse of the problems created by treating terrorists as criminals on Christmas Day. After 50 minutes of questioning, accused bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was read his Miranda rights, including the right to remain silent.  He took us up on that. After outcry here at home, the Administration responded by leaking to the media that Abdulmutallab resumed cooperating sometime later. But, even effective “spin” from the White House press office cannot minimize the danger of failing to get timely information at the point of capture to help prevent additional terrorist attacks.The President seems to be learning the hard way that when it comes to national security, style does not relegate substance irrelevant. Since his announcement that Guantanamo would close, he has discovered a whole host of problems and complications which have prevented him from keeping his self-imposed deadline.  He has been forced to abandon his effort to try key terrorists in New York City and he also has lost the publicity battle over the cost of converting a domestic prison to house Guantanamo detainees.  Both instances have been public relations embarrassments for the President and his Attorney General, and have helped leave aspects of our security hanging in the balance.At their core, these public relations snafus show just how difficult it is to ground policy in symbolism. Sure, symbols and symbolic acts are real and can matter. The fight against terrorists is, in part, a war of ideas.  If young Muslims are joining the terrorist ranks faster than the West can remove them from the worldwide battlefield, we are losing the fight.  So effective efforts to persuade young people to pursue more constructive and peaceful ways to address their grievances must have a high priority.

But symbolic gestures are not the same as effective programs.  We cannot allow our terrorism policies to devolve into a quest for international popularity. Doing so would not only be fruitless and unobtainable, it would actually increase the dangers we face.

…symbolic gestures are not the same as effective programs.  We cannot allow our terrorism policies to devolve into a quest for international popularity.

Positive perception is an important diplomatic and communications tool.  However, I suspect that there is a difference in how people in a number of other countries respond to poll questions based on how they are asked.  There is also a high likelihood that people around the world do not believe that the U.S. should tie its own hands in stopping terrorist attacks.  The fact is that the world counts on the United States to lead the efforts stop terrorists. Both our domestic security and that of the world depend on our leadership in this realm. Now is not the time to change that.

Any President’s first responsibility is to protect and defend the country. Winning greater international favor and cooperation is part of this duty and can contribute to American national security. However, international image campaigns are no substitute for real and effective actions to thwart terrorist attacks. The facility at Guantanamo gives the United States a unique opportunity to deal with terrorists as enemy combatants and to keep them off of the battlefield.  It is not a capability we should throw away to keep a campaign promise. America’s security demands more than on the job training. Security trumps symbolism – hopefully the President now recognizes it.


Mac Thornberry represents the 13th District of Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives. A member of the House Armed Services Committee, he serves as Ranking Member on the Permanent Select Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence. He also serves as a member of The Ripon Society’s Honorary Congressional Advisory Board.

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