Obama's Administration of Grand Gestures

In its first week the Obama administration revealed itself to be infatuated with dramatic gestures and sweeping pronouncements: Guantanamo is going to be closed, enhanced interrogation ended, Middle East peace re-established, Iraq to be "left" to the Iraqis, and bipartisanship restored. But the reality is quite different, leaving open the question as to whether President Obama really believes his own rhetoric or is slyly wielding symbolism to conceal the very familiar contours of his not-so-groundbreaking policies.

He announces Guantanamo will close, but not really anytime soon. They haven't figured out what to do with the detainees and how we are going to conduct the legal proceedings. So due process grinds to a halt and the detainees sit in Guantanamo. The Left swoons with the grand sentiment, but nothing has changed. It is hard to see what will be done with the detainees. Put them in the U.S.? Not if the home state politicians have anything to say. Repatriate them to their own countries where they'd be subject to torture? Not very humane.

One of the savvier Democrats, Rep. Jane Harman declared that it is "shocking and disappointing" that a released Guantanamo prisoner is now heading up al-Qaeda in Yemen. She does know that over sixty of the Guantanamo releasees have appeared back on the battlefield, right? Gosh, this Guantanamo stuff is harder than it looks.

Underneath all the hoopla it is not clear that much if anything will change. Josh Gerstein warns: "There may be less than meets the eye to the executive orders President Obama issued yesterday to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and prohibit the torture of prisoners in American custody. Those pronouncements may sound dramatic and unequivocal, but experts predict that American policy towards detainees could remain for months or even years pretty close to what it was as President Bush left office."

As Gerstein points out, the same day that Guantanamo was ordered to be "closed" President Obama ordered the end to enhanced interrogation techniques and directed the CIA to abide by the U.S. Army Field Manual, which prohibits even tactics such as sleep deprivation. But once again, in the specifics we find a slightly different reality. The president's advisers will report back to tell him if perhaps some exceptions might be needed -- when it really is important to get critical information from a terrorist. The Wall Street Journal dubbed this the "Jack Bauer exception":

The unfine print of Mr. Obama's order is that he's allowed room for what might be called a Jack Bauer exception. It creates a committee to study whether the Field Manual techniques are too limiting "when employed by departments or agencies outside the military." The Attorney General, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Director of National Intelligence-designate Dennis Blair will report back and offer "additional or different guidance for other departments or agencies."

In other words, Mr. Obama's Inaugural line that "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals" was itself misrepresenting the choices his predecessor was forced to make. At least President Bush was candid about the practical realities of preventing mass casualties in the U.S.

Meanwhile, President Obama also appointed George Mitchell as Middle East envoy. Ignoring the efforts of the Bush and Clinton administrations to find a legitimate "partner" for Israel to negotiate with, Obama declared a whole new era in Middle East peace efforts -- which bore an uncanny resemblance to just about everything his predecessors had done or said on the subject for the last decade.