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April 01, 2010

One Progressive's Two Red Lines
Posted by David Shorr

Two policy decisions where I see particularly high stakes are on the White House docket to be decided any day, so I thought I'd offer one more plea. (Consider it a closing argument.) President Obama should really stand firm on prosecuting terrorists in regular civilian courts and declaring that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter and retaliate against nuclear attack by others. A reversal on either issue would not be a tactical retreat, but a strategic defeat in the detainee or nuclear policy debate. In other words, the lasting impact would be to severely shrink the political space for future policies. There would be a high cost that is sure to haunt debates over other decisions down the line.

On civilian versus military trials, what Adam Serwer said:

This would be a useless concession--the money for closing Guantanamo Bay is in the Afghan War funding bill; it will limit the administration's future options in fighting terrorism because it will encourage Republicans to insist that all Muslims accused of terrorism be tried in military commissions, and it will delegitimize the proceedings in the eyes of communities whom the U.S. most needs to persuade that it stands for the rule of law...

This would be a bad decision on the merits, but it would also be a bad political decision. Does the administration believe that Republicans will cease their incessant criticisms of the Obama administration despite its continuity of Bush-era national-security policies once they've made this concession? Because they won't -- for that to be the case, this would actually have to be an argument about policy rather than political gamesmanship. No matter what decisions the administration makes on national security policy, the Republicans will move to the right and accuse Obama of not being serious about fighting terrorism.

As I've said before, progressives have a strong argument to stand up for faith in the American system of law and refusing to let that system be terrorized. All you have to do is dig barely below the surface of this debate to realize that the chief function of the military in this debate is a shallow symbolism of toughness. What comes next? Commandos on commercial airliners instead of air marshals? Remanding detainees to the custody of Delta Force? The only thing to add is to highlight the excellent advocacy on this issue by Human Rights First, including the voices of retired senior military officers as proponents of civilian trials.

On the declared purpose of nuclear weapons, what Mort Halperin, Jeffrey Lewis, Daryl Kimball, Kevin Knobloch, John Isaacs, David Culp and Chris Paine (and several others) said in their recent letter to the president on the impending nuclear posture review (NPR):

It is inconceivable today that you or any other president would conclude the first use of nuclear weapons is in our national interest, especially in light of our conventional military power. Indeed, the logical corollary to your call to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons is that all non-nuclear threats can be met with a conventional response. The new NPR should clearly narrow the purpose of nuclear weapons to deterring nuclear attacks on the United States and our allies, and it should assure states without nuclear weapons that are parties in good standing to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that they will not face nuclear threats from the United States.

Ambiguity about the purpose of U.S. nuclear forces provides little deterrent value at a high cost; it undermines the credibility of our conventional deterrent, complicates our nonproliferation diplomacy, and can be used by other countries to justify their pursuit or improvement of nuclear weapons.

For this issue, the other side of the debate is not the opposing political party, but inside the administration, for instance the assistant secretaries of state for Europe and East Asia, as explained by Marc Ambinder over at The Atlantic. Now that the United States has a more far-sighted policy of reducing the role, levels, and dangers of nuclear weapons, the posture review represents an opportunity to set aside -- once and for all -- all the thinking-the-unthinkable scenarios and rationalizations for having and potentially using nuclear weapons. As you deal with the various steps and elements of your policy, Mr. President, believe me, you'll be glad you did.

On both matters, the indications have not been positive, so all I can do is hope, keep putting in my two cents, and call attention to the stakes.


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