21 November 2009

Fighting the Wrong Courtroom Battle

Ever since Attorney General Eric Holder announced that a number of high-profile al-Qaida terrorists were going to be tried in a civilian court in New York City, conservatives have screamed bloody murder--often literally. Probably with the best intentions, they have denounced the decision as a snub to logic and the Constitution, to the safety and emotions of 9/11 survivors and their families, to law and morality. Their arguments are mostly wrong.

There is definitely some truth in their objections, though. The idea that Khalid Sheikh-Mohammed (KSM) ought to be tried in a civilian court is certainly ludicrous. As a war criminal he has no place before a civilian federal judge and the implication of Holder's decision, namely that the military court system does not guarantee defendants' rights adequately, is certainly an outrageous insult to American democracy. But once you have made that step, then only New York City can be the 'logical' choice. As the primary scene of the attack, that jurisdiction naturally has dibs. And yet the objection that many New Yorkers will now have to go through an excruciating media extravaganza, dragging up September 11, 2001 all over again, is no empty claim. These war criminals have no place being in New York to stand trial.

And yet, the battle that many conservatives are waging is the wrong one. For instance, Paul Greenberg, at Townhall.com, insists that the only place for these criminals is in "a secure military court room in Guantanamo." But this is premised on the notion that Guantanamo is outside of the United States, which it is not, as the U.S. Supreme Court has essentially affirmed. The decision by the Bush administration to detain illegal combatants in Guantanamo was naturally based on this perception: that U.S. law would not apply there, since it is only leased from Cuba and therefore technically part of Cuba. Forestalling legal challenges in this manner would buy the administration time to figure out what to do with these people. But through vigorous pursuit in the justice system, opponents of this policy have won the argument and it has been made clear that U.S. law does extend to Guantanamo, and thus that detainees do have certain rights under the Constitution.

This makes the whole notion that Holder is "bringing these terrorists into the US" preposterous. They already are in the United States, even while detained in Guantanamo. They can be tried there or anywhere else--it makes no difference. As long as they are tried the right way: in a military court system, whether the special tribunals set up by the Bush administration (and sanctioned by both Congress and the Supreme Court) or the regular military courts.

Conservative opponents of the Obama administration are making the debate more complicated by focusing on the wrong battle. It is not that we need to keep these terrorists at Guantanamo, come what may, since their location is not of prime importance. By highlighting emotional arguments, such as the feelings of New Yorkers, or the complexity of security during the trial, or the proximity of the court room to Ground Zero, they are losing track of the important arguments and in the process making themselves and other critics of the Obama administration look silly and unserious.

The real problem is, and has always been, making sure the right evidence can be presented without jeopardizing national security by revealing important classified materials. By moving the trial into the civilian court--which has different rules of engagement--Obama and Holder have done exactly that: they have lessened the chances of a legal and convincing conviction of a self-confessed terrorist. Much of the evidence likely won't be admissible in New York's federal court, while some of the other evidence will not be presented because it is classified. This decision has underscored all the more that Barack Obama and Eric Holder simply cannot be taken seriously. Their incompetence has long since stopped "bordering" on being criminally negligent. By putting the United States at risk with such feel-good, ludicrous decisions, they ought to be kicked out of office at the soonest opportunity.

17 November 2009

Sarah Palin and the Future of the Republican Party

Sarah Palin has a new book out, Going Rogue, leading to much controversy in the media. I have not read the book and feel no inclination to do so. The question being asked, again, is whether Sarah Palin has any future in national politics, or more exactly, whether Sarah Palin is the future of the Republican Party. Many political commentators in the media dismiss Palin as a side show with no future in politics, including CBS' Bob Schieffer while appearing on CBS Early Show on November 16. But moderate conservative David Brooks also laughed Palin out of court. Appearing as a guest on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos he said, "Yeah, she's a joke...Republican primary voters just are not going to elect a talk show host."

Conservative media watchdogs like the Media Research Center have blasted Brooks as a token conservative for his betrayal of Palin, and have generally derided the anti-Palin mood in the media as another example of shrill leftwing opinionating in the liberal mass media. So, does Palin have a future in national politics?

My opinion of Palin is complicated. I endorsed McCain and Palin in the 2008 presidential election. I heartily supported Mr McCain as an honorable man, a true war hero, and among a handful of honest politicians in Washington who has tried mightily over the years to promote smart political compromises that advanced conservative principles--rather than the crazy extremist tactics employed by talking heads on the radio which went nowhere. I was initially intrigued by McCain's choice of Palin as his running mate. What little I knew of her suggested she was at least a good, conservative governor. I have still not seen evidence that she was a fraud, a hack, or an incompetent boob in that job.

I have seen other things, however, that have led me to the conclusion that she is not presidential material. Her dreadful performances during national interviews, even granting the unfair questioning she received when compared to the softballs that Joe Biden got tossed, suggest to me that she lacks the intellectual seriousness to run for office in Washington. To not know details about certain foreign policy issues would have been excusable, but her answers to questions seemed to reveal a lack of interest. These were not her personal answers; they were carefully rehearsed endorsed opinions from the McCain machine and she was unable to defend those positions.

Sarah Palin is, I am sure, a fine woman who seems to have done an above-average job as governor of Alaska. She has a certain media appeal that would make her an interesting commentator on TV. But it is this media appeal that would stand in the way of her pursuit of any serious political office. She comes across as someone who will do anything for the effect it will have on the TV screen.

She will be able to amass a certain following among conservatives in the country. The "hockey mom/soccer mom" crowd that attends evangelical churches will genuinely be attracted to her. But even among these people there will be enough doubters to prevent this following to rise above the "Huckabee Level." In a Republican primary she might hang on a little longer than completely new contenders, thanks to her loyal followers. But in the end, I do not believe that she will be able to convince a large enough portion of the Republican primary voters that she is a serious politician. I do not expect to hear from her again after the next presidential election except perhaps as a political commentator in some media format.

The Republican Party is already going another direction. Despite the recent complaints from Democratic politicians and liberal activists that the GOP has become the party of No in its persistent rejection of President Obama's social-democrat agenda, real policy alternatives are being developed by serious politicians. Currently, this rebranding and renewal of the party is still in an embryonic stage, as the party lacks a real leader, but it is at least clear that David Brooks is correct that this development is not going in the direction where media mouths rule the party.