Obama's reversal on abuse photos implies puzzle in U.S. anti-terror policy
www.chinaview.cn 2009-05-16 05:39:06   Print

    by Xinhua writer Yang Qingchuan

    WASHINGTON, May 15 (Xinhua) -- Reversing his earlier position, U.S. President Barack Obama said this week that he will block the court-mandated release of hundreds of photos that show past U.S. abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    White House lawyers are reportedly making preparations for a legal fight at the Supreme Court.

    Obama's change of mind came after a careful calculation of political situation, primarily aimed to prevent the sensational story of abuse photo from distracting his major domestic and foreign policy initiatives.

    However, the new attitude risks alienating some from his own political base.

    Moreover, it also points to the complexity of the issue of prisoner abuse and an ethic dilemma for U.S. anti-terror policy which has no easy solutions, observers said.


    The issue of prisoner abuse photos is a George W. Bush-era legacy but its fallout is far from being over.

    In 2004, media release of photos that depicted U.S. soldiers' abuse of prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prisoner infuriated the international community, becoming an icon of the ethic deficit of the U.S.-led war "war on terror."

    Since then, the American Civil Liberty Union, or ACLU, a leading U.S. civil rights group, has been pressing federal courts to order the U.S. government to release abuse photos.

    In 2006, a federal judge in New York ruled in favor of ACLU and ordered the release of photos.

    A federal appeals court upheld the decision last September and refused to rehear the case in March.

    Then on April 24, the Department of Defense under the new administration said it will comply with the court ruling and release hundreds of abuse photos by May 28.

    At the time, the White House said it won't seek to appeal the case.

    However, Obama told his legal team last week that he had changed his mind and asked them to prepare documents trying to block the release of the abuse photos.

    The president made a statement about his new position on Wednesday.

    On surface, Obama made two points in explaining the reversal.

    First, after consulting with top generals on the front-line and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, his conclusion is that the release of the photos will "further inflame anti-American opinion" in Iraq and Afghanistan and thus put nearly 200,000 U.S. troops in those places in "greater danger."

    Secondly, he said the photos wouldn't provide additional knowledge of the issue, and may even cause a "chilling effect" to the ongoing investigation of those past abuses.

    However, legal experts said the two reasons are not new and not adequate.

    Stephen Yeazell, a top scholar on civil litigation rules, said federal courts have already rejected both arguments.

    In September 2008, a federal appeals court in New York ruled that it is "plainly insufficient" for the government to claim that releasing such photos "could reasonably be expected to endanger some unspecified member of a group so vast as to encompass all United States troops."

    It also said the government's argument that releasing those photos would not add any additional benefit to the investigation of abuse "disregards" laws which require governmental accountability.

    Experts said without raising new arguments, the government faces an uphill battle in the Supreme Court.


    Observers said as a well-trained lawyer himself, Obama clearly knows the chance of winning an appeal at a higher court is slim.

    But obviously he made the decision after assessing political pros and cons.

    As the Los Angeles Times put, it may be risky, but "politically necessary."

    One unspoken reason for his reversal of position is that the issue popped up at a crucial juncture for Obama's policy returning toward the Muslim world, with his upcoming key speech on U.S.-Muslim relations to be made in Egypt on June 4.

    The pictures' release before May 28 according to federal court's order, in the new administration's opinion, could have negated the significance of the speech and put the president in an embarrassing position.

    But a more profound reason may be a fear of stirring up a consuming bipartisan war which could endanger the president's major policy agenda.

    Obama clearly learned the lessons from last month's release of memos which showed the Bush administration authorized harsh interrogation techniques on terror suspects.

    The president supported the release, but soon found things slipping out of his hand.

    Right groups and the left wing of the Democratic Party used the memos to make their case for prosecution of top Bush-era officials.

    Republicans fought back, accusing Nancy Pelosi and other leading Democrats were also implicated in the authorizing those techniques.

    Former Vice President Dick Cheney seized the opportunity to launch a media offensive against the Obama administration's national security policy and urged Republicans to take a tougher stand with the administration.

    Obama saw the danger of an all-out bipartisan fight and tried to cool things down.

    His reversal on abuse photos were welcomed by ranking Republicans, including his foe in last year's presidential election, John McCain.


    It's still unclear whether Obama will succeed in putting a lid on the abuse photo controversy and the larger torture-related issue.

    But a comparison between his position on those issues during presidential campaign and his related policies as president, will find a number of gaps.

    The profound reason goes beyond his political calculations and points to a long-term puzzle in U.S. anti-terror policy.

    It's hard for anyone to argue that the decay of U.S. international image over past several years has a lot to do with its controversial policies during "war on terror," including the abuse photos, CIA's "black prisons" and renditions, and Guantanamo.

    Obama has promised to fix the moral deficit and "make things right."

    In his first business day in office, he signed directives to close the Guantanamo prison within one year and called for overhauling the Bush-era system of treating terror suspects.

    However, the president soon found it will be very hard for him to make a complete break from old practices.

    Under the new administration, the practice of transferring terror suspects between countries is continued and detainees are still being held indefinitely in Afghanistan.

    Moreover, On Friday, May 15, Obama announced that he has decided to reinstate Bush-era military tribunals to try some of detainees held at the Guantanamo prison.

    There is nothing wrong for the administration to make decisions which it believes is best for its own country.

    However, it may be an illusion to believe or claim all U.S. policies will become correct both politically and morally.

    The "ethnic deficit" in U.S. anti-terror policies can be reduced, but will be hard to be eliminated. That's a long-term puzzle. 

Editor: Mu Xuequan
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