The most telling thing about President Obama's response to Army General Ray Odierno's impassioned plea to him not to release the eye popping photos showing torture of Iraqi prisoners was not that he gave in to the general. It was what he said to the general when he made the decision. Said the general, "It must have been a hard decision," Obama "No, it wasn't at all."
This was not hyperbole to appease a fawning, jittery, military hard nosed general. Nor was it a chronic case of backsliding, flip-flopping, or betrayal of principle. It was simply President Obama recognizing that he's a young, untested, and perceived liberal Democrat, and therefore widely suspect that he'll be a namby pamby on national security and military toughness. These aren't simply politically volatile issues. They're the political Achilles Heel of Democrats.
Democratic presidents and presidential candidates starting with Clinton have done everything they could to wrap a protective guard around that heel. To do that they had to snatch a page from the GOP playbook that requires them to talk tough on national security and military preparedness. In countless speeches and private talks during the 2000 presidential campaign, Clinton sternly warned the Democrats that if they want to grab the White House they must seize the national security and defense issues from the Republicans. That meant doing and saying nothing that stirs public sensibilities and fears on the war on terrorism and about Democratic military softness. At times, it meant trying to out Bush Bush on the GOP's stock issue of the war on terrorism and national security.
Democratic presidential contenders Al Gore and John Kerry took Clinton's advice to heart with disastrous results. They both tried to strike the tough guy pose. Kerry even said at one point that he'd launch preemptive strikes against terrorists wherever they were and that he would launch search and destroy missions to ferret out Osama and Al-Qaeda. That fooled absolutely no one. Endless polls showed that the voters repeatedly gave Bush huge percentage margins over Kerry when asked who they thought would do a better job in the anti-terror war.
Kerry didn't get it. He kept slamming Bush as being, weak and ineffective in fighting terrorism. He touted his military credentials as a Vietnam combat vet to supposedly prove that he would and could be every bit if not more the hardliner on terrorism than Bush.
During the campaign, Obama with only slight stylistic tweaks pretty much followed the same script as Kerry. He really had no choice. He was viciously baited on the sound of his name, slandered and lied about as a Muslim, and pounded for allegedly not wearing an American flag in his lapel and not hoisting his hand to his heart when the national anthem was played. In the minds of many suspicious Americans, that typed him as inherently questionable on being a stalwart tough guy on terrorism and national defense, and worse unpatriotic. These were all attack points during the campaign for variously McCain, Sarah Palin, the Republican National Committee, and legions of GOP hit bloggers.
McCain waved his credentials as Bush did as the man who you'd want to be in the driver's seat to safeguard national security. The not so subtle message was that Obama wasn't that man.
The polls backed up McCain on that claim. Most found that nearly half of Americans said that Obama was not hard nosed enough on national security and McCain was. That of course, raised hackles among Team Obama and they took great pains to assert their military preparedness credentials. Once in office, liberals grumbled that Obama backpedaled on his promises to totally dismantle the most odious of Bush's torture policies and that included hauling Bush officials accused of condoning torture and illegal wiretapping into a court docket.
The failure to fully reverse Bush torture policies had nothing to do with Obama's merely putting pragmatism over principle, especially since a federal judge had already ordered the photos released. The photos have been widely circulated on the web. More importantly, America's enemies are certainly well aware of and have experienced first hand the full brunt of CIA and military dirty tactics.
Obama's refusal to release the photos was simply another instance of a moderate Democratic president under the intense glare of the military and GOP looking glass doing the politically expedient and necessary thing and that's to kiss the obligatory ring of national security and military toughness. It's also reconfirmation of the time tested political truism in American presidential politics that moderate Democrats always run to the political left in the early stages of a campaign. They then move quickly to the center or even rightward once in the White House.
Obama can't be branded a backslider, betrayer, or flip flopper for trying to do what all moderate Democrats have done and will continue to do. And that's to damp down suspicions that they can't be military tough guys too.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, "The Hutchinson Report" can be heard on weekly in Los Angeles on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and nationally on blogtalkradio.com