Saturday, April 25, 2009

Obama's Leadership and the CIA memos

My favorite definition of leadership: leadership is about disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.

By that measure, President Barack Obama is now facing the toughest leadership test of his 100-day old Presidency. He made an Obama-like decision, looking forward and not backward, to not investigate or prosecute those responsible for carrying out the "enhanced interrogation" methods on al Queda suspects in 2002 and 2003.

Curageously, he went to the CIA and faced those most worried about the backlash from the memos and his condemnation of the techniques they authorized.

As Obama surely expected, the release of the memos generated criticism on the right and a new wave of publicly expressed angst on the left from the usual sources, such as Senator Patrick Leahy and MoveOn. And then, inevitably, they were soon followed by a self-righteous column from NYT columnist Paul Krugman.

My assumption is that Obama assumed that predictable sources on the right and left would vent for a while and then it would all blow over, as happened with his selection of Reverend Rick Warren to particpate in the Inauguration.

But then he made a tactical error. Courting trouble, but presumablky to try to calm the waters hestirrede up on the left, Obama allowed for the possibility of prosecuting the authorizers of the now-banned behavior. (Presumably he would have to include those Members of Congress from both political parties on the Senate and House Intelligence Committees who, according to Congressman Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, had been briefed on the techniques and has approved the funding them.)

Obama is walking a razor's edge here. He has given those who seek a pound of flesh from the Bushies an avenue for doing so. He had been willing to take heat from both extremes for his release-the-memos-condemn-the-methods-but-no-retribution stance, to avoid what he believed was the worst scenario, a long, divisive, partisan, ideological, and diversionary series of investigations and prosecutions. Now, under pressure, he may have opened the door just enough to get that dreaded outcome as well.

As we learned from the ridiculous Clinton impeachment process, nothing can come from such show trials except taking the attention and energy of Congress and we the people away from the tough choices the country is having to face in order to get the economy moving again.

And as we learned from Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon (and have been reminded by Gerald Seib in his recent Wall Street Journal column), the political fallout from trying to avoid a long, drawn out show trial can be considerable.

This is not South Africa where a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was needed to try to heal the great decades-long scar of apartheid that had split the country in two.

Obama was right to balance government truth-telling with no looking backward, tactically wrong to throw a bone to his critics on the left. He may be risking his other priorities being sidelined if the Justice Department or the Congress start looking for scapegoats big time.

With his re-election still 3 1/2 years away and lots of other problems facing the country, there maybe enough time for Obama to get by this one.

But from a leadership perspective, it is not yet clear that he has figured out how to disappoint his own people at a rate they can absorb.


CIA Memory Hole said...

You should never prosecute something that is standard operating procedure. The constitution clearly forbids cruel and UNUSUAL punishment. Case closed.

P@ola said...

I allow myself a deviation from the subject of the Post.
So sorry for You about the weather !
Gosh, You have bad luck indeed !

Anonymous said...

Is it possible that Obama allowing for the possibility of prosecution was not politically motivated but rather a recognition of the fact that it's not the responsibility of the executive branch to dole out justice?

Jeff Levin said...

The comparison to the Ford pardon makes a great deal of sense and I agree with you that Obama erred in reopening the door to some potential prosecution (read retribution). Ford's decision did indeed lead in part to his 1976 defeat. But Obama differs in 2 respects:

1) As a Republican, it would have been hard for Ford, in any circustances, to represent the kind of break from the past that Obama so totally embodies and

2) Obama has four full years to move beyond the debate. Ford had, essentially, less than 2.

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