The White House also put up little resistance when Congress recently tied its hands by barring spending on closing Guantánamo or trying detainees in civilian criminal court. Yet The Washington Post reports that the one time the administration did vigorously oppose such a proposal, when Senator Lindsey Graham in the fall of 2009 sought to bar trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian court, the administration succeeded in defeating the proposal by a vote of 55–45. So it can win, but only if it is willing to fight.
In May 2009, in his only speech as president on national security, Obama made a stirring case for the critical importance of preserving America’s fundamental values as it opposes the threat of terrorism. He proclaimed that “I believe with every fiber of my being that in the long run we also cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values.” Continuing, he explained:
We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and it keeps us safe. Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset—in war and peace; in times of ease and in eras of upheaval.
More specifically, Obama argued that closing Guantánamo, banning torture, and trying terrorists in civilian courts where possible were essential to preserving these values. Yet nearly every time Congress has sought to interfere with those goals since then, Obama has backed down, letting Congress get away with undermining our security and our values. Some will say that even if he had fought, he could not have won on these issues—that was almost certainly Rahm Emanuel’s calculation. But you never know until you try. And the administration’s success in defeating Senator Graham’s bill in 2009 suggests that such an effort is by no means quixotic. Most importantly, the President’s obligation is to take a stand in support of what he says he believes “with every fiber of his being,” and not to accept pollsters’ predictions as an inevitable reality. That, after all, is what leadership is all about. That is what we elected him for. It is time for President Obama to stand and fight.
—May 11, 2011