Today’s capture of Benghazi suspect Ahmed Abu Khattala reminds us President Obama is still firmly wedded to the criminal justice model for fighting jihadism.
The president said today that Khattala “is now being transported back to the United States.” It isn’t clear whether Khattala would be questioned before arriving in the U.S. but, given the president’s preference for using civilian courts to prosecute jihadists at war with the United States, we can expect him soon to be Mirandized, given a lawyer and granted the full panoply of rights afforded to U.S. citizens who commit crimes within this country. (Perhaps through the discovery process we will finally get more answers about the Benghazi incident, including how quickly U.S. intelligence officials determined this was a terrorist attack.)
Many Republicans have already objected, saying Khattala should be sent to Gitmo, where he can be questioned at length, instead of Mirandized. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) were joined by two GOP 2016 hopefuls, Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.). Rubio said, “The Obama Administration should immediately transfer him to the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay for detention and interrogation. In order to locate all individuals associated with the attacks that led to the deaths of four Americans, we need intelligence. That intelligence is often obtained through an interrogation process. … America remains at war and a return to the failed law enforcement approach of the 1990s is not an adequate response to the very real threats we face.”
Despite troops still in the field in Afghanistan and wars raging in Iraq (which necessitated a small deployment of U.S. troops) and in Syria, the president still insists he is “ending” war. Therefore detaining combatants — something you do in times of war — actually means trying them one by one in court and sending them to a federal prison if convicted. For him, the war against jihadis is boiling down to raid and trials, with minimal assistance to besieged countries like Iraq — and absolutely no deployment of troops. Is this a responsible policy that appreciates the magnitude of the threats we face?
Even some Democrats recognize it is not. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), for one, is urging direct military action to stem al-Qaeda’s offensive in Iraq. There is general recognition on both sides of the aisle that allowing Iraq to become part of a jihadist haven would be a grave misstep.
It seems no matter what the issue the sides generally divide between those who see that we continue to face a systemic jihadist threat that is not amenable to criminal justice solutions and those who do not. (Are we to file a RICO action against ISIS?) Despite their earlier tussles, McCain and Cruz stand together on this one (along with Rubio), with liberal Democrats and far-right isolationists on the other side. The crowd that wants to “end” wars without defeating the enemy essentially takes a pre-9-11 view of these issues: Shut Gitmo; end NSA data collection; don’t drone American jihadists; don’t give military aid to groups fighting against jihadists or Iranian forces; and under no circumstances use military force or leave forces there after subduing the enemy (as we did in Japan, South Korea and Germany for decades).
The latter view has generally prevailed in this administration (although the president still will use drones under limited circumstances and doesn’t want to completely destroy our data collection capabilities) despite a jihadist state in the making in the Middle East and an increasingly aggressive Iran on the march and getting closer to a nuclear bomb. While we imagine war is “ending” and shrink back from engagement, our foes get stronger.
The question for the candidates who want to succeed Obama is whether they think we remain at war (albeit an unconventional one) and require appropriate tools to fight it or whether we’re “done” and can dismantle the anti-terrorism architecture that prevented another 9-11 attack. The “we’re done” crowd also (conveniently) believes the Constitution gives the president extremely circumscribed powers. His role is reduced essentially to coming to Congress to ask permission for every strike.
Republicans need to decide whether they want to echo the Obama criminal justice scheme and hamstring the executive branch — and risk getting the very same results — or whether they want to make the case to voters that Obama failed miserably and the terrorists are on the march. There is plenty of evidence that, had we recognized the nature of our enemy and taken low-risk steps years ago, we would not be facing now the prospect of a jihadist state.
It is a time for serious thinking about foreign policy, and for voters to reject candidates that lack the background and real interest in foreign policy. Entrusting our safety to someone who would echo the administration’s policies or who shares the president’s ignorance about our enemies would be a grave error.