Court fuels national security debate

June 22, 2008|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

A fierce debate over national security, perhaps the clearest and widest difference between John McCain and Barack Obama, was triggered the other day by, of all people, five justices of the Supreme Court. How it plays out could determine who becomes the next president.

The court's recent decision in a Guantanamo Bay case, giving non-citizen prisoners the right to challenge their detention in federal court, "threw a stone in the pond" of the presidential contest, remarked Robert Gibbs, the Obama campaign's communications director.

A boulder might be more like it.

Ripples from that ruling launched a furious argument over Obama's national security views, just as he was rolling out an ad campaign designed to cast him in a patriotic light. Coincidentally or not, McCain's support in Gallup's national tracking poll ticked upward, and Obama's lead was down to two percentage points by Friday.

The McCain campaign was quick to pounce after Obama remarked, in an ABC News interview last week, that the U.S. could adequately defend itself against terrorism without violating the Constitution. Pointing to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing as an example, Obama said that "we were able to arrest those responsible, put them on trial. They are currently in U.S. prisons, incapacitated."

McCain and his team unleashed an escalating series of charges: that Obama was na?ve about terrorism, imprecise in his facts (one of the alleged '93 suspects wasn't apprehended) and insufficiently bloodthirsty when it came to dealing with a captured Osama bin Laden.

Portraying Obama as weak and highlighting his inexperience in foreign and defense matters is central to McCain's strategy. Polls show that McCain's military background and years of dealing with security issues in Washington give him a clear edge when voters are asked to rate the candidates as a future commander in chief.

Obama responded quickly and aggressively to McCain's attacks, accusing him of employing "George Bush's playbook" and using "terrorism as a club to make the American people afraid."

The Obama campaign also showcased a meeting with his foreign-policy advisers, including several from the Clinton administration (and Hillary Clinton's campaign). As he did after Clinton questioned his readiness to be commander in chief, Obama sat down again with a group of retired generals and admirals who back his candidacy.

Obama has sent mixed signals on national security during the campaign. He based his candidacy on his early opposition to the Iraq invasion and is calling for a renewed emphasis on diplomacy to repair America's badly damaged image abroad.

He's also advocating greater military action against a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. After being widely criticized for saying that he'd be willing to meet with the leader of Iran or other rogue states without preconditions, he declared his willingness to launch a military strike against al-Qaida in Pakistan without that country's permission.

Asked last week what he would do with bin Laden if the U.S. captured him, Obama brought up the Nuremberg war crimes trials after World War II, calling them a high point of U.S. foreign policy "because the world had not seen before victors behave in ways that advanced a set of universal principles."

Democrats say Obama is wise not to back away from a debate over national security, even as he attempts to shift attention to the economy, where he is on much stronger footing.

McCain's attempts to play on lingering fears of another terrorist strike are part of an unfolding effort to exploit voter anxieties about Obama, said Kenneth Baer, a Democratic strategist not connected to the campaign.

"That's the only card they really have to play, the anxiety of what the changes will mean," he said. "And they are going to prey on those, and Obama is going to stress the positive, and whoever wins that argument is going to win the election."

Democratic consultant Jenny Backus said Obama "needs to sound as strong as he can" on national security because Republicans will try to use the issue to question his patriotism. She praised as perfectly timed Obama's first campaign ad of the general election, now airing in 18 states, in which the candidate, sporting a flag pin on his lapel, refers twice to his "love of country."

Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster not connected to the McCain campaign, said Obama "has to be acceptable as a potential commander in chief in order to win the election, and he's not there yet."

Terrorism and national security are "one of the few areas where the public still trusts the Republicans more than the Democrats" because "the Democrats have yet to get the monkey off their back about being weak," he added. "If the debate is about national security, John McCain is winning almost by definition."

That's a big "if."

At the moment, terrorism has slipped far down the list of voter concerns and will likely stay there, barring an external event at home or abroad. On Iraq, an issue thought to favor Obama, the country is evenly split when asked which candidate they trust to handle the war in Iraq, polling shows.

But the aggressive stances that Obama and McCain are taking reflect the potential for national security to become a decisive factor in the election. Its emergence as a central campaign issue, as spring turned to summer, is the opening round in a struggle to frame the terms of a contest that will decide where the country is headed over the next four years.

paul.west@baltsun.com

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