Despite rising gas prices and the slumping economy, a recent exchange between John McCain and Barack Obama suggests that terrorism and national security will remain pivotal issues in the 2008 election. The spat began after Obama told ABC News that the U.S. could deal with al-Qaida "within the constraints of our Constitution." During the interview, Obama also pointed to the trial of the perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing as an example of how to handle terrorism through the legal system.
Tuesday, on a conference call with reporters, the McCain campaign responded to the interview by trying to label Obama as naive and inexperienced on foreign affairs and national security. McCain national security director Randy Scheunemann alleged that Obama "does not understand the nature of the enemies we face." Obama soon sought to rebut the claims, stating, "This is the same kind of fearmongering that got us into Iraq ... It's exactly that failed foreign policy I want to reverse."
Then, today, the McCain campaign brought out reinforcements in the form of former New York City Mayor and failed Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani. "America's Mayor" accused Obama of having a "September 10th mindset." Giuliani also indicated that he felt the 1993 prosecution of the World Trade Center bombers was an insufficient response to terrorism.
The Obama campaign quickly referenced Giuliani's own comments after the trial in 1994. At the time, Giuliani praised the verdict, saying it "demonstrates that New Yorkers won't meet violence with violence, but with a far greater weapon -- the law."
But putting the back and forth aside, the debate serves as a reminder of the significant differences between the approaches of Obama and McCain concerning national security. Last week, Obama lauded the Supreme Court's decision that confirmed that Guantánamo Bay detainees have the right to challenge their indefinite detention, while McCain labeled the ruling "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country." Clearly, voters will have a choice between two competing security ideologies come November.
And while McCain's attacks on Obama as a foreign policy naif closely resemble the oft-repeated attacks made by Republicans since 9/11 that describe Democrats as "soft" on terrorism, the issue of habeas corpus for detainees looks like it will receive more attention in the 2008 campaign than it did in 2004. Polls continue to show that voters trust McCain more than Obama in the "U.S. campaign against terrorism." But as the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza observes, Republicans may be focusing on the terrorism issue because the same polls show that voters trust Obama over McCain on just about every other major issue -- including the economy, gas prices and healthcare. With Democrats attempting to pin McCain as a continuation of the policies of the Bush administration, Obama will have to decide whether it's electorally wise to concentrate on the recent revelations that Pentagon officials were directly involved in the planning of the abusive interrogation methods used at Abu Ghraib.
And what about the methods used by those in power on and after 9/11? As Dan Froomkin reports for the Washington Post today, former Gen. Anthony Taguba has accused the Bush administration of war crimes. Taguba led the investigation into the detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib and wrote in a 2004 report that the methods used at the prison were "systemic and illegal." Soon after, according to Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker, Taguba was forced to retire. In a preface to a new Physicians for Human Rights report, Taguba writes that the report "tells the largely untold human story of what happened to detainees in our custody when the Commander-in-Chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture. This story is not only written in words: It is scrawled for the rest of these individual's lives on their bodies and minds. Our national honor is stained by the indignity and inhumane treatment these men received from their captors."