Mitch McConnell: Be afraid. Be very afraid.

The Senate GOP leader says President Obama's decision to close Guantanmo is the biggest mistake he's made yet.

Published March 13, 2009 5:20PM (EDT)

Even at this early point in the Obama administration, it's hard for Mitch McConnell to pick what he thinks is the president's greatest mistake. But Dick Cheney might agree with him about the one he finally settled on.

At a breakfast with reporters this morning sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, McConnell -- the Senate Republican leader and, effectively, President Obama's most powerful GOP adversary -- made it abundantly clear that he already regards the administration as something between a misguided failure and an absolute disaster. "Their strategy is to use the fact that we're all frightened to death about the economy to achieve a whole lot of other things that may or may not have any relation whatsoever to do with how we ended up in this dilemma," McConnell said. "The goal is to take advantage of this situation to pass what appears to be a 20- or 30-year wishlist for liberal elements of their party."

The Kentucky Republican accused Obama of "engaging in this rather audacious effort to, in my view, Europeanize the country." He bashed Obama for not moving to the centrist middle ground on policies (even though little of what Obama has proposed in the White House should have shocked anyone who paid attention to his campaign rhetoric). "It's the president's choice as to whether he wants to govern in the middle or govern on the left, and I think he's made that call," McConnell said. "He wants to take us pretty far to the left." The GOP began the year treating Obama timidly, afraid of clashing with a popular president, so the vitriol McConnell unleashed was a bit of a surprise. Asked what had changed, he had a ready answer: "Well, what's changed is, he's made proposals."

But when asked to point to one Obama decision he saw as the most grievous mistake, McConnell first paused, and indicated he had something else to say first. "Before I do that, I want to compliment him again on something," McConnell said. "We had a briefing the day before his announcement [that he would withdraw troops from Iraq], and I felt I was still sitting around with the previous administration." Quite a compliment, no?

And then McConnell stopped, and looked at the table. "If I had to pick one mistake, that I think he'll have a hard time figuring out how to handle, it's to announce that Guantanamo is going to be closed in a year."

"What are you going to do with these people?" he continued. " Are you going to send them back to Yemen? Back to Saudi Arabia? Ft. Leavenworth? I mean, we had that vote in the Senate last Congress -- 94-3, not exactly a cliffhanger -- senators in both parties were not interested in having terrorists in their home states." There, the GOP leader was referring to a non-binding resolution he had sponsored last two years ago, which declared the "sense of the Senate" that Guantanamo inmates should not be "released to American society" or moved to "American communities and neighborhoods."

Well, they do say all terrorism is local. No, wait; that's politics. Which is precisely what McConnell appeared to be engaging in with the response. He had just mentioned, after the "compliment" about how Obama's Iraq briefing reminded him of the Bush administration, that Bush deserved "a lot of credit for protecting us after 9/11." And he then went on to muse about the possible dangers of letting Guantanamo prisoners out.

"Sending them back to a country where they're likely to end up back on the battlefield again -- and that has happened frequently -- or mainstreaming them into the U.S. justice system, it strikes me are not very good solutions if our first concern is protecting the American people from very, very bad folks," McConnell said.

That echoed, pretty perfectly, the worries Dick Cheney felt obliged to unburden himself to Politico about last month. Cheney -- surely just playing the part of a concerned citizen who disagreed with his government -- said he thought the new administration was "more concerned about reading the rights to an Al Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans." McConnell was a little more subtle, but the point still came through: If the terrorists strike again, the GOP is planning to say they told us so.

Which, really, brought the whole breakfast talk back to where it started -- you know, the part where McConnell decried the administration for using fear for political purposes.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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