Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Beginning the First Day on the Job

There seems to be a media tradition according to which a new President is evaluated on the basis of his first 100 days in office; but there is a good chance that "Internet speed" will change all of that for Barack Obama. He may be lucky if the blogosphere will allow him 100 hours at work before laying down judgment; and the mainstream media will then pick up on the blogosphere for fear of accusations of being "out of touch." Fortunately, the new President seems to have an appreciation of what some literary critics call the "first sentence test" (whether or not the first sentence of a text leaves you with the desire to read more); and Demetri Sevastopulo was there to get the story to the Financial Times:

Within hours of assuming the presidency on Tuesday, Mr Obama told military prosecutors at Guantanamo Bay to seek a 120-day pause in the trial of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and his four co-defendants.

Mr Obama campaigned on a pledge to close Guantanamo which has stained the US image around the world. He is expected to issue an executive order in coming days calling for its closure.

In recent interviews, Mr Obama has played down expectations that the camp could be closed immediately, saying the process was more difficult than people realised. There are currently about 250 detainees at the camp which was opened in 2002 to house prisoners captured in the “war on terror”.

”We welcome our new commander-in-chief and this first step towards restoring the rule of law,” Major Jon Jackson, a military defence lawyer at Guantanamo representing Mustafa al-Hawsawi, one of the five 9/11 defendants, told the FT.

A military judge at Guantanamo is expected to rule today on the request to halt the trial of Mr Mohammed and the other alleged 9/11 conspirators. In another Guantanamo case, a different judge yesterday granted the request, halting the trial of Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen who has been detained in Guantanamo since he was captured as a fifteen-year old in Afghanistan in 2002.

The prosecution petition to halt the trials explained that the move was to “to permit the newly inaugurated President and his administration time to review the military commissions process, generally, and the cases currently pending before military commissions”.

If the past few days have been concerned with how Obama has spoken to both "we the people" and the "legacy of history," this early decision may best be viewed as a need to speak to the "world community at large" sooner rather than later. This seems to be the way in which the European Union reacted to the announcement:

The European Union welcomed the news to halt the trials. Jacques Barrot, the EU justice commissioner, said the move was a “very strong symbol”.

”I am delighted that one of the first acts of President Obama has been to turn the page on this sad episode of Guantanamo prison,” said Mr Barrot.

Barrot was right to recognize that there may be more symbol than substance in this act, but the substance can only come after Executive review has taken place. Reflecting again on how William Safire chose to compare yesterday with past Inaugurations, I see great value on Barrot's choice of metaphor: This is not a time for passing John Kennedy's torches; it is a time for turning pages written by the Bush Administration and beginning the narrative of a new chapter.

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