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Commentary: Obama waffled on torture -- and looks weak

  • Story Highlights
  • Ed Rollins: Politicians want to be loved, even by their opponents
  • He says whenever they make decisions, they anger the losing side
  • Rollins says Obama was right to ban torture but mishandled the aftermath
  • He says it would be wrong to prosecute officials for what they did in wake of 9/11
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By Ed Rollins
CNN Contributor
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Editor's note: Ed Rollins, a senior political contributor for CNN, was political director for President Ronald Reagan and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Ed Rollins says President Obama mishandled the aftermath of his decision to ban the use of torture.

Ed Rollins says President Obama mishandled the aftermath of his decision to ban the use of torture.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Like so many politicians I have known, the man we elected president wants to be loved. He wants to be loved passionately and daily by the 69 million who voted for him and even some of the 60 million who voted for John McCain.

He wants to be loved by the Democrats on the Hill and even the Republicans who have still not given him any love.

He wants to be loved by the Europeans who have made a career out of badmouthing U.S. presidents and their policies.

The real example of searching for love in all the wrong places was last week's lovefest south of the border when, in effect, he appeared to be hugging Castro, Ortega and Chavez who have spent their lives fighting everything the United States stands for.

The problem, President Obama will find out as time goes on, is that he is not a rock star or a celebrity. He is certainly famous, and for the foreseeable future everyone will want to see him, touch him and hear him. But the job of president is about making choices. And right now he has the toughest job in the world at one of the toughest times in U.S. history. Every time he makes a choice, he will make the losing side mad.

This last week was the best example. The president decided, as he promised in the campaign, that he would ban torture -- a decision I agree with but many don't. Then he decided to release four Bush-era Justice Department memos that gave legal guidelines to the executive branch on "enhanced interrogation techniques."

Many wanted these documents released, and the president, after a month-long internal debate, gave them up. At the same time he said he had no intention of prosecuting the drafters of those memos or anyone else in a federal agency, mainly the CIA, who followed those guidelines.

The Right went nuts over the release of the documents. The CIA felt betrayed. The Left went nuts over the contents of the memos and pressed to have the authors -- high Justice Department officials in the Bush administration -- prosecuted, investigated and maybe even tortured! The president went to the CIA and gave them a cheerleading speech.

The next day he reversed himself and said it's up to Attorney General Eric Holder and the Congress to determine if any laws were violated by the former officials.

He waffled big time. Now all sides are mad at him and he looks weak. Weakness is the death knell for a president. With 1,366 days to go before this term is up, Obama's got to get tougher or he will be viewed as a personality who reads well from a teleprompter.

The president obviously knows the war on terror is not over. I imagine every morning when he gets the National Security briefing from the Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, he takes a deep breath because he knows the world is not a very safe place.

Things aren't as simple as they were in the old days, when, for the most part, countries had conflicts with each other and they went to war wearing different-colored uniforms so you knew who your enemy was and where they might be found.

Fortunately, because of the enormous talents of many federal agencies comprised of extraordinary Americans who work very hard at their jobs, the United States has not been struck in 2,781 days. That was the day we all remember and always will remember as 9/11 -- when four aircraft hijacked by 19 al Qaeda terrorists crashed into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing 2,974 people.

On that day and the days that followed we felt a new sense of vulnerability and said, "never again." We know now in hindsight that our intelligence mechanism failed us in regard to the threat posed by al Qaeda. A lot of things were done in the days after that to gather intelligence and protect ourselves, our families and our neighbors.

We were playing under a new set of rules and in a way making it up as we went along. What I am trying to say is the CIA doesn't need to be handcuffed again or demoralized. It needs to know its mission.

Historically it has been an agency that has done a lot of heavy lifting. It has often also done the dirty work that other agencies didn't want to do. Some of it benefited this nation immensely and some may have hurt us abroad. But it has been an important element in battling the bad guys. It's now Obama's agency under the direction of his people and he has to earn its trust. His visit to the agency's headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and his speech to the employees was helpful, but only a first step.

Releasing the Justice memos opened a door and the contents repulsed many people. But these were not evil men who drafted the memos. These were not evil people who carried out the methods authorized by them. They were our fellow citizens who were trying to protect us from the real evildoers.

The president has got a lot on his plate. If his fellow Democrats in Congress want to try to impeach a federal appeals court judge who oversaw the memos and interrogate or prosecute former Justice Department lawyers, an attorney general or two and maybe a former vice president, then the battle will be drawn in the courtroom and in the political arena.

The losers will be us. All of us.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ed Rollins.

All About Barack ObamaTortureCentral Intelligence Agency

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