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Obama must shift on terror trial

By William Martel, Special to CNN
  • William Martel: Obama advisers may recommend tribunals for terror trials
  • He says Christmas Day bomb attempt turned public opinion toward military tribunals
  • Obama must adapt U.S. policy to public fervor or risk political damage, he says
  • Martel: Greatest political danger is appearing inattentive to public in matters of national security.

Editor's note: William Martel, author of "Victory in War" (2007), is associate professor of international security studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Bedford, New Hampshire (CNN) -- The debate about terror trials is back, front and center, in American politics.

New reports Friday indicated that White House advisers were considering recommending that the U.S. try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- suspected of planning the 9/11 attacks -- before a military commission, rather than in a civilian court, as the administration plans.

When viewed in light of the dramatic change in public opinion in recent months over where to hold terrorist trials, it seems ever more obvious that the president will have to change U.S. policy.

The shift in public opinion is instructive.

In January 2009, President Obama announced that the United States would close the Guantanamo Bay military prison.

Ten months later, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that alleged Sept. 11 co-conspirators, including Mohammed, would be tried in criminal courts. Initially, the trial was to be conducted in New York, but U.S. politicians, notably New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, objected.

The political climate was already beginning to shift when 13 U.S. soldiers were shot and killed, allegedly by Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, a psychiatrist, at Ft. Hood, Texas, a week before Holder's announcement. But what became the "game changer" was the attempted Christmas Day bombing. When the 23-year old Nigerian Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab allegedly tried to blow up Northwest Airlines flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit, he altered the politics of terror trials -- and arguably our political center of gravity.

The policy governing trials for terrorists was a direct casualty of political fallout from the Christmas Day terror attempt. Polling data, particularly from the Massachusetts election where Republican Scott Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley, suggests that fears about terrorism helped Scott Brown win.

The policy on terror trials has immense political consequences for Obama. The political stakes probably exceed those of other public policy problems, including the health care debate.

What are the political ramifications and how is Obama to gain political control of events that threaten serious damage to his administration and U.S. policy?

To navigate these dangerous political shoals, White House officials should keep several principles in mind.

First, ignore public opinion at your peril, particularly in matters of national security.

What is peculiar to democracies, aside from their impatience, is that when the public speaks, it expects to be heard. Politically, the White House faces the equivalent of a tsunami of opposition to holding terror trials on American soil.

Consider polls conducted by CNN/Opinion Research Corp. The majority wants the alleged Christmas Day bomber tried in military court, two-thirds believe Khalid Sheikh Mohammed should be tried in a military tribunal and most Americans do not believe terrorists should receive full constitutional protections.

This is about as unified as public opinion gets, which is why this shift in public opinion is a game changer.

Second, lead or get out of the way.

Obama needs to demonstrate leadership, which in practice means the dreaded policy reversal.

While policymakers truly hate to change course, the White House must reverse its earlier policy of closing Gitmo and trying Mohammed and other terrorists in U.S. civilian courts.

American public opinion creates a political imperative for Obama: Realign U.S. policy as closely and precisely as possible with overwhelming public opposition to civilian trials in the United States -- and make that effective "yesterday."

Third, end the current political hemorrhage.

The longer it takes to end this debate, the worse matters will get. White House officials must formulate a strategy for terror trials if they are to maintain credibility with the public and the international community, friends and foes alike.

Until the policy on terror trials aligns with public sentiment, the White House will look like the recipient of a self-inflicted, sustained political loss.

Fourth, listen to good advice and adapt policy accordingly.

Obama must convey to the American people that, even when it has potentially adverse political consequences, he readily listens to astute advice from "experts" and the public.

While this course has its own risks, public officials can gain public support when they rethink earlier policies for good reasons.

Fifth, be thoughtful and decisive.

Obama must convey that his policies are equal parts reflective and resolute. He must demonstrate the artful balance between dogmatic resistance to change and casual or opportunistic flexibility.

I would be the first to say that this strategy for managing political risks has political perils, the foremost among them that changing the policy on terror trials -- in January 2009 and again in March 2010 -- could appear to be a flip-flop.

However, the greatest danger is appearing inattentive to public fervor in matters of national security. What ultimately does this mean?

Strong public opposition to terror trials signals growing fears about terrorism. With such opposition, it is inevitable that the policy will be reversed, perhaps quite soon. Wise leadership responds decisively, even if it means a radical mid-course correction in policy.

For Obama, two choices emerge. One, embrace public concerns and demonstrate leadership, or two, be swamped by political riptides of public passion.

Is anyone up for option two?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William Martel