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Is Obama Picking A Fight With His Left?

(CBS)
Bill Buckley would have been pleased. One day after the National Review's Andrew McCarthy warned that a decision to release photographs of detainee abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq during the Bush administration would "imperil our nation and its defenders," President Obama took his advice.

The president said he believed that the consequence of releasing the photos would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and needlessly endanger U.S. troops. "Moreover," he added, "I fear the publication of these photos may only have a chilling effect on future investigations of detainee abuse."

Unlike Bill Clinton, whose relationship with the military got off to a famously bad start over how to treat gays in the military, Obama's not moving faster than his generals. What's more, the decision not to release the photos is likely to prove popular with the Pentagon as well as conservatives (even if the latter are not wont to praise the move in public.) Earlier, Fox News reported that Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, forcefully argued against the release and convinced Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who passed his concerns along to the president.

Still, Obama's political advisers know that the president's policy reversal would not please the Democratic Party's liberal-left wings-and that's what happened. The president's luck is that given the speed of the daily news cycle, the photos might already be yesterday's story. The bigger brouhaha may well center on the administration's consideration of a plan to keep some terror suspects in this country locked up indefinitely without putting them on trial.

The plan remains a work in progress. But leaks suggest that it would contradict earlier pledges by Obama to shut down the commission process which began with the Military Commissions Act of 2006. That process for trying enemy combatants accused of war crimes permits different rules of evidence than those used in U.S. civilian or military courts. Democratic critics of former President Bush, who had pushed for a policy reversal, pinned their hopes on Obama making good on his earlier pledges.

So it was that as word spread about the White House deliberations, Obama came in for the inevitable tongue-lashing, courtesy, this time, of some traditional friends. Digging into the stacks, for instance, The Daily Kos contrasted President Obama's apparent change of heart with the position outlined by Candidate Obama in June 2008 after a Supreme Court decision came down against military commissions.

The problem may be symbolic but that does not make it any less real. In fact, the symbolism of Guantanamo is always going to be linked to what The Kos (and others on the left) regularly dismiss as "these kangaroo courts."

One surprise today: the left discovered an ally on this issue from the other end of the spectrum in the person of Philip Zelikow, a man once described as Condoleeza Rice's "soul mate. In an appearance before Congress, Zelikow testified that Guantanamo has become as much symbol as substance," later describing it as "a toxic problem for the United States of America."

What with Israel's new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, soon headed to the White House for what promises to be a frank meeting, Obama already has enough on his foreign policy plate for the time being. So why pick a fight with the base of his party at this time-first with the photos, and soon perhaps over the military commissions? David Ignatius of the Washington Post may have come up with the best line of all when he suggested this may be part of "Sister Souljah moment."

Interesting times in Washington.

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    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.