This is indeed a reversal of policy and campaign promises:
President Obama said Wednesday that he would fight to prevent the release of photographs documenting abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan by United States military personnel, reversing his position on the issue after commanders warned that the images could set off a deadly backlash against American troops.
The administration said last month that it would not oppose the release of the pictures, but Mr. Obama changed his mind after seeing the photographs and getting warnings from top Pentagon officials that the images, taken from the early years of the wars, would “further inflame anti-American opinion” and endanger troops in two war zones.
“The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals,” Mr. Obama told reporters on the South Lawn. “In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger.”
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he had changed his mind about releasing the photographs, and suggested the president did as well, because of the strong views of the top commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gen. Ray Odierno and Gen. David D. McKiernan, who is being replaced.
Now, let’s be clear what we are talking about – these are photos of criminal acts. That means they cannot be compared to, for example, the torture memos from the previous Administration. The latter are part of the debate over national security and government policy, whereas the abuse photos have no such baggage. Unlike the torture memos, which would inform our public debate about our policies, these photos would likely serve no real purpose in being released.
One of the things the left critiqued President Bush for often was for not admitting to mistakes or changing his mind. President Obama is not a candidate anymore, he’s the CiC, and that carries a very different perspective and responsibility. Unless you take the a-priori position that everything should always be publicized no matter what, which is itself as ideological a position as any the Bush Administration ever staked out, there has to be some allowance for balancing between public scrutiny and our national self-interest. If these photos had new information in them – for example, abuse of children, as alleged by Seymour Hersh, then in the interest of justice they should be released. But Obama says he has personally reviewed the photos, and I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt when he says that they contain nothing significantly new.
Publishing these photos would ensure the next day they are plastered across newspapers throughout the middle east. I have argued in support of a ban on aerial bombardment in Pakistan and a disavowal of collateral damage as acceptable military doctrine on the grounds that these policies harm our cause by providing recruitment for our enemies and turning the muslim public against us; release of these photos would have much the same effect. I think President Obama is doing the right thing.