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Reasons behind Obama's U-turn

By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, Washington

Barack Obama explains why he doesn't want the release of the photos

The word "U-turn" may be unfamiliar in Barack Obama's White House, but the practice is not.

One week, the US president signals that the Pentagon will release photographs showing more abuse of American detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of a new era of transparency.

The next he announces that the White House will block their release and defend that decision in court - this time it is all about the vital importance of national security.

When a politician is caught red-handed doing a U-turn, the first question to ask is why?

This time it is not hard to find an answer. Just cast your mind back to those graphic images of US abuse in Iraq's Abu Ghraib jail.

Remember the hooded detainee standing on top of a box, as if about to be electrocuted? Or the faces of the US soldiers enjoying the humiliation? Or the fear of a detainee inches away from the teeth of a snarling dog?


President Obama has clearly concluded that - in this instance - national security trumps transparency

And then it is worth recalling the response and outrage right around the world.

America's image was more than tarnished. The photos became a recruiting tool for extremists.

Barack Obama says these new pictures are not as "sensational" as those of Abu Ghraib. But they are clearly bad enough for his generals to raise objections.

The current US commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan - Gens Odierno, and McKiernan - both told their commander-in-chief that publication would endanger the lives of US troops.

The president has apparently been persuaded by the power of that argument.

'Double standards'

It is perhaps harder to understand why Mr Obama thought it was a good idea to release the photos in the first place.

True, it was not his idea. It was the American Civil Liberties Union that took this issue to court, claiming it was in the public interest and would prove there had been a culture of abuse.

But the president seemed persuaded by the need for transparency. Openness has been a leitmotif of this administration - but easier to promise than to practise.

There may have been other reasons that made it initially seem appealing. Releasing the photos would help break with the past - this after all did not happen on Barack Obama's watch.

The second question when examining a U-turn is what will be the political fallout?

President Obama has clearly concluded that - in this instance - national security trumps transparency.

There is no doubt that President Obama will have disappointed some of his supporters - and, let us be honest, they are those on the left.

But he will have reassured many more that his prime concern is the nation's security and the lives of US troops.

You do not have to be a political genius to work out where the sympathies of the mainstream lie.

America is hardly crying out for the release of more photographs that detail the abuse of detainees. It has still not recovered from the last lot.

This decision will inevitably bring with it charges of double standards.

After all, the president was happy to release classified documents detailing interrogation techniques - the so-called "torture memos".

Pragmatic decision?

But the publication of the memos brought a firestorm of criticism - most notably from Dick Cheney, who has never spent so much time in front of the cameras.

The former vice-president is touring TV studios, accusing his nemesis of making America less safe.

The publication of the photos would make that charge seem more convincing. Not publishing them, and the accusation is less likely to stick.

Barack Obama once again seems to have made a pragmatic decision. He can be accused of compromising his principles.

But this time, most Americans will believe that it's for the greater good.

As for his supporters on the left, it looks as though there will be more heartbreak ahead.

Hopes that the president would completely abandon the controversial military commissions to try terrorist suspects are slowly fading. An announcement may be made later this week.

This is not the last time that we will be hearing the word "U-turn" in connection with the Obama White House.



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