Criticism Humor Politics The Bush Legacy

John Yoo’s Scandalous Affair With George W. Bush!

Is it okay to laugh at a clever remark by a man who instituted torture in America with his infamous and incompetent “torture memos”? Well, when the line is this – I’d have to say sure. John Yoo as interviewed by Deborah Solomon for the New York Times, as she tries to press him for how close he was to George W. Bush – and he demurs, explaining that he was low-ranking rather than really answering the question:

Q: So you’re saying you were just one notch above an intern, you and Monica Lewinsky?
A: She was much closer to the president than I ever was.

Stay tuned for Jon Stewart’s interview of Yoo tonight. Given how Stewart has taken on the architects of the Iraq war when they appeared on the show, there seems little doubt he will go after Yoo regarding his extraordinary legal justifications for the expansion of the powers of the executive branch, and most specifically, for the torture memos. Yoo, for his part, seems as if he will try to dodge the questions with cute one-liners as he did in this interview – which he does rather well I would say.

[Image by sixes and sevens licensed under Creative Commons.]

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The Rift Torture Created Between the CIA and FBI Made America Less Safe

[digg-reddit-me]Tom Ridge makes a number of extraordinary statements here, but I want to highlight one:

[The Patriot Act] tore down the wall, the legal barrier, between law enforcement and intelligence. You couldn’t talk to each other. Patriot Act destroyed the wall. Very important. [Threatening to prosecute CIA interrogators now] is almost like putting up a psychological barrier…

What makes this statement so extraordinary is that the torture itself created a psychological barrier – as novice CIA interrogators and independent contractors (with no experience in interrogation) neither of whom were experts in the Arab world, Islam, or Al Qaeda took over interrogations instead of the experienced FBI hands such as Ali Soufan. Not only were the more experienced and knowledgeable interrogators subordinated to novices, but they were eventually forced to withdraw all agents from any interrogation sites due to the torture they witnessed. Soufan explained this in the Times back in April:

One of the worst consequences of the use of these harsh techniques was that it reintroduced the so-called Chinese wall between the C.I.A. and F.B.I., similar to the communications obstacles that prevented us from working together to stop the 9/11 attacks. Because the bureau would not employ these problematic techniques, our agents who knew the most about the terrorists could have no part in the investigation. An F.B.I. colleague of mine who knew more about Khalid Shaikh Mohammed than anyone in the government was not allowed to speak to him. [my emphasis]

In a recent Times op-ed, he sounded almost plaintive as he reflected on the Bush administration decisions that removed him along with all other FBI agents from being able to interrogate the highest level detainees:

Mr. Mohammed knew the location of most, if not all, of the members of Al Qaeda’s leadership council, and possibly of every covert cell around the world. One can only imagine who else we could have captured, or what attacks we might have disrupted, if Mr. Mohammed had been questioned by the experts who knew the most about him.

And as Soufan pointed out in earlier testimony to Congress, the bulk and the most important of the true information derived from Abu Zubaydah came from FBI interrogation techniques. (Soufan himself conducted the interrogations, or attempted to, as conflicting orders from Washington kept putting inexperienced CIA contractors in charge.)

Ridge’s statement is extraordinary then for its ignorance of how torture itself affected the relationship between the FBI and the CIA – how, despite the important provisions of the Patriot Act that allowed sharing of information, CIA torture effectively reinstated the wall. He gets it backwards – it is not the prosecution of torture that is creating the psychological barrier to the sharing of information; it was the the crimes of torture themselves that did.

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A Reactionary Politics Leads To Torture

[digg-reddit-me]Adam Serwer over at The American Prospect:

We’re not seeing too many “professionals” argue the case for torture — instead we see those who believe fighting terrorists is about some kind of contest of will between Islam and the West romanticizing criminal behavior as “necessary” because, for some reason, they think protecting American society requires that take our cues from those we’re fighting.

H/t Andrew Sullivan.

Which brings them roughly in line with my earlier definition of reactionaries:

[R]eactionary groups are defined primarily by their worst fears of their enemy – which they then internalize and model their own organization on.

The Bush Legacy The Opinionsphere

Andrew Sullivan: “American evangelicals are much more pro-torture in this respect than many Iranian Muslims”

Andrew Sullivan – still theoretically not blogging during his August sabbatical to work on articles for The Atlantic – had to chime in last week when further torture documents were released:

American evangelicals are much more pro-torture in this respect than many Iranian Muslims.

This is what Bush and Cheney truly achieved in their tragic response to 9/11: two terribly failed, brutally expensive wars, the revival of sectarian warfare and genocide in the Middle East, the end of America’s global moral authority, the empowerment of Iran’s and North Korea’s dictatorships, and the nightmares of Gitmo and Bagram still haunting the new administration.

But what they did to the culture – how they systematically dismantled core American values like the prohibition on torture and respect for the rule of law – is the worst and most enduring of the legacies.

One political party in this country is now explicitly pro-torture, and wants to restore a torture regime if it regains power.

Last summer, I actually wrote a piece coming to almost the exact same conclusion. I wrote that Bush had made things “just bad enough” that we would be able to reverse course and start down a better path – that his presidency had served as a kind of innoculation against certain tyrannical elements. This proved to be true on a political level – but I missed the cultural transformation that has led so many people to defend the indefensible. This is perhaps the most damning legacy Bush of Bush’s presidency.

Criticism Politics The Opinionsphere

Noam Chomsky’s Useful Fantasy

[digg-reddit-me]I’ve long been a bit puzzled by the respect given to Noam Chomsky’s politics. Yesterday, I listened to a lecture given by Chomsky this past Friday which seemed to consit of his meandering thoughts on the state of the world and the economy. I have to credit it for being interesting – and persuasive in a manner which all lasting worldviews as well as conspiracy theories are.

But there are several reasons I still find it difficult to take Chomsky’s politics seriously. His worldview has an all-or-nothing quality to it – as it is based on a number of presumptions which he does not attempt to prove and which inform every aspect of his view. These Chomskyian assumptions include:

  • Everything of significance is controlled by a small number of wealthy individuals.
  • These individuals deliberately and consciously inflict great evil on the world for their personal gain.
  • These individuals control American foreign policy and government and thus America has become a malignant empire which violently imposes the will of this oligarchy on the world.
  • The American people are opposed to this, though they have been propagandized to accept it.
  • The American people are also being exploited by having their jobs shipped overseas.

Chomsky preaches only to the converted – those who accept these premises. He has a certain understanding of the world which is quite different from that understood by at least most Americans who are his primary audience – but he does not attempt to speak to these masses. His presentation is directed squarely at those who agree. Chomsky makes little secret of this. As he wrote regarding American torture under George W. Bush:

For one thing, even without inquiry, it was reasonable to suppose that Guantánamo was a torture chamber.

For Chomsky, who starts out assuming the evil intent of those he opposes, this is a reasonable supposition. None of this makes his views necessarily wrong. But it makes his presentation unpersuasive to me. I do sense the attraction of his views though – similar to that of the fantay world of vampires or Harry Potter or Star Trek – except no one confuses these interesting and at times revealing fantasies with the world we live in.

His insistence that the many evils of the world are the result of secret and evil planning strikes me as improbable, as in my own experience, I have found that most awful things are not the result of deliberate and evil planning but stupidity and accident and coincidence and incompetence.

The other thing I noticed in his work is his easy lies, his distortions and omission of facts to fit his propagandistic purposes. Some of these are easily figured out by anyone paying critical attention. Others are harder to smoke out. For example, in the lecture referenced above he speaks of the current poverty in Bangladesh and then observes:

We might, incidentally, remember that when the British landed in what’s now Bangladesh, they were stunned by its wealth and splendor. And it didn’t take very long for it to be on its way to become the very symbol of misery, not by an act of God.

In this accusation, he is unusually indirect – as he generally specifically blames the Western elite for the evils of the world. But perhaps in this case, he realized how nakedly dishonest this observation was. After all, any slight knowledge of the history of the world in the 17th century begins with the fact that the “standard of living” – to use a modern term – was extremely poor for all but the most wealthy. The wealth the British were impressed by was that of the royalty – who were busy exploiting the people before the British arrived. At the same time, Bangladesh became “the very symbol of misery” not because the fate of it’s citizens deteriorated from the moment the British arrived – but because they did not progress at the same rate as the Western world. The greatest strides in reducing poverty in Bangladesh have in fact come in the past two decades (as poverty decreased by nearly 20%)  under the precise economic liberalization that Chomsky opposes with all his intellectual skills. (This also coincides with the introduction of microfinance.)

Similary, in his article on America and torture – in which he tries to make the case that torture has always been one of the tools America uses to force its will onto the world – he mentions that in the war in the Phillipines, there was “widespread use of torture”  by the Americans. He fails to mention that President Theodore Roosevelt and his War Secretary Elihu Root prosecuted and punished those soldiers and commanding officers who were found guilty of torture.

I find Chomsky’s views to be quite interesting as well as fantastic. In the same way that a well-thought out fantasy can reveal important truths about reality, so can Chomsky’s work. But it is difficult to accept as a serious worldview.

[Image by MatthewBradley licensed under Creative Commons.]

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A New Phase in the Culture War: National Security

[digg-reddit-me]As Barack Obama and Dick Cheney prepared their dueling speeches last month, Reihan Salam observed:

National security has become part of the culture wars, only with Dick Cheney as the new Jerry Falwell. It doesn’t matter that Obama is escalating the war in Afghanistan or that he’s embraced rendition. To Cheney, Obama’s anti-torture stance represents the moral vanity of a naïve one-worlder.

We’ll be hearing much more about this new culture clash. During the hearings on Obama’s first Supreme Court appointment, Republicans will spend more time hammering the Democratic nominee on Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and Boumediene v. Bush than about Roe v. Wade. At the moment, Obama looks untouchable. But the politics of national security could prove his undoing.

This observation is seeming more and more apt as the months go by. And yesterday morning’s appearance by Mitt Romney on This Week With George Stephanopoulos suggested that if Romney has anything to do with it, the Culture War will extend to foreign policy as well.

Foreign policy and national security have always been matters of contention between the political parties – but Culture War issues functioned a certain distinct way.

In some sense, the Culture War can be traced back to the “psychodrama of the baby boom generation” as they fought over Vietnam and then social issues. By the 1990s, the Baby Boom generation dominated most institutions in the country and  a large number of Americans had divided into two warring camps along a familiar lineup of issues: abortion, homosexuality, guns, censorship, separation of church and state, etcetera. Each party became dominated by those with the most extreme positions on these issues. There were only two ways for savvy politicians to position themselves – to triangulate and try to find some reasonable accommodation; or alternately to find a reasonable position and  make sure that they were wrong – but on the right side of the issue. During this time, issues of national security and foreign policy didn’t break down in the same partisan way. Republicans opposed Clinton’s proposed anti-terrorism measures; Democrats were more hawkish than Republicans in Bosnia – and in both cases, neither side was completely aligned. These issues weren’t litmus tests – but matters upon which reasonable people could and did disagree.

Then came September 11 and George W. Bush’s and Karl Rove’s explicit decision to use the War on Terror as a political weapon. There were no mainstream Democrats opposed to most aspects of Bush’s emergency measures, so Rove tried to make any slight suggestion of disagreement tantamount to treason. Though this worked well enough as a political tactic, it still hadn’t moved national security issues into the Culture War entirely.

The turning point came when allegations of torture began to surfare – and the photos of the abuse at Abu Ghraib came to light. Everyone was shocked – Republican and Democrat. Everyone condemned it. Except the far-right partisans. I remember reading The Corner and other blogs around this time – and an extraordinary thing happened. For weeks, these men and women had been insisting that America did not torture – only, maybe  some bad apples  – and that to suggest we did torture was a form of America-hating. Then, almost overnight, all of these same men and women began to talk about ticking time bombs and demanding to know why we shouldn’t torture a terrorist who hated America!

Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that it was an election year – and with everything viewed through this prism, it’s easier to justify something awful. But regardless of the reason, in that moment, national security became part of the culture war. Karl Rove accomplished what he had been trying to do. He polarized the electorate so that it became necessary for any savvy politician on the right to be wrong on the right side of these issues.

By 2008, this was evident – as the sensible position that there had been overreach in Bush’s War on Terror – and that for example, Guantanamo should be closed down – gave way to Mitt Romney declaring that he would “double Guantanamo” to cheers. It’s a nonsense phrase – but the Culture War isn’t about policy – but about position.

Now, Romney is continuing this – and pushing it into foreign policy.

Yesterday morning, Romney, adopting the freedom of expression and lack of accountability typical of  party out of power, launched a critique of Obama’s response to the Iranian elections – and to the Middle East in general:

Romney criticises Obama’s use of “sweet words” (sounding eerily similar to Zawahiri who denigrated Obama’s “elegant words“) – yet his only suggestion for how to react differently to the Iranian elections would be to use Romney’s own words – which admittedly aren’t as “sweet” or “elegant.” And of course while Romney denigrates Obama for relying on words without action – Romney’s only response to the Iranian election is to use his own words.

(This brings up an interesting difference: Obama uses the power of words to affect what is going on, as in his Cairo speech, his race speech, his speech on national security – while Romney insists we must use our words to express ourselves and to show what side we are on. This difference in the use of language is precisely what makes Obama an effective speaker – but this is a topic for a different day.)

What Romney forgets is that – in Andrew Sullivan’s words:

This is not about us. It’s about them.

The time may come for the president to stand with the majority of Iranians – to voice his support – but Romney’s demand for instant moral clarity demonstrates a Culture War view of foreign policy – of a need to be wrong on the right side of the issue. As a candidate, this Culture War take on national security and foreign policy can be effective – but as a governing tactic, it is disastrous.

National Security Politics The Bush Legacy The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism

A Truth Commission

While not rejecting the idea of prosecutions for clear cases in which the law was broken, there seems to be a growing consensus about the necessity of a truth commission. It has become more and more clear that the fault lies within our system as much as it does in particular individuals. Jeffrey Record reviewing Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side [pdf] for the Army War College journal, Parameters quotes Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis whose insight points towards both why we need a truth commissin of a type – and why prosecution is not the most effective option (h/t Tom Ricks):

[T]he greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.

This goes to the argument that Bush administration apologists keep making – that these officials were acting in good faith, were panicked, and though they may have broken some rules, they did so to protect American lives. But this is precisely what Brandeis saw was the most serious danger to liberty. 

Tom Ricks gives his opinion of what we need – basing his argument on military strategy – rather than the protection of our way of life:

Just because you have an embarrassing problem, you shouldn’t try to hide it, because dealing with it may prepare you for an even bigger challenge down the road. So let’s get the torture and interrogation situation straightened out before the next big terrorist attack. My preference, as I’ve stated before, is for a truth and reconciliation commission that offers an amnesty period during which people would be invited to step forward. Anyone not ‘fessing up during that time would face the possibility of prosecution. Again, I think this effort should target those who departed from American history and made torture national policy.

Maureen Dowd has also come around – and she too is looking at the perverse effect on our system of checks and balances that not following up on this matter is having:

I used to agree with President Obama, that it was better to keep moving and focus on our myriad problems than wallow in the darkness of the past. But now I want a full accounting. I want to know every awful act committed in the name of self-defense and patriotism. Even if it only makes one ambitious congresswoman pay more attention in some future briefing about some future secret technique that is “uniquely” designed to protect us, it will be worth it.

National Security The Bush Legacy The War on Terrorism

We Are All Guilty

[digg-reddit-me]We are all guilty.

Because we live in a democracy.
Because we did not ask enough questions.
Because we did not stand forthrightly for American values.
Because we were afraid.

As figure after figure from the Bush administration has pleaded 9/11 when confronted by the facts of their administration’s wholesale and preemptive surrender of American values – as they instituted programs of lawless imprisonment, torture, illegal spying, and a misbegotten war justified under a profoundly un-American theory of the Presidency  – as Americans see how profoundly our nation went off course in the years after September 11th and are justifiably outraged – with all this, I honestly cannot say that I would have seen then as clearly as I see now what a betrayal, what a cowardly decision it was, to abandon our way of life and our Rule of Law. I am not sure I would have the moral clarity, the strategic vision to say, “It is not about them. It is about us [pdf.]” ((This quote is not exactly what McCain said. He said, “But this isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are” – but my version is snappier.)) To declare that “I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is America.”

I’d like to think I would have seen what was going on with clarity – but I know as the fear of terrorism was fresh within me, and the anger – I know I did not ask enough questions. I felt safer knowing those in power would do everything possible to keep America safe.

But the fact that I realize my own sinful nature – imperfect, flawed – does not absolve those men and women who instituted these policies – of cruelty, torture, of an executive held above the law. If it is clearly found that any individual broke the law, they should be brought to justice.

I am also aware of the ancient ritual of scapegoating – as a society which fears its own sins places the blame for their collective miseries and flaws upon an animal or person. Whether one likes it or not, it is also certain that most Americans would have condoned torture among other transgressions in those years after September 11 – without a cultural memory of what the cost would be. The men and women of the Bush administration were acting on our behalf – with our implicit consent – when they committed these war crimes, these unconstitutional acts.

This is why I believe it would only be marginally more just to punish John Yoo than Charles Graner. Both men are guilty – but punishing them does not absolve the larger community or resolve our societal dilemma.

What needs to happen – what is more essential than justice – is for our nation to come to a consensus on how we will deal with terrorism. The biggest mistake Bush ever made was to fight a War on Terror on the “Dark Side.” In doing so, we chose to fight on the terrain most familiar to our opponents. And by unilaterally choosing to engage in a secret war without consulting with or even informing the American people on many issues – and even lying to them about what was being done – “We do not torture.” “We do not wiretap without a warrant.” – he undermined the very democracy he wanted to protect.

Armed with a theory of a unitary executive, he chose to protect our liberal democracy by acting as a benevolent (but elected) tyrant (on issues of national security) – eschewing all the advantages a democratic system, in which consent is freely given by people fully informed, in favor of the cheap, short-term advantages of a tyrant acting in secret asking people to trust his actions are to their benefit.

Rather than discussing what freedoms needed to be given up, whether our nation should give up it’s historical aversion to torture, what price we were willing to pay as a society in order to keep our way of life – he chose the path with the least resistance in the immediate term. George W. Bush had tragically learned the wrong lesson from September 11.

Yet even as he acted in secret – if we truly are a democracy – we are still responsible. We should have known. Maybe neither you nor I could have done anything – but together, we had the responsibility to. And if we’re honest, in the time after September 11, we may have even made the same flawed, awful decisions that that overmatched man did.

What we need today is to engage in that discussion that George W. Bush did not deign to – about whether American values are still relevant in a world threatened by terrorism. And we need to reach a consensus before we are attacked again. For if we do not, we will be less prepared to protect our way of life in the aftermath than we were on that Tuesday morning.

This is why we need a truth commission – charged with finding out who ordered what, who knew what when, what worked, what didn’t. We need a consensus, if our way of life is to survive.

History Humor Iraq Morality National Security Reflections The Bush Legacy The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism

Must-Reads This Weekend

Nuclear Porn. Ron Rosenbaum writes about how hard-core our nuclear fantasies have become in an essay for Slate:

I love airport best-sellers because I see them as our Nostradamuses, the literary canaries in the dark coal mines of our paranoia. They sniff out and serve up fictionalized but “realistic” prophecies of coming doom of one sort or another. Perhaps it’s that in their visions of total world immolation they diminish in the mind of said traveler the possibility of something so trivial as a 757 engine malfunction.

The Awakening. David Rose investigates the Sunni Awakening in an article for Vanity Fair. The big news: apparently the initial approach by the Sunni insurgents offering to work with America came in 2004 – but was rejected as a result of turf battles and ideology. 

Happiness. Joshua Wolf Shenk tells the story of the most significant longitudinal study in history (so far). He reveals that one of the participants in the study (all of whom were chosen while they were in college) was John F. Kennedy. The study itself is fascinating – and Shenk’s piece was reflective and probing:

“I’m usually callous with regard to death, from my father dying suddenly and unexpectedly.” He added, “I’m not a model of adult development.”

Vaillant’s confession reminded me of a poignant lesson from his work—that seeing a defense is easier than changing it. Only with patience and tenderness might a person surrender his barbed armor for a softer shield. Perhaps in this, I thought, lies the key to the good life—not rules to follow, nor problems to avoid, but an engaged humility, an earnest acceptance of life’s pains and promises…

Torture and Truth. Ali Soufan testified in Washington – but while he was constantly interrupted by an edgy Lindsey Graham, his written statement is a testament of a man who was there: 

The issue that I am here to discuss today – interrogation methods used to question terrorists – is not, and should not be, a partisan matter. We all share a commitment to using the best interrogation method possible that serves our national security interests and fits squarely within the framework of our nation’s principles. 

From my experience – and I speak as someone who has personally interrogated many terrorists and elicited important actionable intelligence– I strongly believe that it is a mistake to use what has become known as the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a position shared by many professional operatives, including the CIA officers who were present at the initial phases of the Abu Zubaydah interrogation. 

These techniques, from an operational perspective, are ineffective, slow and unreliable, and as a result harmful to our efforts to defeat al Qaeda. (This is aside from the important additional considerations that they are un-American and harmful to our reputation and cause.) 

Barack Obama Criticism Morality National Security Politics The Bush Legacy The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism

Cheney Is Preemptively Politicizing The Next Attack

[digg-reddit-me]Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard is reporting that the CIA’s Information and Privacy Coordinator has rejected Cheney’s request to declassify documents Cheney insists prove that torture worked. As the CIA explained in what is an apparently leaked excerpt from their letter to Cheney:

In researching the information in question, we have discovered that it is currently the subject of pending FOIA litigation (Bloche v. Department of Defense, Amnesty International v. Central Intelligence Agency). Therefore, the document is excluded from Mandatory Declassification Review.

Essentially, the CIA’s response is that the form of Cheney’s request is improper – though they are not excluding it’s release by other means.  Though the Obama administration could have reached out and helped out Cheney by intervening and (technically independent of Cheney’s request) releasing the documents, they chose not to at this time. This is what is actually going on behind the blaring headlines: White House Snubs Cheny!

In requesting these documents be released, Cheney was echoing Mark Danner, a journalist for the New York Review of Books who published the leaked Red Cross memos that documented the torture conducted by the Bush administration. Danner explained why we needed to declassify any relevant documents – even if they proved torture worked:

Mr. Cheney’s politics of torture looks, Janus-like, in two directions: back to the past, toward exculpation for what was done under the administration he served, and into the future, toward blame for what might come under the administration that followed.

Put forward at a time when Republicans have lost power and popularity—and by the man who is perhaps the least popular figure in American public life—these propositions seem audacious, outrageous, even reckless; yet the political logic is insidious and, in the aftermath of a future attack, might well prove compelling…

The only way to defuse the political volatility of torture and to remove it from the center of the “politics of fear” is to replace its lingering mystique, owed mostly to secrecy, with authoritative and convincing information about how it was really used and what it really achieved.

Danner argues:

This is the only way we can begin to come to a true consensus about torture. By all accounts, it is likely that the intelligence harvest that can be attributed directly to the “alternative set of procedures” is meager. But whatever information might have been gained, it must be assessed and then judged against the great costs, legal, moral, political, incurred in producing it. Torture’s harvest, whatever it may truly be, is very unlikely to have outweighed those costs.

As Dawn Johnsen, who Obama has appointed to head the office that under Bush authorized torture, wrote for Slate:

Our constitutional democracy cannot survive with a government shrouded in secrecy, nor can our nation’s honor be restored without full disclosure.

All of this demonstrates why Obama must release these memos – for only with full disclosure, with the Bush torture program subjected to the only disinfectant a democracy has – the sunlight of public opinion and inspection – only then can we come to a consensus on torture. This is the inevitable logical end of Obama’s stated positions. And there is reason to suspect this is still the plan. Those who have reviewed these documents (aside from Cheney) have said they do not prove what Cheney insists they do. As Stephen Bradbury, the compliant head of the Bush Office of Legal Counsel in 2005 who replaced the right-wing but independent Jack Goldsmith, concluded in a still classified memo (which seems to be referencing the memos in question):

[I]t is difficult to determine conclusively whether interrogations have provided information critical to interdicting specific imminent attacks…

So – if these memos don’t support the Cheney position – or offer only qualified support for it – why hasn’t Obama called Cheney’s bluff and just released them? Musn’t he be hiding something?

The one thing I have learned paying attention to Obama over these past few years is that it is often easiest to figure out what he means by listening to what he says. Obama has a way of setting a goal – then compromising, pushing deadlines off, hedging, keeping his mouth shut, and moving steadily forward – all while his opponents shriek and the media analyzes every small signal for portents of what is to come – until everyone misses the story and Obama’s goal is accomplished. This is the story of how Obama beat Hillary and McCain and of how the stimulus was passed.

On the issue of torture, Obama has been clear. He has ended the practice. He wishes to move on – but he does not wish to sweep the crimes of the Bush administration under the rug. He cannot appear eager to prosecute anyone – and he doesn’t seem to be. But he realizes that in a liberal democracy such as ours, there must be accountability. What is required is a balancing act – as he tackles the essentially political task of achieving a national consensus on the issue that will survive in the aftermath of the next crisis.

For Cheney, the political logic is also clear. He believes a crisis requires a strong executive empowered to do whatever is necessary. In defending this belief in the way he is, Cheney is setting Obama up to be politically kneecapped in the immediate aftermath of the next attack. Cheney is preemptively blaming Obama for the next significant terrorist attack – and preemptively politicizing the aftermath of that attack, preparing the ground for a resurgence of the Cheney model of the executive (which is in essence an elected tyrant). This is a truly dangerous game Cheney is playing.

Obama is struggling with how to counter this. He knows it is likely that America will be attacked in his first year in office. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were tested in this way in the beginning of their presidencies. Obama must demonstrate that he is not going too far too fast in pushing back the Cheney model – lest that push be blamed for the next attack as Cheney wants it to be. Yet the Bush-Cheney policies are being legally challenged on every front – and even to delay rolling them back, Obama must defend them. What Obama needs is a gradual, thoughtful, public process.

My suspicion is that Obama will let Cheney continue to promise more openness and accountability. Cheney has already promised to testify before Congress; he is pressuring for the release of classified documents; he is making his case in the public arena. Cheney’s insistence on fighting this out in public will give Obama cover to convene a truth commission – perhaps Cheney himself may even call for one. This strategy would effectively deal with the very real threat that Cheney’s preemptive politicization of the next attack poses to the country and to the presidency.

And it means the photos just held back must be released; it means we must get to the bottom of what Nancy Pelosi knew and when she knew it; it means we must figure out what the well-timed leaks about Jane Harman and Nancy Pelosi were meant to accomplish; it means we must know how effective torture was or was not; it means we must have a truth commission. 



[Image by the World Economic Forum licensed under Creative Commons.]