Was There Really an Inconclusive Torture Debate?
As best as I understand Ross Douthat’s maiden column for The New York Times, he’s contending that it would be preferable for the GOP nominee in 2008 to have run on an unambiguously pro-torture platform, rather than to see former Vice President Dick Cheney litigate the case for torture in piecemeal and indirect fashion after the election. (A comeback for Mitt “Double Guantanamo” Romney?) But why believe that the country hasn’t rendered a verdict on torture just because Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was himself an opponent? (And not the most thorough opponent, either) First, the man the country elected by quite a large margin ran on an anti-torture platform — “The secret authorization of brutal interrogations is an outrageous betrayal of our core values, and a grave danger to our security,” he said in October 2007 — and one of his first acts in office was to roll back the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation” apparatus.
Now, you can say that President Obama hasn’t gone far enough. From my perspective, the early indications are positive, but we won’t really be able to say until we see the outcome of the current reviews of interrogations and detentions policy. (What about Bagram? How far does due process reach? What about renditions? How long can CIA actually hold people before relinquishing custody to another government or federal agency? and so forth.) Indeed, if Ross wanted 2008 to be the purest possible debate between pro and anti-torture politicians, then why not stipulate that Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) should have been the Democratic nominee?
Then there’s the fact that there are all these laws and treaty obligations of the United States that were never considered unclear or controversial before the Bush administration revised them in secret after 9/11. Not one legislator on the Republican side has risen to introduce an Enhanced Interrogation Act of 2009 or whatever, probably because he or she knows that advocating such a position would condemn the United States to become an international pariah. Taken together, it would appear that those who argue for torture and who apologize for it are on the margins of a settled question, and lacking the courage of their convictions.