24 April 2009

Obama and Torture

It's been a little while since I've felt there was something sufficiently inexplicable to post about, really. The economic mess has been explained as well as it can be, and it hasn't really changed, although perhaps there's something to be written about that sometime soon.

But today I was asked a specific question. I'm going to paraphrase the question here, because the asker self-admittedly wasn't quite solid on how she wanted to phrase it:
I want to believe that President Obama is against torture. Why, then, has he not come out more strongly in favor of investigating members of the previous administration who devised the rules that enabled torture during the Bush years?
I told her she might not like the answer, but this space has never been about comfortable things, but about trying to find answers to things that seem unfathomable.

For the record, what follows are entirely speculations, based on what I've seen of Obama's behavior and what I think makes sense. I have no special hotline to the Oval Office, here.

The Charitable Answer

Since I, too, would prefer to believe that President Superma...er...Obama does not condone torture, would not authorize its use, himself, and is horrified that his predecessor did so, I offer first what I call the charitable answer, the answer that allows us all to go on believing that while still allowing for Obama's refusal to unleash the hounds on those who believed otherwise.

It is extremely bad, usually destructive policy for a new administration to prosecute the officers of a previous one, no matter how strong the provocation or how solid the legal case.

The problem is obvious if you think about it: today, a Democratic president encourages the investigation and prosecution of his Republican predecessors. Four or eight or twelve years from now--whenever the Republicans next take office--they find some pretext, any pretext, to do the same to the Democrats. Not because the Democrats have necessarily done anything to earn it (although, if you believe they won't, eventually, you really are fooling yourself), but out of sheer spiteful retaliation against their hated foes. Even if every single person they go after is eventually let off the hook, the expense of defending themselves will cripple them, and the distraction will keep them from pursuing their lives.

But it gets worse. If all an outgoing administration has to look forward to upon retirement is prosecution, what administration would ever again peacefully yield power when their term expired? I know a lot of people who were honestly certain that Bush was going to do something that would allow him to declare martial law and cling to power. If he'd known for certain that he'd face prosecution or other legal harassment upon stepping down, he surely would have. This is why, in many countries, elected officials are actually legally, constitutionally immune from prosecution for what they do in office.

The Less Charitable Answer

Of course, just because I want to believe that Obama is anti-torture does not actually mean it's true. And before I continue, I want to stress something: I do not believe that Obama condones torture. That's not my point.

My point is that we don't really know, do we? And more to the point, even if we do know, even if we're firmly confident that, under current conditions, he condemns torture, we don't know that there isn't some line he's drawn for himself, past which even he would say, "Yes, rack 'em up."

The less charitable answer, therefore, is that, while he doesn't want to be using those tactics now, he is pragmatically unwilling to close the door and say that no, he would never, under any circumstances, use it or condone its use. Investigating the Bush-era people who enabled it would close that door firmly and irrevocably for his administration, and he's simply not willing to tie his hands like that.

The Reality of Governing

During the election, I came out strongly in favor of people voting for Obama in the primary. Note how I phrased that. I wasn't really all that strongly in favor of Obama; but I encouraged people who were voting in the Democratic primary or caucus to choose him over Clinton, for one simple reason:

He could win.

I was, and remain, firmly convinced that Hillary Clinton would never have won, while Barack Obama stood a chance. It was very important to me, in a way that few political things have ever been important to me, that the Republicans not take the White House this time around, so the Democrats had to pick a winner. And that, I was certain, was Obama.

Several people were upset by my stand. One said, explicitly, that she was appalled that I was encouraging people not to vote their consciences.

"Politics," I responded, "are the antithesis of conscience. Politics are about calculation and finding the last, most palatable evil."

Barack Obama campaigned on some amazing, high-minded principles, but the truth, now he has to govern. He has to cope with two wars his predecessor started, and all the hornets that starting those wars stirred up. He has to govern a great country that most of the world hates, fears, or envies, sometimes all three at the same time. Despite Bush's rhetoric and possibly even real intentions to make America safer, we are just as vulnerable today as we ever have been, which is to say, not really all that much, but when it happens again, it will probably be a doozy, just like 9/11.

In the end Obama does not want to be the President remembered for allowing another attack to happen. That, in the end, means he has to allow himself at least some wiggle-room with respect to the tools he would not choose to use, but may eventually feel compelled to.


Tegan said...

But then why release the memos so early in his administration? I'm not exactly complaining that we're being informed of these atrocities of the previous administration, but does there come a point when yes, they HAVE to prosecute? Is it better if this goes to the Hague? And how does that process happen?

It's very clear. They violated the Geneva convention because they believed they were above the law. History will not look kindly upon Bush, and I vehemently dislike the idea that they WERE in fact above the law and I think it's a dangerous precedent to set for future administrations that they can get away with this.

But how is it possible at this point then that justice be done?

Uncle Mikey said...

@Tegan: I guess my point is, no matter what happens, there is no justice to be had. The entire concept that people in office, or retired from office, are subject to any sort of "justice" for their decisions in office is fraught with peril. It invites abuse of the judicial system for political motives.

Tegan said...

Why bother with treaties at all then?

Maybe that's a rhetorical question. The US has never been very good at them anyway.

Uncle Mikey said...

@Tegan Treaties almost always serve some actual purpose at the time they're written, although that purpose is not always the one stated in the treaty. Most of our treaties with the Native Americans, for example. The real purpose there was to dupe the natives into thinking they were going to at least be bought dinner in compensation for the massive screwing they had received, were receiving, or were about to receive.

In the case of the Geneva Conventions, the real purpose is to allow every civilized nation of the world to declare that people should be treated like...well, you know, people. And in many cases the people signing the treaty might even have believed it.

But that's principle, not pragmatism. No matter how high-minded governments are in principle, in the end, they're going to take whatever steps they believe they have to to protect themselves and their population (usually in that order).

Here's the thing: I'm probably in the minority amongst my friends in that I honestly think George Bush believed what he was saying. I think he honestly believed he had to torture people to get answers out of them. I leave it as an exercise for the reader whether it's better or worse that he did it out of honest, if misguided belief that it would make us safer, rather than sadism.

I'm also in the minority amongst my friends in that I honestly believe that all government is, inherently, no matter what principles are enshrined in their constitutions, above the law. It's the very nature of government, even a government that is defined by written law as ours is, that in the end, it operates in a reference frame outside the one the rest of us live in. We can rail against the violation of principle, but the pragmatic truth is there is no other way for government to operate. It's inherent in the act of governing.

That doesn't mean that government can act without any restraint, whatsoever. But prosecuting them after the fact is useless. It won't stop future leaders from doing what they feel they have to do. It will just make them be smarter about covering it up, or making sure it's somehow made legal.