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.