With fears of a potential swine flu epidemic sweeping the world, and with the report cards coming in on Obama’s first 100 days, you would think the debate on the torture memos from the Bush–Cheney era would be off the table. It is possible that White House officials believed Obama’s preference that we learn from them and move on would be enough to circumscribe the issue and carry the day. But they were living in fantasyland if they believed that this dramatic news item would be a one week wonder. In fact, it was the president’s about face on prosecution that kept the news story going and will probably make it a dominant issue throughout the next 100 days.
Last Sunday’s episode of Face The Nation featured a debate on the issue between Senator Leahy (D-Vermont) and Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) during which both senators condemned the torture memos, though each had a different perspective on what to do next. Leahy wants a non-partisan—or, at the very least, a bipartisan—commission to investigate where the responsibility lies in the chain of command that led to the legal justification of such a policy. Who ordered what and who knew what? How involved were the vice-president and the president? We could also ask: How vocal were Leahy and the rest of the left when these atrocities took place? McCain, on the other hand, felt it was time to move on and argued that the verdict in November supported this approach. I am not sure what McCain was referring to because the Republican senator, an ardent opponent of torture, lost an election in which there were no differences on torture between the candidates. So how, exactly, were Bush or Cheney sanctioned by the verdict of November 4, 2008? Was he saying he lost because of the policies of Bush–Cheney—and that torture was one of those policies people abhorred so much they voted against McCain? I would not think so, since McCain ran a campaign that distanced itself from many Bush policies and specifically from the torture that occured at Abu Graib and Gitmo. Or is McCain admitting that Obama was correct in painting him as a continuation of the Bush Administration? I doubt the Arizona senator would agree with such a characterization.
This being said, there is merit to both positions. The Geneva Conventions, the rule of law and, most likely, the American Constitution were violated with these torture memos. Bush-Cheney obviously approved these. Were they errors of judgment? Or were they deliberate violations, used to justify a war for which there was no apparent link to 9/11? Leahy’s position, supported by the left, is that America cannot pretend that no laws were broken and that there was no responsibility. McCain’s position seems closer to Obama’s personal view and it certainly begs the question: Where were the sanctimonious voices when Bush-Cheney were rushing to war with Iraq under the guise of the “coalition of the willing”? There is legitimate doubt about the motivations of Democrats like Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who now argue for inquiry and prosecution, but who certainly had briefings from the Defense and State Departments regarding interrogation methods. Did she not ask the tough questions? The danger—and this is where Obama is correct—is that the debate might rekindle the polarization from which Washington has already suffered for over 30 years. It could be enough to transform the Obama Administration’s motto from “change we can believe in” to “let’s get even.” Already, Obama’s policies have polarized the Republicans and the Democrats. And some in the GOP really hope the left wing of the Democrats, led by Leahy, will win the day and derail the promising start of the Obama presidency.
The truth is that the decision to release the memos may have been correct, but the president cannot prevent the application of the law. Ultimately, he can issue pardons, but he can’t prevent legislators and the Department of Justice from fulfilling their duties without obstructing the course of justice. More photos of torture will soon be released and it is clear that those who want some form of retribution will once again be arguing for investigation and possible prosecution. The next 100 days are shaping up to be even more complicated and more difficult for the Obama team than the first 100.