Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Is half a loaf worse than no loaf on torture prosecutions?

I disagree with Tim and Greenwald in that I think it would be better to prosecute the people who went beyond the Yoo/Addington torture line than to do nothing at all. I understand their point, and I would prefer a full, honest investigation of the matter. I'm a big believer in the notion that if you do good, professional, unimpeachable work and have the truth on your side, you have little to worry about. I want to see Cheney being grilled in open court as much as the next guy, but the prospect of some justice being done is better than none being done at all. I suppose we'll just have to see where this leads--it might well spawn a greater investigation. Who knows.

What I find really problematic is that a lot of liberals approach this question in the wrong way, i.e. that torture is obviously wrong, that it's a question that is impertinent to ask, etc. Republicans reopened this question and they're standing by torture, full-bore. They'll probably continue to worship at Keefer's altar for some time to come, as this has become a new touchstone of Republican identity politics and I suspect that even if an ironclad report came out saying that torture is counterproductive at best, they wouldn't care at all. What liberals (and torture opponents in general, though an opposition to torture strikes me as requiring some real little-l liberalism) need to do is to make this clear--Republicans don't care whether torture is effective, they take it for granted and what little evidence they have that it works is either spin or lies. They're standing by it because of their eternal quest to show liberals as wussies who can't handle those damn terrorists. This strikes me as both inescapably true and oddly understated in intra- and extraliberal debates. It shouldn't be, because it displays virtually everything that's sick and depraved about contemporary movement conservatism in a nutshell.

And there is a key political dimension to all this. For whatever reason, the public's confidence in Obama has dipped a bit over the past few weeks, but not so much on foreign policy and security matters. I think that this is causing a bit of a panic among Republicans. Despite all the talk of healthcare, Republicans have not been particularly strong on domestic issues for at least a generation, but the party (until Shrub) had a much stronger record on foreign policy and security. Frankly, I don't see the Republicans coming back from their rut without recapturing public support on those issues, and a pragmatic foreign policy and a sane security policy are the best ways of establishing a real, permanent (read: a decade or two) Democratic majority. The GOP can score some points by scaring people about health rationing, but it's not very likely to actually happen, and when it comes time to propose an alternative they really have no ideas of their own, outside of some combination of tax cuts, deregulation, and "Drill, Baby, Drill" (admittedly, doesn't apply to the healthcare debate). When the time comes, their domestic policy ideas are unlikely to suddenly become popular where they weren't before. However, without an opening on foreign policy I can't imagine them getting another shot at real power--Obama easily wins the Commander-in-Chief test vs. Sarah Palin, and Hillary Clinton in 2016 (maybe?) will flatten just about anyone aside from David Petraeus (who, of course, opposes torture). I think the Republicans see the torture issue as their last, best chance at regaining their foreign policy cred, but I think that the best argument against torture will be made in four years, when Obama faces the voters and says that we can have security and uphold our humanitarian values, because we did just that for four years. The combination of strength and compassion is typically a tough one to beat, especially if all you have is curdled cynicism sprinkled with nihilism. This all assumes, of course, Obama makes no major errors to sink himself in that arena. But this stuff really is the province of the executive, as opposed to domestic policy, so this will be where Obama (and his team) really will singlehandedly write the destiny of the party.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.