I've long tried to give McCain the benefit of the doubt on all of this. He has been the sole figure able to resist this president's permanent seizure of emergency powers - to detain any person at will without charges or recourse to courts and to torture them at will. McCain is, I believe, a good man. But he has obviously decided that he cannot win this one. He has decided that the best he can do is prevent a formal breach of the Geneva Conventions, keep the military itself away from torture, while allowing domestic law to be reinterpreted to allow all the torture techniques previously used by the CIA. It is easy to condemn him. Too easy, perhaps. He may have done as much as he possibly can to prevent torture without playing directly into Karl Rove's hands. It is clear that if McCain continued his opposition, the Bush machine would have done all it could to kill his nomination prospects. And if he fails to win the nomination, and a Christianist Rove-backed candidate seizes it, then the future for American liberty and a decent conservatism would be even darker than it already is. I'm guessing that's how he has rationalized it. He's not dumb enough to trust the good word of George W. Bush. And he's not dumb enough to fight a battle he cannot win - now.
Then there are more cynical interpretations. It is in McCain's interests for the Republicans to do very badly this fall, so he can position himself as their savior in 2008. By taking the torture issue off the table, he removes one of Rove's key weapons in the campaign: to portray the Democrats as too cowardly to torture the perpetrators of 9/11 and therefore too weak to defend the nation. It's b.s., of course, but that's beside the point. It works. So this deal may temporarily help the Democrats in November (which may explain their own supine cowardice on the subject).
McCain, in other words, is a shrewd politician and he knows when to fight a battle he can win and when to punt on a fight he will lose. If he becomes president, he could, with the discretion given the president in this bill, rescind the torture that Bush has authorized. Maybe, he could repeal the bill, with a Democratic Congress or even a Republican Congress that returned to its decent conservative principles. At the same time, it's clear he has also acquiesced to giving complete legal impunity to the civilian architects of the torture policy within the Bush administration. Maybe that's the real deal here - I'll give you legal protection for past war-crimes if you give me the nomination in 2008. But surely McCain knows better than to trust the likes of Rove. He may have sold his soul ... for a promise from a professional liar. The tragedy of 9/11 keeps deepening, dragging with it men of conscience and principle into the pit of opportunism and Caesarism.
I keep reminding myself of the hideous irony: John McCain has just allowed the U.S. president to use some of the techniques the North Vietnamese once used on McCain when he was a P.O.W. If that doesn't make you sick to your stomach, then I guess you'll never understand why so many of us feel so strongly about this.
We had one hope in this fight; and he just, at best, beat a tactical retreat. There is no knowing whether this moral ground can ever be regained. We must simply pray it can; and fight on to ensure that it is. We have no choice right now. But we must not surrender. And we must not despair. That way, Rove truly does win.
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