My immediate shock that Obama would be willing to suppress evidence of prisoner abuse, torture and even murder - stunningly widespread in the Bush-led military - somewhat distracted me from the politics of this. That is often a mistake with Obama who both takes his own responsibilities as commander-in-chief seriously and always appears to be playing a longer game than his opponents.
But this is a blog, written in real time, so allow me some secondary thoughts after a night to sleep on it. In the cold light of morning, it doesn't seem quite so offensive. In fact, the rope-a-dope this time might be on us.
The critical point of releasing the photos is that they will help break through to the American public just how endemic the abuse and torture of prisoners under Bush was. It was everywhere, in every field of combat, committed by every part of the armed services, and in identical fashion: no blood no foul, along the lines of the torture and abuse techniques specifically authorized by Bush. Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld sent a very clear message that spread throughout the entire military and CIA: terrorists are beneath even baseline Geneva protections, any prisoner might be a terrorist, so do to them what you will. Rewards will go to those who secure "intelligence" regardless of how it's gotten. Freeze them, beat them, starve them, shackle them, heat them, strip them, destroy them. As an email sent to all military interrogators in Iraq put it, "The gloves are coming off gentlemen regarding these detainees. Col. Boltz"Colonel Steven Boltz, the deputy MI commander in Iraq"has made it clear that we want these individuals broken."
And so they broke them. The point of the photos is not to demonstrate more gore; it is to have a fresh opening to explain to Americans just how widespread this was, and also to remind them that this led to the deaths of scores. But against this important public interest, the president has another duty - to his soldiers in the line of fire. These soldiers deserve a chance to do their astonishingly difficult job without inflaming those who might be inspired to kill and attack them. I see no reason to suspect that Obama is not genuine about this question, and it's a fair factor to consider. More importantly, he has not said that suppressing the photos at this time means suppressing them for ever, and has not indicated that he will prevent justice being done. In fact, his statement said the opposite.
The pro-torture right will say this call is obvious. It isn't. It's very hard. When you have inherited a policy of war crimes, and you are still fighting a war, balancing accountability with responsibility is tough. I think, having made our point, we should cut the man some slack on this. What matters is holding those who destroyed America's moral standing responsible. That is a struggle for patriots to engage, a Truth Commission to study, and the attorney-general to pursue, while allowing the president to do his job as commander-in-chief.
I will note this too about the politics. If Obama wants to get the truth out, and does not want to be slimed as a partisan avenger (the propaganda line from the Rovians), it helps him to have symbolic spats with those of us who believe we have no choice but to confront the war crimes of the last administration. This has long been his mojo: give symbolic gifts to your opponents while retaining the core issue. These gestures - Rick Warren dinner with Bill Kristol, summits with Cantor - help insulate him from being drawn into them kind of partisan fight the Rove right likes to fight. In this rope, in other words, the anti-torture movement is the current dope.
Fine. Rope-A-Dope us. But let us not let the responsible parties get away with torture, abuse and murder. And let us play a smart and relentless long game as well.
(Photo: Saul Loeb/Getty.)