A reader writes:
Your fury at Obama over his refusal to put the Bush administration on trial for war crimes is understandable, but misplaced (and it is Obama, not Holder, who made this decision long ago, and set the subsequent agenda). You write:
"[T]he Obama administration is circling the establishment wagons on defending Bush era torture and war crimes. They seem either a) incapable of understanding the gravity of what went on or b) deliberately refusing to tackle clear violations of the law out of the usual political cowardice."
You leave out the real motivation, which is neither stupidity nor cowardice, but pure pragmatism: any such war crimes trial would eat up the entire Obama administration, along with any hope of addressing the economic, military, environmental and social crises we face; it would ignite a full-blown civil war that would make the current culture war seem like child's play; and it would accomplish nothing that cannot be done in other, more subtle, but perhaps stronger ways.
I know you feel strongly about this issue, as you should, but to call this "betrayal" makes you sound exactly like the angry far left. It also leaves you looking completely inconsistent, on the one hand defending Obama against just this kind of attack, and supporting his pragmatism, clear-eyed vision and strength of mind and will, and on the other, accusing him of treason, immorality and spinelessness. Which is it?
I noted that Obama said "we ended torture" when he listed his accomplishments during the SOTU address. Torture. Not "enhanced interrogation techniques". I thought that was about as blatant an admission in front of the whole world as there could be. And infuriating as it is, that's it: Obama has made the decision to move forward. It's the right decision--the right decision for the country, the right decision for world. It is not betrayal. We do not have time to consume another four or five or ten years embroiled in the Bush/Cheney nightmare. We have to move on. There will be no legal trials. Obama's use of the word "torture" the other night was it: 'We admit it. We tortured. The Bush administration is guilty. And they will never be tried, except in the court of history--but we all know the truth, don't we? Now, let's get on with it.'
Yes, it's bad. But the alternative you seem to support would be far, far worse. You ought to back off a bit--"betrayal' is over the line. It was Bush/Cheney who betrayed, not Obama. You want the new captain to insist on a show trial of the old--"show", because everybody the world over already knows the truth--while the ship careens through a reef-strewn sea in the midst of a hurricane? No thanks.
I take my reader's point. And I should indeed have simply noted that pure pragmatism has almost certainly been the primary reason for sweeping all of this under the rug. I also understand the culture war ramifications of opening this wound and truly confronting it. I understand - which is why last fall, I wrote an appeal to the better angels of the Bush administration to both own and disown this stain in order to spare the country of this polarizing engagement with the awful truth.
But I also fear. I fear that the precedent of allowing war crimes to stand, without any accountability, means that torture will return. I fear that the GOP, in its proto-fascist reincarnation, will view these pragmatic gestures as validation and vindication of their past - and future. I fear that these forces, if not directly confronted, will grow stronger. When I see the actual pride so many have taken in adopting the practices of the Gestapo and the Khmer Rouge, and the blanket denial of obvious facts, I worry about the future identity of America. The Obama election was a chance to reboot, to say we got it. But that moment of clarity, that opportunity for renewal is in danger of being eclipsed by pragmatism in places where pragmatism cannot hold: the baseline norms of Western civilization.
And when we supported Obama, we did not believe we were supporting an effort to cover for and ignore the war crimes of the past. We did not believe that the next attorney general, by announcing a preliminary review only into excesses beyond the torture and abuse techniques of Bush and Cheney would thereby implicitly condone the torture techniques of Bush and Cheney, treating them as if they were not criminal at all, and thereby stating for history and as precedent that war crimes did not take place, when they clearly did.
We face a deeply ideologically and religiously motivated opposition party, dedicated at this point to the maintenance of absolute parliamentary discipline to reverse and halt any profound change from the Bush and Cheney years. And they are succeeding on many levels. But none more so than this. In the Yoo and Bybee cases, we did not have a situation in which they were going to be prosecuted for war crimes as they should be; we merely had an already obvious statement that their legal work to provide cover for anything Cheney wanted to do was so shoddy as to warrant professional consequences. That's all. But even that smidgen of accountability for war crimes has been bungled, delayed, and treated as trivial or bureaucratic.
There are consequences for this decision. Profound ones. And one day we may live with them again.