Responding to my reference to Truman and the atomic bomb in my rambling torture post, Ta-Nehisi asks an important question:

[Ross argues] that basically anyone other potential president in Truman's shoes would have done the same thing as Truman. But you simply can't make the same argument about Bush. Indeed, it's not even clear that every potential Republican president would have approved of water-boarding. I think you can fairly argue that Truman was in something of a historical--if not moral--bind. Some people will argue that Bush was also. But for the point Ross makes about Truman to be true of Bush, he would need to prove that Al Gore, and even John McCain, a torture victim himself, would have approved of water-boarding.

Right, and this is the nub of the issue - or one of the nubs, at least. To a large extent, how we think about the Bush Administration's interrogation policies depends on whether we think another president, Democratic or Republican, would have allowed the same sort of tactics in Bush's place. Jane Mayer thinks not, which is why she frames her reporting as a tale of far-right ideologues run amok, making war on American ideals in a fashion that's unprecedented in American history. But you don't have to look hard the history of our foreign policy, from the beginning of the twentieth century down the present day, to see continuities between the policies pursued by past Presidents and the approach the Bush Administration took to torture and/or torture-lite. Yes, the particular moral bind that Harry Truman faced with the atomic bomb was unique, but the logic he followed in that bind - that the potential gains to American security justified the brutal means - was typical of Presidents from William McKinley (whose Filipino counterinsurgency offers an interesting parallel to the Iraq War) down to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Again, I'll quote from Wesley Yang's Dark Side review:

While the struggle to defeat Fascism and Communism were worthy endeavours for which America deserves historical credit, both wars were fought in ways that would have landed American presidents before a war-crimes tribunal, at least according to the human rights standards that Americans have helped to foster, America's struggle against fascism included the only military use of nuclear weapons by any nation and the firebombing of German cities for no strategic purpose other than terrorising civilians; America's war against Communism involved training our client states in the use of assassination and torture - often against very bad men who were torturers and murderers themselves.

Nor did the end of the Cold War put an end to the bipartisan tendency toward placing raison d'etat above the standards of international law and morality that America officially aims to uphold. Ta-Nehisi wonders how President Gore would have handled the post-9/11 world, and in some sense it's obviously an unanswerable question. But it's worth recalling that the Clinton Administration, not the Bushies, pioneered "extraordinary rendition" - and it's worth citing this passage from Richard Clarke's memoir:

The first time I proposed a snatch, in 1993, the White House Counsel, Lloyd Cutler, demanded a meeting with the President to explain how it violated international law. Al Gore belatedly joined the meeting, having just flown overnight from South Africa. Clinton recapped the arguments on both sides for Gore: "Lloyd says this. Dick says that. Gore laughed and said, 'That's a no-brainer. Of course it's a violation of international law, that's why it's a covert action. The guy is a terrorist. Go grab his ass.'"

Now imagine that mentality translated into a context - the months after 9/11 - when it was widely believed that the Clinton Administration had been way too timid and way too lawyered-up in its approach to al Qaeda. Is it really plausible to imagine President Gore would have approached these issues like the bearded liberal truth-to-power speaker he became once he lost the White House? Isn't it much, much more likely that he would have become a post-9/11 proponent of a still-more gloves-off approach to terror suspects? (Remember that leading Democrats were briefed, to some extent at least, on what the Bush Administration was doing, and apparently raised no significant objections; indeed, the Post reported that "at least two lawmakers in the room asked the CIA to push harder.")

Now this doesn't mean that a Gore Administration would have signed off on exactly the same interrogation tactics that the Bush Administration permitted, or allowed the same sort of abuses to take place. (Without the invasion of Iraq, too - which might have plausibly happened in a Gore Presidency, but certainly would have been less likely to take place - there would have been no desperate, bloody counterinsurgency for the Gitmo interrogation tactics to migrate into.) Maybe Gore would have drawn the line at waterboarding. Maybe there would have been less of what Conor Friedersdorf describes as "testosterone charged bungling" in the implementation of interrogation protocols. (Though Gore's "go grab his ass" line sounds an awful lot like something you would have heard around Dick Cheney's office ...) Maybe there would have been more focus on what these kind of tactics do to America's reputation, and to the ability of jihadist organizations to recruit new members. And certainly a different, better-managed, less insular and paranoid administration would have done a far better job of being self-critical, making room for dissenting views, correcting abuses and changing course than the current occupants of the White House did.

But as far as the baseline of Bush Administration wrongdoing goes - the decision to take an ends-justify-the-means approach to the interrogation of terror suspects - I do think it needs to be placed in historical context, and treated as an example of the kind of consequentialism that's endemic to modern Presidencies (and to international affairs more generally), rather than as a distinct break with a more idealistic, human-rights-centric American past. That doesn't mean that I'm trying to generate sympathy for the hard, hard lives of John Yoo or Dick Cheney. It just means that if we're going to talk about the current President and his advisors as war criminals - which is how many liberals would have us think about them - we need to follow that logic where it leads: Toward a more wholesale repudiation of how American foreign policy has traditionally been conducted (and how we think about presidents from FDR to Reagan) than I think many liberals would be willing to accept. Put another way: I believe that the Bush Administration's interrogation policy was immoral, in its design and in its execution, but I don't believe it belongs to a category of immorality wholly different from other sorts of moral compromises that American Presidents have made, and will continue to make, for as long as this country remains a great power.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to