As Daniel Larison notes, the one place where Obama explicitly invoked "false choices" in yesterday's speech was his Bush-rebuking reference to "the choice between our safety and our ideals." This comes a week after Evan Thomas and Stuart Taylor attracted a great deal of attention (much of it unfavorable) for a Newsweek cover story arguing that Obama may end up following in Dick Cheney's footsteps on at least some hot-button national security issues - and a week, as well, after Cheney himself told Jim Lehrer that if the Obama Administration doesn't continue "the interrogation program for high-value detainees ... they will, in fact, put the nation at risk." And it comes amid a great deal of intra-liberal debate about how Obama should deal with the outgoing administration's record on detainee treatment: With prosecutions for torture and war crimes? With some sort of "truth and reconcialition" investigative commission? Or - the most likely answer, and the most in keeping with previous American history - by simply doing nothing at all?
One would hardly expect Dick Cheney to endorse his own prosecution. But I think there's a reasonable case that given what I take to be his own premises about the torture debate - that the acts of interrogative violence the administration employed were justified by the stakes involved and the intelligence they produced - the outgoing Vice President should support an investigative commission charged with assessing the consequences of the Bush Administration's detainee policy. Time and again, Cheney has insisted that any gains the U.S. has made in its efforts against Al Qaeda have depended on information from "high-value" detainees like Khalid Sheikh Muhammad or Abu Zubaydah that could only be extracted through extreme measures. But so far, the evidence marshaled to support his contention has been distinctly limited - and most of the insider-ish testimony on the subject, usually filtered through the work of the administration's critics, has tended to support the argument that torture is both morally wrong and largely ineffective. This is a high-stakes debate, to put it mildly. And if Cheney (or any of the many conservatives who share his perspective) believes what says he believes - if he thinks the future security of the United States depends on a willingness to take a consequentialist approach to, say, the waterboarding of leading terrorists - then he ought to be willing to advance a public and detailed case, before an independent commission, that the consequences were and are worth the moral costs.