Two 'Rule of Law' Republicans Dissent on Torture and Assassinations

Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul distinguished themselves at Saturday's GOP debate by standing up for limits in the war on terrorism

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In Saturday's debate, the starkest divide among the GOP candidates concerned their willingness to adhere to the law while waging the War on Terrorism. Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul affirmed that they would do so. Every other candidate embraced unlawful positions that would've been unthinkable before 2001. The most important: the use of torture and presidential orders to assassinate American citizens.


Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich all favor "enhanced interrogation techniques," a euphemism for torture. Lest you doubt that waterboarding, the specific technique they've endorsed, is in fact torture, first note that it too is a euphemism. It refers to blindfolding someone, strapping them to a table, elevating their head, covering their mouth, forcing water through their nose into their sinuses until their lungs fill, and demanding that they reveal their secrets on the promise that if they do, you'll stop forcibly drowning them. If a Pakistani terrorist kidnapped Laura Bush, strapped her to a board, covered her mouth, and forced water through her nose until her lungs filled, would that be torture?

Jon Huntsman made the most eloquent case against waterboarding.

"This country has values," he said. "We have a name brand in the world... I've been an ambassador for my country three times. I've lived overseas and done business. We diminish our standing in the world and the values that we project that include liberty and democracy, human rights and open markets when we torture. We should not torture. Water-boarding is torture. We dilute ourselves down like a whole lot of other countries and we lose our ability to project values that a lot of people in a lot of corners of the world are still relying on the United States to stand up for."


President Obama insists that he has the authority to order the assassination of American citizens who haven't been convicted of any crime or afforded due process so long as he first declares -- in a secret process the details of which we're not allowed to know -- that the target is a terrorist. Said one of the moderators during the debate, "Is it appropriate for the American president -- on the president's say so alone -- to order the death of an American citizen suspected of terrorism?"

Mitt Romney fielded the question.

"Absolutely," he said. "In this case, this is an individual who aligned himself with a group who had declared war on the United States of America. And if there's someone who is going to join a group that declares war on America and we're in a war with that entity, then of course, anyone bearing arms with that entity is fair game for the United States of America." What Romney doesn't mention is that if al-Awlaki, the American citizen we've already assassinated, could be killed "on the president's say so alone," than anyone can be killed. Limiting the president's killing authority to targets who "declare war on America" is meaningless if someone can be found guilty of having declared war on America based on the president's say so alone.

That brings us to Newt Gingrich's frightening answer.

MODERATOR: "As president of the United States would you sign that death warrant for an American overseas who you believe is a terrorist suspect?"

GINGRICH: "Well, he's not a terrorist suspect. He's a person who was found guilty under review of actively seeking the death of American citizens."

MODERATOR: "Not found guilty by a court, Sir. He was found guilty by a panel who looked at it and reported to the president. That's extra-judicial. It's not the rule of law."

GINGRICH: "It is the rule of law. That is explicitly false. It is the rule of law. If you engage in war against the United States, you are an enemy combatant. You have none of the civil liberties of the United States. You cannot go to court... Waging war on the United States is outside criminal law.

What is Gingrich ignoring?

In Hamdi vs. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court addressed the case of an American citizen declared an enemy combatant by the Bush Administration, which asserted that he took up arms and fought with the Taliban. As Sandra Day O'Connor affirmed in her majority opinion, "due process demands that a citizen held in the United States as an enemy combatant be given a meaningful opportunity to contest the factual basis for that detention before a neutral decision-maker."

Ron Paul was the savior on this issue.

"We're at war against a tactic and therefore there's no limit to it," he said, condemning Obama's assassinations. "We create these monstrosities and we do things outside the law... You want to live within the law. And obey the law. Because otherwise it's going to be very bad for all of us. And this whole idea that now we can be assassinated by somebody we don't even like to run our medical care, they're giving this power to the president to be the prosecutor, the executor, the judge and the jury." As Adam Serwer mused on Twitter, "Paul remark goes at heart of contradiction of modern conservatism: Government is only infallible when it kills people."


Perhaps the most substantively absurd moment of the debate was when Michele Bachmann said, "Today under Barack Obama, he is allowing the ACLU to run the CIA." In fact, the ACLU has explicitly criticized the way Obama has waged the War on Terrorism generally, and actually joined the Center for Constitutional Rights in filing the lawsuit that tried to prevent the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki. Bachmann is either breathtakingly ignorant here or else lying.

Either way, she is just one of many candidates in the GOP field to show the folly of running to Obama's right on foreign policy. He surged troops into Afghanistan, killed Osama bin Laden, launched an undeclared war on Libya in violation of the War Powers Resolution, is waging another undeclared war using drones in Pakistan, and has taken most of the steps his hawkish critics say they'd implement in Iran. In other words, there actually is no coherent critique from the right to make unless it's so extreme in its war-mongering that a country tired of spilling blood and treasure abroad will pass.

Among the candidates at the debate, Huntsman and Paul are the only ones who can credibly attack Obama on the foreign policy grounds where he is weakest: his radicalism on executive power, illegal war in Libya, civil liberties violations, the destabilizing effect of his drone war on Pakistan, and the fact that he has an assassination list with the names of American citizens crossed off it.

Image credit: Reuters