Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Big Picture and the Strike: On Torture

The Big Picture: Really strange that this wasn't covered in the New York Times, but the stuff Olbermann covered about how they did this relentless torturing in order to extract false confessions to gin up the case for invading Iraq is both nightmarish conspiracy theory and the only thing that makes sense. I had always found it way too kind to the Bush Administration that they were torturing simply out of too much zeal to defend the country. Everything else they did showed how they didn't care at all about defending the country and were always motivated by extreme ideological and/or corrupt enriching big business goals. Now we see that the torture program tied in with the criminal and treasonous conspiracy to go to war under false pretenses.

It's been a great week in that Dick Cheney, David Addington, and John Yoo drastically increased their likelihood of imprisonment ... for starters.

It's an interesting question over whether this week has been counterproductive for Obama because it's taken him off message, or it's really been a positive because it's a) focused on the most unpopular practices and unpopular personalities of the Bush regime, and the basis of his support is that he's the anti-Bush, the anti-Cheney, b) it forces the Republican Party to defend these practices and these people, which is horrible for them and furthers positive polarization (it could even split the GOP if members are forced to say whether they support Cheney or oppose him), and c) it buys him a little time, allows him to make some economic policy, look over the stimulus, etc. etc. without the glare of gotcha scrutiny. But on the other hand, he needs to keep building support for his economic agenda, he needs to keep showing that his top concern is people's jobs.

The Strike: My gut reaction would be to say it’s a very good thing for Obama. I think it's good to highlight the extreme excesses of your predecessors, force them to get on the record defending torture, and to get Cheney (one of the least popular people in America) to be the main face of the opposition. There are a number of reasons though, after rethinking it a bit, that I think it’s not good for him. First, his primary goal HAS to be delivering for people (aka creating jobs). If he doesn’t do that, the country suffers and he loses his political capital. Any time taken away from that effort is bad, especially considering the pace of how quickly things are going in the tank. 640,000 people lost their jobs last month.

I get that people care about this, at least the most liberal academic types. But imagine if Bush after 9/11 had spent a week implying an investigation into Monica. Obviously it’s not the same, and morally, these people have to be held accountable. But politically, I think the majority of people care about this tangentially, but would rather move on. I think Obama gets that, and that’s why he was reluctant to release the CIA memos. The ultimate question: Is the moral necessity to hold these people accountable worth not accomplishing even the littlest thing on Obama’s agenda?

The Big Picture: I agree that you don't want any backward-looking investigations to impede his agenda. But here are three counter-arguments that tell me this will be a good thing.

1. For the long-term future of the country, it IS of high importance to publicly expose what happened and why, humiliate, and hopefully punish the people responsible. When the Iran-Contra criminals were pardoned, those very same people re-appeared to wreak havoc, and their successors learned the lesson that there is no downside to pursuing these horrendous unconstitutional immoral policies. You've got to have accountability. We do trust Obama to never do things like this, but down the road there will be Presidents who we don't inherently trust, and who are going to need the fear of serious personal consequences if they pursue these immoral unconstitutional policies. And, as you wrote the other day, a key function of the Presidency is to set the tone of the country, define what's acceptable and what's not, and provide an example to impressionable people, especially children. Public expose, public humiliation of these traitors will set a powerful example of right and wrong, and create a culture of decency and morality and sound long-term thinking rather than the anything goes, ruthless, ends justify the means culture of the Reagan-Bush era. I feel much more strongly about this now that it's clear that torture wasn't just being overzealous in interrogating top Al Qaeda people in order to stop a terrorist attack - which I disagree with strategically but I have to admit I'm not too personally troubled by bad treatment of Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his ilk - but instead was an element of the criminal conspiracy to invade Iraq. We REALLY need to establish, legally and culturally, that there will be zero tolerance and massive consequences for any future attempts to use torture and lies to build up support for future invasions.

2. I think it is very helpful for the success of the Obama agenda to have Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, torture, and Iraq front and center. In the last two elections we saw how effective it was to have these demons to run against, to define ourselves against. The Republicans are in better position when they take advantage of being in the minority: pick out unpopular parts of Obama's agenda, demagogue them, and not take any responsibility for anything bad that happens, instead pinning it all on Obama. And they are in much better position when they make a clean break from the past, from the figures and the policies that destroyed their party's popularity. The last thing they need is to defend extraordinarily unpopular people and policies: instead of extricating these albatrosses from their brand, the albatrosses continue to drag them down. Republicans want opposition to Obama to be seen as fresh, different, not what Obama ran against; deepening this link with the albatrosses discredits Obama's opposition as the very policies and people who people just resoundingly rejected in favor of him.

3. I don't think it's such a bad thing for Obama and his team to have a little bit of breathing room to formulate and evaluate economic policies. These people are under tremendous pressure and some of their errors or shortcomings are clearly due to fatigue and overwork, as well as being forced to respond to blown out of proportion media and Congressional sensations. I'm sure that Obama and his team are still focusing on the economy - they're not forgetting about it. Give all those people a chance to breathe, some time to think. I think that if they get a breather they will be more likely to consider the bolder plans out there, to talk to the Robert Reichs and hopefully Paul Krugmans, and to have their people take the lay of the land out in the country, see what people are most concerned about, what should be the top priorities.

The Strike: On each of your points:

1. I can’t disagree with this. Especially with the Iraq angle, we need to make sure this does not happen again, so we need to know absolutely everything that happened.

2. This point I disagree with a little more. I think we’ve gotten about as much as we can from demonizing the previous administration. That can build up some general goodwill, but to truly have the American people behind you, you need to create positive change. You also need to create the impression that you’re agenda isn’t to repudiate the previous administration. You need to show that you’re not going to stoop that low. You need to rise above the fray.

3. I’m not sure I necessarily agree with this. You think big if your base pushes you to think big. Don’t you want the left wing’s main concern to be the most ambitious economic plans instead of Bush administration investigations? Don’t you want them investing all of their energy and resources to applying intense pressure on the administration and Congress? If you’re focusing on torture, it’s far more likely that you’ll leave economic policy to the “experts” like Larry Summers.

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