If Obama Cedes Ground on Torture to Cheney, We'll All Pay a Heavy Price

By acknowledging recent crimes while refusing to pursue the criminals, the president has made his position untenable

'Every government assumes deeds and misdeeds of the past," writes Hannah Arendt in Eichmann and the Holocaust.
"It means hardly more, generally speaking, than that every generation,
by virtue of being born into a historical continuum, is burdened by the
sins of the fathers as it is blessed with the deeds of the ancestors."

Barack Obama this cuts both ways. Talented as he is, he looks much more
so when compared with the man who preceded him. Just by showing up and
stringing a few coherent sentences together, he embodies an
improvement. To earn acclaim in these early months, he hasn't had to do
anything good. He merely had to announce that he would stop doing
things that were bad.

On the other hand, he has inherited the
scarred landscape of his predecessor's tenure. Bush's wars, banks, car
companies, secret prisons and untried prisoners are now his. As the
candidate he may have promised change, but as the president he must
also simulate some sense of continuity. Soaring rhetoric, however
hopeful about the future, cannot erase the past, which has a habit of
remaining with us.

Herein lies the tension in Obama's deeply
flawed attempts to come to terms with America's recent disgraceful
record of torture and detainment. As a candidate he was consistent on
two points. First, he was opposed to torture and would close Guantanamo
Bay. "I believe that we must reject torture without equivocation
because it does not make us safe, it results in unreliable
intelligence, it puts our troops at risk, and it contradicts core
American values." Second, he had no desire to prosecute those who have
been guilty of human rights abuses. "I would not want my first term
consumed by what was perceived on the part of the Republicans as a
partisan witch-hunt, because I think we've got too many problems to

In short, by acknowledging the crimes while refusing to
pursue the criminals he has promised to rectify America's grim recent
history without ever reckoning with it.

Events over the past few
weeks have shown just how ethically and politically untenable this
situation really is. His first term looks as though it may be consumed
by these issues anyway - and not on his terms. Having released the
torture memos, Obama then reversed his position on releasing
photographs that accompanied them on the grounds that to do so would
endanger US troops. Having opposed trying Guantanamo prisoners under
military commissions, he now supports it. His decision to close
Guantanamo has been delivered a huge blow by the Senate, which voted
90-6 to deny the funds necessary to do so. Now he has proposed that
suspects who cannot be tried in a federal court because evidence
against them was obtained under torture could be held in "prolonged
detention" in the US without trial.

In essence, he would
transfer the legal architecture of Guantanamo to the mainland, as
though the problem were one of geography rather than principle. So much
for core American values.

On one level we should not be
surprised. Obama was elected by Americans to represent American
interests - which, in turn, are informed by American political
realities. And the reality is that, with a few notable exceptions,
the Democrats have consistently failed to provide an unswerving,
principled opposition to torture whenever they have had the power to do
so, for fear of being branded unpatriotic. Like their spinelessness
over the Iraq war, this complicity in the name of pragmatism ultimately
makes them more vulnerable to political attack, rather than less.

The speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi,
knows this only too well. When asked why she took impeachment off the
table before the 2006 elections, she said: "What about these other
people who voted for that war with no evidence ... Are they going to be
voting with us to impeach the president? Where are these Democrats
going to be? Are they going to be voting for us to impeach a president
who took us to war on information that they had also?"

makes the recent fiasco over her confused accounts of whether and when
the CIA mislead her on waterboarding seem all the more disingenuous.
Allegations of torture from various sources were prevalent by that
stage, and she chose not to believe them. Her silence made her
complicit, leaving her territory on the moral high ground foreclosed.

should leave us in no doubt as to where the ultimate responsibility
lies. "Where all are guilty, no one is," wrote Arendt. "Confessions of
collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against the discovery
of culprits, and the very magnitude of the crime the best excuse for
doing nothing."

This is precisely how those who have now left the
Bush administration have played it. "The president instructed us that
nothing we would do would be outside of our legal obligations under the
convention against torture," Condoleezza Rice said recently. "So by
definition, if it was authorised by the president, it did not violate
our obligations under the convention against torture."

But in the
absence of moral leadership the national conversation has morphed
seamlessly from human rights to national security, where the issue of
torture and detention is debated not on the grounds of morality but

With the former vice-president Dick Cheney leading the
charge, the right has managed to mount a spirited defence of torture in
which America's rights as the potential, abstract victim of terrorism
supersede detainees' rights as actual victims of torture.

the heady days following 9/11, argues Cheney, observing constitutional
niceties and international conventions was a luxury they could not
afford. Waterboarding, he said just last week, "prevented the violent
deaths of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people".
Cheney insists that by closing Guantanamo and putting a halt to torture
Obama is making the country less safe.

These arguments are not
difficult to counter. There is not one shred of evidence any
intelligence obtained as a result of torture has been used to prevent
further attacks. The best intelligence the Bush administration ever had
was a month before 9/11, when it received a memo entitled "Bin Laden determined to attack inside the US"
from the FBI, warning of "patterns of suspicious activity in this
country consistent with preparations for hijackings". No torture was
involved; no action was taken.

Conventions are devised precisely
to set boundaries in moments of crisis - in periods of relative harmony
there is not much need to refer to them. The Geneva convention, in
particular, was devised to establish the rules of engagement during
times of war. If the very fact of being at war is reason enough to
discard it, then it has no meaning.

And finally, if showing the
world what America has done would inflame anti-American sentiment then
maybe America shouldn't do it in the first place.

The Obama
administration's desire to concentrate on the future is understandable.
But the past has a legacy and the present has consequences. By ceding
the principle to Cheney now we will all pay for it later.

© 2023 The Guardian