Cheney, Obama and the US security policy debate

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The most audacious part of former US vice president Dick Cheney’s interview on Meet the Press on Sunday was not that he would ‘do it again in a minute.’   USflag

No one doubts that Cheney (pictured above) has no doubts about the aggressive ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques that may have amounted to torture. To me, two other moments stood out. One was when  Cheney invoked the memory of the September 2001 terrorist attacks when NBC’s Chuck Todd asked him for his explicit definition of terrorism:

“Torture is what the Al Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11,” Cheney said on NBC. “There is no comparison between that and what we did with respect to enhanced interrogation.”

It was a masterful political argument, perhaps, insofar as Cheney shifted the question from the technical definition of torture to making an emotion-based argument rooted in the instinctive fear surrounding the horrific attacks 13 years ago on New York and Washington, DC. Cheney ultimately defended the actions because they were approved by attorneys in the US Department of Justice at the time, but even former Justice attorney John Yoo, who authored the Bush administration’s ‘torture memos’ that authorized the CIA techniques, worries that some of the tactics revealed amount to torture.

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RELATED: After US torture report, how to enshrine ‘never again’?

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Equally audacious was Cheney’s callous disregard for the fact that many detainees were ultimately deemed innocent. Cheney even dismissed the case of one detainee, Gul Rahman, who was left chained to a prison wall in Afghanistan to freeze to death:

“I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective and our objective is to get the guys who did 9/11 and it is to avoid another attack against the United States,” he said.

Rahman’s story, among other revelations of ‘rectal rehydration,’ ‘rectal feeding,’ and more widespread use of waterboarding than previously reported, comes from the executive summary of a report produced by the US Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the abuses of the US Central Intelligence Agency in its conduct in the ‘war on terror.’

Both instances demonstrate just how willing Cheney and other officials in the Bush administration were to dispense with concepts like the rule of law and due process in their zealous efforts to prevent another terrorist attack on US soil. It matters that Cheney doesn’t seem to want to engage seriously about the definition of torture, and it matters that Cheney is non-plussed about the collateral damage of torturing possible innocents.

US politicians often like to say that the United States is exceptional and, indeed, one of biggest slurs of the American right against Democratic president Barack Obama is that he doesn’t sufficiently believe in American exceptionalism. But it strikes me that the United States is exceptional insofar as it is a country founded on neither nationalism nor ethnic identity, but on a certain set of principles. What makes the United States extraordinary can’t be found in the in the DNA or skin color of its citizens, but in the concept that it’s a country founded on principles like freedom, liberty, equality, the rule of law, democracy, due process and all the building blocks to a pathway to prosperity.

Torturing innocents in a dungeon in Thailand through rectal rehydration and hundreds of waterboarding sessions robs the United States of the things that make it so special. 

We’re not infallible, Americans. But when we fuck up, we should be honest about it and work to make ourselves better, rising to the standard that we’ve set for ourselves. US history isn’t always pretty, and the legacy of African-American slavery will always be the original sin of American constitutionalism, and in protests from New York to Ferguson to San Francisco this weekend, US citizens are demanding an end to disparate treatment for African-Americans by US police — fully half a century after the passage of the landmark US Civil Rights Act.

It doesn’t end there, of course. Genocidal treatment of native populations, encampment for Japanese Americans during World War II, the controversial decision to unleash nuclear war by bombing Nagasaki and Hiroshima. But that process — of failure and redemption — is something that Americans have done for almost 250 years, and if the United States is more exceptional than Russia or China, the answer must lie there. To wit, it’s extraordinary that US senators from both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party joined forces to release at least a part of CIA torture report, at the displeasure of both Bush-era officials and parts of the Obama administration.

That’s also a reason for outside groups to renew demands from the Obama administration to be more forthcoming about its own efforts to  prosecute the global US war on terror. Marcy Wheeler, writing for Foreign Policy earlier this week, notes that the efforts of both the Bush and Obama administrations rest on the same legal bases:

On the second day of Barack Obama’s presidency, he prohibited most forms of physical torture. On the third, a CIA drone strike he authorized killed up to 11 civilians…

This is why the need to reform the underlying structure that the government has used to fight the war on terror — the [Memorandum of Notification] that has unleashed the CIA, insulated two presidents, and prevented real accountability for either — should be the takeaway lesson.

Say what you want about Cheney — maybe he’s a war criminal, maybe not. But I’d love to see Obama subjected to a half-hour interview about the legal basis and the strategic rationale for some of his own controversial foreign policy decision.

Don’t hold your breath.

No one expected Obama, who arguably waged the most successful anti-war campaign in US political history, to (i) create legal guidelines for assassinating US citizens abroad (and then actually killing a 16-year old US citizen in Yemen), (ii) expand drone strikes to the degree it did, especially in its first term with the barely defendable ‘signature strikes’ that killed scores of civilians in places like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia or (iii) do so with the kind of disrespect for transparency that it has.  Domestic surveillance programs, including those of the US National Security Agency, that began in the Bush era only accelerated  under the Obama administration.

It’s even more baffling that under the watch of dovish realists like US secretary of state John Kerry and outgoing US defense secretary Chuck Hagel, the Obama administration is escalating its involvement in a sectarian dispute in Syria and Iraq, the outlines of which were predictable as long ago as the 1920s.

Though Democratic supporters are loathe to admit it, the Obama administration has been happy to use the same widespread authorization of military force to conduct and often expand the same kind of global anti-terrorism efforts of the Bush administration. Maybe it’s not in the US national interest to torture detainees without due process in ‘dark sites’ from Lithuania to Egypt. But it’s equally difficult to claim the moral high ground when unmanned US aircraft are killing civilians in a half-dozen Muslim countries.

It’s futile to try to play the blame game. You can believe that the Bush-era torture abuses are worse than the Obama-era drone strikes (or vice versa) and still find both tactics discomforting. Maybe the CIA abuses violated international law, maybe the Obama drone strikes ultimately killed more civilians, and I don’t know how exactly to measure the costs of either approach in lowering global goodwill toward the United States.

Nor should we be particularly optimistic that the next US presidential administration, either Democratic or Republican, will diverge from the Bush-Obama path. That might be especially true for former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who has signaled a more hawkish tone on foreign policy.

The greater point here is that any thoughtful conversation about the post-2001 security policy of the United States must admit that the controversy over drones and torture are two sides of the same coin. Until Obama’s own supporters, who were so incensed over the Bush administration’s sins, admit that the Obama administration has committed its own sins, the United States can’t have a truly honest conversation about changing the US approach to security policy. With most leading contenders for the 2016 presidential race avoiding the topic,  we may never have that kind of robust debate.

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