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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama’s Measured Strategy on Torture

WaMo‘s Hilzoy has a sharp retort for WaPo‘s David Broder, who has made a sort of blanket generalization that those who want accountability for torture are driven by “an unworthy desire for vengeance.” Broder’s column doesn’t flat out say that all who want accountability for torture are motivated by such darker emotions. But he does swab with a very broad brush — “politicians and voters who want something more — the humiliation and/or punishment of those responsible for the policies of the past.” Broder warns further about “endless political warfare,” “vendettas” and “untold bitterness — and injustice.”
Punishment for torturers? Horrors. Hilzoy’s post blasts Broder’s psychologizing:

…Who died and made David Broder Sigmund Freud? How on earth does he presume to know what actually motivates those of us who think that the people who authorized torture should be investigated? Speaking for myself: I have never met David Broder. As far as I know, he has no idea that I exist. So how does he know that underneath my “plausible-sounding rationale” lurks “an unworthy desire for vengeance”? And how, stranger still, does he presume to know this about everyone who thinks this — a group that (as Greg Sargent notes) included 62% of the American public before the latest memos were released?

Hilzoy argues that motives for investigating torture are basically irrelevant and,

…By not investigating torture now, we would be setting ourselves up for future government lawbreaking. Isn’t it obvious that preventing this matters more than anyone’s motives?

The poll Hilzoy cited was conducted 1/30-2/1. In Sunday’s Post, Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta cite a WaPo/ABC News poll, conducted 4/21-24:

About half of all Americans, and 52 percent of independents, said there are circumstances in which the United States should consider employing torture against such suspects…Barely more than half of all poll respondents back Obama’s April 16 decision to release the memos specifying how and when to employ specific interrogation techniques. A third “strongly oppose” that decision, about as many as are solidly behind it. Three-quarters of Democrats said they approve of the action, while 74 percent of Republicans are opposed; independents split 50 to 46 percent in favor of the decision.

On Sunday, during “Meet the Press,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs added this clarification on President Obama’s policy on torture:

The president doesn’t open or close the door on criminal prosecutions of anybody in this country because the legal determination about who knowingly breaks the law in any instance is not one that’s made by the president of the United States…he leaves it to the attorney general to figure out who should be prosecuted for what.

Hilzoy is right to call out Broder for his stereotyping, which is reminiscent of the Gingrich era “the left is driven by hate” meme (and the right is driven by, what, love?). Hilzoy is also correct in saying that we can’t just ignore accountability for torture and let bygones be, not if we want to keep a shred of cred as a justice-respecting democracy.
But there is a valid concern buried in Broder’s reference to “endless political warfare.” It would be bad strategy for the Obama Administration to let the torture investigation get on a fast, loud track, at first investigating the decision-makers, but soon devolving into horrific images, grisly photos and revelations sucking away needed media coverage for reforms in health care, economic and energy policy. Then one day we wake up and read on page A-5 that, once again, health care reform is a dead issue for this session of Congress, which is preoccupied with the media circus re-hashing Abu Ghraib ad nauseum. It would serve the interests of “if it bleeds, it leads” journalists and Republicans seeking distractions from Democratic reforms, but it doesn’t serve Obama’s reform agenda.
In terms of legislative accomplishments, Obama has the strongest political momentum of any Democratic president since LBJ, and he understandably wants the public and media focused on his reforms. He did right in releasing the torture files. Getting bogged down on torture as the dominant media issue at this time, however, could obstruct his agenda until his approval/favorable numbers fall, which is exactly what the Republicans want.
America is honor-bound to address accountability for torture — but later better than sooner. Maybe the best thing, strategy-wise, would be for Holder to initiate a thorough investigation, but save the investigation revelations and recommendations until after we get the economy on solid footing and health care reform safely enacted.

3 comments on “Obama’s Measured Strategy on Torture

  1. MCinDC on

    Actually, I believe that NOT prosecuting or at least investing the torture is cynical politicization of the issue. It is clear that laws have been broken, both national and international. No attempt to get to the bottom of this, and hold ourselves accountable is caving to the politics of the issue, rather than taking a brave and moral stand against torture, politics be damned.

  2. janinsanfran on

    Beg to differ with both Green and Corso. Democrats need to stand for restoring the rule of law as well as for delivering the general welfare. Both are part of the Constitutional duty of government. The torture regime was just the most egregious instance of an attitude that the laws are just for powerless little people that has prevailed in Washington of late.
    Besides, we know what happens when we don’t bring powerful law breakers to account: they come back.

  3. Joe Corso on

    Obama is following the right strategy. The truth had to be made public, but – Broder to the contrary – most Dems are not hell-bent on punishment.


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