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Vindication

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Victor Davis Hanson is merciless, and mercilessly on the money, in contrasting candidate Obama with President Obama.  Back then, the George Bush approach to fighting terrorism was a stain on America's values.  How times do change:

Senator Obama opposed tribunals, renditions, Guantanamo, preventive detention, Predator-drone attacks, the Iraq War, wiretaps, and intercepts -- before President Obama either continued or expanded nearly all of them, in addition to embracing targeted assassinations, new body scanning and patdowns at airports, and a third preemptive war against an oil-exporting Arab Muslim nation -- this one including NATO efforts to kill the Qaddafi family. The only thing more surreal than Barack Obama's radical transformation is the sudden approval of it by the once hysterical Left. In Animal Farm and 1984 fashion, the world we knew in 2006 has simply been airbrushed away.

George Geraghty elaborates:

The interrogations of KSM (which included waterboarding) and the interrogation of Hassan Ghul (held in "black site" prisons) were key to identifying the courier; the president then authorized military action in a foreign country without going to the United Nations or informing the host government; the military action was unilateral, and we did not consult with our allies; Congress was not informed of the military action; and it increasingly appears that no serious effort was made to treat Osama bin Laden as a criminal [literally shoot and ask questions later]. The monitoring of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti's phone call was a result of an extensive global wiretapping system. Furthermore, as Charles Krauthammer notes, the helicopters used in the raid came from Bagram and Jalalabad; if we had withdrawn from Afghanistan on the antiwar Left's timetable, we would have had no bases from which to launch this operation.

President Obama has been in office long enough for the mask to slip a few times.  In domestic policy, the face turns out to belong to Herbert Marcuse.  But in fighting the war on terror, it belongs, amazingly enough, to George W. Bush.


11 Comments

I think Andrew Sullivan, responding to Ross Douthat, in the Daily Beast, is in fact far more on the mark:

Ross reacts to the killing of bin Laden with another attempt to conflate the war legacies of Bush and Obama. PM Carpenter enjoys fisking Ross's column. I'd say there are several differences Ross elides.

The first is competence. Think of the fiasco of the Iraq occupation - which remained unfixed for years while tens of thousands died. Now think of the superlative, careful management of the killing of bin Laden, a man Bush had said he'd stopped thinking about.

The second is torture. For the United States to have more success without torture than with it marks a turning point in history's assessment of the war crimes committed by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al.

The third is multilateralism. It is inconceivable that Bush would have ceded the initiative on Libya to Britain, France and the Arab League. That humility - which Bush promised in 2000 - was only realized after he had left office. (Ross acknowledged this not so long ago.)

The fourth is a limited executive branch. There is no longer any claim of total supremacy over the laws of the land and the other branches of government in warfare. Yes, classic executive actions - like the killing of OBL - remain in the president's unique authoritah. But elsewhere, the administration has gone to some lengths in vesting its war powers in all three branches of government.

The fifth is a transformation in the propaganda war.

Bush's unilateralism, false pretenses for the Iraq war and embrace of torture gave us one teetering, blood-stained chaotic and still fragile transition to democracy in Iraq. Obama's multilateralism, outreach to the Muslim world, and distance from indigenous movements have given us democratic revolutions from below in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iran, Bahrain and Libya. Only the first two have succeeded. But the shift in what's possible, while by no means primarily due to Obama, has certainly been marked since the cowboy left the Oval Office.

Yes, Ross is right in urging vigilance of the war machine directed by the president. But he is not right in trying to rescue the failure of the Bush-Cheney years from the historical dustbin they deserve.

Here is the link for anyone who is interested:
http://andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com/2011/05/what-continuity.html?cid=hp:mainpromo6

Competence: Do you really think Obama had any hand in planning the on-the-ground operation? From what experience? Community organizer? Better to give credit where it's due, to the Navy SEAL commanders. Are you willing to do that?

Torture: What you refer to as torture was responsible for the initial information that led to discovery of the identity of the courier to Osama's compound. The investigation was built on it, you bet. That's the way investigations unfold. But you need your initial lead. It was obtained under Bush, not Obama, and if Obama's policies had been in effect then, it's a matter of speculation at best whether it would have been obtained at all. What evidence do you have creating assurance that it would have been?

Multilateralism: You're joking, right? The Osama operation was the OPPOSITE of multilateral. To its now-great consternation, our ostensible ally, Pakistan, was not even informed, much less asked. None of our other allies was informed. The UN was not informed. They were given no information until after the fact, were not asked for help and offered none (so far as is known).

As to the Libya operation -- which is not the subject here -- yes, there was Obama's multilateralsim (although not as much as Bush's in Iraq). It consisted, as you say, of shuffling the USA off into a support role. With what results? Has Qadiffi been removed? No. Is he still killing the opposition? Yes.

Maybe handing it off wasn't such a good idea. Weren't you just telling us about competence?

Limited executive branch: Limited by what? Congress's role in assenting to armed invasions into other countries? When did Obama seek that, even retrospectively? Bush sought and got a UN resolution in support of using force in Iraq, not to mention a lopsided favorable vote in Congress.

To use this bold and unilateral executive action as an exampe of a "limited executice branch" is simply to deny that words have meanings.

Transformation in the propaganda war: What, this isn't the famous "recruiting tool" for terrorists? The killing (as Andrew Sullivan himself might say) of an unarmed Muslim leader in his home, surrounded by and endangering his family?

I agree that hunting down and killing dangerous anti-Amerian forces in the Middle East is a good idea, which is why I supported Bush when he went after Saddam and now support Obama when he went after bin Laden.

"Bush's unilateralism, false pretenses for the Iraq war and embrace of torture gave us one teetering, blood-stained chaotic and still fragile transition to democracy in Iraq."

Better I guess to leave an ACTUAL war criminal -- Saddam -- in place to usher in his "fragile transition to democracy" -- either that or mass murder. Not that, under Saddam, a "transition" to mass murder would have been needed, since that was the status quo ante with him. And not that Andrew Sullivan, or you, gets around to mentioning this fact.

UPDATE: A balanced WSJ piece on the question whether and to what extent Bush-authorized interrogation techniques led to valuable information is available here: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703859304576307083756690032.html.

Hmmm. What I call torture eh?

We waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohamed 183 times in one month. As John McCain pointed out in 2007, " ... following World War II war crime trials were convened. The Japanese were tried and convicted and hung for war crimes committed against American POWs. Among those charges for which they were convicted was waterboarding."

http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2007/dec/18/john-mccain/history-supports-mccains-stance-on-waterboarding/

McCain was right to denounce such tactics. I know you disagree, but I'm glad were not using them any more, and I'm glad that the Bush Administration gave up the sort of tactics championed by people like John Yoo and Dick Cheney.

And if watreboarding was so very successful, I would have expected that the high value detainees would have given up Bin Laden's location eight years ago, not that they would have made statements long after they were waterboarded, that combined with other statements, and other intelligence, would lead to Bin Laden's death eight years later.

"What I call torture eh?"

Correct.

"We waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohamed 183 times in one month. As John McCain pointed out in 2007, '.. following World War II war crime trials were convened. The Japanese were tried and convicted and hung for war crimes committed against American POWs. Among those charges for which they were convicted was waterboarding.'"

First off, perhaps you could explain how is is (1) OK to inflict DEATH on an unarmed man, in his home, when, at the moment the fatal shot was fired, he posed no risk, yet (2) not OK, and indeed a war crime, to inflict PAIN on a man who was known to have principally conceived mass murder and credibly thought to have been planning more, possibly imminently.

Second, only in the surreal world inhabited by Andrew Sullivan (and, it seems, you) could there be a moral or any other kind of relevant equivalence between (1) waterboarding American soldiers who were fighting off imperial Japan's unprovoked war of conquest and aggression in Asia and against the United States, said war having been commenced by Japan as a sneak attack at Pearl Harbor, and (2) waterboarding a mass killer in order to obtain information he had previously refused to divulge about his plans for yet more mass killing, for the morally imperative reason of preventing it from happening.

You just walk right past the only discussion adults are allowed to undertake, that being the discussion of alternatives. What was the realistic alternative to inflicting pain (and, I am willing to assume, terror) on KSM? Since you won't say, I will. It was to accept (indeed enhance) the risk that thousands more innocent people would be killed in the next al Qaeda attack. Did the next batch of one or two or three thousand victims have any human rights? Or do they just not count so we can piously proclaim over their graves how pristine we are?

The only way you have of even a brief pretense of equivalence is to omit the factual context and intention behind of the two episodes, which is exactly what you do. But both in morality and law, factual context and intention make all the difference.

The SEALS did some dirty work. So did KSM's interrogators. I thank God for them all. In addition to helping protect our fellow citizens, the sadistic thugs they dealt with had worked for years to earn what they got.

"And if watreboarding was so very successful, I would have expected that the high value detainees would have given up Bin Laden's location eight years ago..."

How do you know they didn't? How do you know the detainees knew Osama's location then or ever (as opposed to knowing part of the trail that might, over time, lead to his location)? How do you know that they DIDN'T reveal his location, but by the time the information became actionable, he had moved?

Finally, I can't help observing that you don't so much as take issue with 80% of my initial reply, implicitly (and wisely) conceding there is no issue to be taken with it.


You really don't see the difference between (1) killing the leader of an organization that is actively engaged in armed combat with the United States, consistent with UN Resolutions, who has not surrendered and not in captivity, and (2) torturing a captive, in violation of the UN Convention on Torture, and federal laws? Adam Serwer makes the point better than I can:

http://prospect.org/csnc/blogs/adam_serwer_archive?month=05&year=2011&base_name=killing_obl_was_legal

I agree with him, and in contrast to you, I don't think the SEALs did "dirty work."

Your excuse for the different treatment of Japanese and Americans who abused captives appears to be that they had terrible aims and ours were benign. I agree that our aims were benign and theirs were utterly malignant, but I am less sanguine with the reasoning that the ends justify the means.

John Yoo argued that there was no law that could prevent the President from ordering the torture of a child of a suspect in custody – including by crushing that child’s testicles.

http://www.villagevoice.com/2006-01-24/news/don-t-ask-don-t-tell/

If the cause was just enough, were would you draw the line? What about Jack Bauer, with his ticking time bomb fantasy, that so entranced the right?

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/02/19/070219fa_fact_mayer

As for your other arguments, silence actually isn't consent. If we had focused more attention on Bin Laden at Tora Bora and thereafter and actually defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, and less on "preemptive war" against an enemy that didn't have the nuclear and biological weapons that we insisted the Iraqis had, we might have settled this matter long ago.

It's an old and lame debate trick to brush past questions you find difficult in order to stay on the talking points. It won't work here.

1. I asked whether you could explain how it's (1) acceptable to inflict DEATH on an unarmed man, in his home, when, at the moment the fatal shot was fired, he posed no risk, yet (2) unacceptable, and indeed a war crime, to inflict PAIN on a man who was known to have principally conceived mass murder and credibly thought to have been planning more, possibly imminently.

You don't answer. In addition, you do not and could not dispute my characterizations. Instead you merely re-cast them in a way to make KSM, of all wretched human beings, seem like the victim. It's enough to make Code Pink blush.

2. Killing a person by blowing his head off is dirty work at least in the sense that, if nothing else, the aesthetics are less than pleasant. But, contrary to your seemingly pious stance, the realities of life require that dirty work sometimes be done. The SEALS did it, for which they should (and probably will) receive medals.

3. "Your excuse for the different treatment of Japanese and Americans who abused captives..."

It's not an "excuse." It's a reason. I'm sure you understand the difference, but nice try.

"...appears to be that they had terrible aims and ours were benign. I agree that our aims were benign and theirs were utterly malignant, but I am less sanguine with the reasoning that the ends justify the means."

As Milton Friedman once asked, can you name something else that justifies them?

Exactly the same argument was made in the closing stages of WWII. The argument was that Truman was a war criminal for dropping the atomic bomb on Japan, when it was thought very likely in advance that it would kill, maim and sicken thousands of innocent people, including children. And exactly the same reason you (again) whistle past justified Truman's decision: In all likelihood, the alternative (an indefinite continuation of the War with mass casualties) was worse.

Was Truman a war criminal? Remember: Disfiguring and agonizing radiation burns to hundreds (at least) of children. Infants burned to a crisp. Really, was Truman a war criminal?

I'm sorry the world poses unhappy and unappetizing choices, but it does. Your dodging to the contrary, it's ALL about alternatives. I asked what the alternative was to obtaining information by waterboarding -- valuable information that otherwise KSM refused to divulge. What risks would we be taking? To whom? How many innocents would pay the price? You just ignore the questions. But those fighting this war, from KSM's interrogators to the SEALS who (based in part of the information thus obtained) waxed Osama, did not have the luxury of not thinking about the alternative. Neither did George Bush, and neither did John Yoo.

4. "If the cause was just enough, were would you draw the line? What about Jack Bauer, with his ticking time bomb fantasy, that so entranced the right?"

If I recall correctly, the ticking time bomb first hoved into view in a piece by Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, who suggested "torture warrants" -- not by Jack Bauer.

And while we're at it, how did Jack Bauer make an appearance while you still refuse to discuss, or even mention, Saddam? What an oddly selective concern about human rights and obedience to the UN.

5. "As for your other arguments, silence actually isn't consent."

Quite true. Of course it's not an answer either. If you have an answer, you are as free to give it as to continue with diversions about Jack Bauer. Perhaps you could begin your answer with a discussion of the Andrew Sullivan claim you embraced -- a claim not merely mistaken but preposterous -- that the killing of Osama showed "multilateralism," when the truth is that is was a virtual case study in unilateralism.

6. "If we had focused more attention on Bin Laden at Tora Bora and thereafter and actually defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, and less on 'preemptive war' against an enemy that didn't have the nuclear and biological weapons that we insisted the Iraqis had, we might have settled this matter long ago."

If we had focused more attention on Tora Bora, you would have been the first one to complain (again) about U.S. "war crimes," those being that the use of predator drones resulted in numerous civilian casualties. Indeed, Obama's increased use of such drones has continued to produce those casualties, but, oddly, they don't seem to create nearly the consternation on the Left that the same or lesser numbers of them did during the Bush Administration.

As I pointed out in the post that started this thread, Obama turned on a dime to adopt (or expand) Bush-era anti-terrorist programs in one area after the next -- the very programs he and the Left told us in the campaign should and would be the No. 1 targets of "Change." Having used and built upon the anti-terror infrastructure that Bush created to push back al Qaeda and then find and kill Osama, it took the Left mere days to return, as you do, to the rote and partisan denunciation of Bush that President Obama's recent thrilling success impeaches as hypocrisy's worst spawn.

On this one, I am still firmly convinced that you are wrong, and that John McCain is taking a more sensible and moral positionthan you are. In an Op Ed today in the Washington Post, he stated:

"Osama bin Laden’s welcome death has ignited debate over whether the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques used on enemy prisoners were instrumental in locating bin Laden, and whether they are a justifiable means for gathering intelligence.

Much of this debate is a definitional one: whether any or all of these methods constitute torture. I believe some of them do, especially waterboarding, which is a mock execution and thus an exquisite form of torture. As such, they are prohibited by American laws and values, and I oppose them.
I know those who approved and employed these practices were dedicated to protecting Americans. I know they were determined to keep faith with the victims of terrorism and to prove to our enemies that the United States would pursue justice relentlessly no matter how long it took.

I don’t believe anyone should be prosecuted for having used these techniques, and I agree that the administration should state definitively that they won’t be. I am one of the authors of the Military Commissions Act, and we wrote into the legislation that no one who used or approved the use of these interrogation techniques before its enactment should be prosecuted. I don’t think it is helpful or wise to revisit that policy.

But this must be an informed debate. Former attorney general Michael Mukasey recently claimed that 'the intelligence that led to bin Laden . . . began with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who broke like a dam under the pressure of harsh interrogation techniques that included waterboarding. He loosed a torrent of information — including eventually the nickname of a trusted courier of bin Laden.' That is false.

I asked CIA Director Leon Panetta for the facts, and he told me the following: The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times. The first mention of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti — the nickname of the al-Qaeda courier who ultimately led us to bin Laden — as well as a description of him as an important member of al-Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country, who we believe was not tortured. None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed’s real name, his whereabouts or an accurate description of his role in al-Qaeda.

In fact, the use of 'enhanced interrogation techniques' on Khalid Sheik Mohammed produced false and misleading information. He specifically told his interrogators that Abu Ahmed had moved to Peshawar, got married and ceased his role as an al-Qaeda facilitator — none of which was true. According to the staff of the Senate intelligence committee, the best intelligence gained from a CIA detainee — information describing Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti’s real role in al-Qaeda and his true relationship to bin Laden — was obtained through standard, noncoercive means.

I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear — true or false — if he believes it will relieve his suffering. Often, information provided to stop the torture is deliberately misleading.

Mistreatment of enemy prisoners endangers our own troops, who might someday be held captive. While some enemies, and al-Qaeda surely, will never be bound by the principle of reciprocity, we should have concern for those Americans captured by more conventional enemies, if not in this war then in the next.

Though it took a decade to find bin Laden, there is one consolation for his long evasion of justice: He lived long enough to witness what some are calling the Arab Spring, the complete repudiation of his violent ideology.

As we debate how the United States can best influence the course of the Arab Spring, can’t we all agree that the most obvious thing we can do is stand as an example of a nation that holds an individual’s human rights as superior to the will of the majority or the wishes of government? Individuals might forfeit their life as punishment for breaking laws, but even then, as recognized in our Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, they are still entitled to respect for their basic human dignity, even if they have denied that respect to others.

All of these arguments have the force of right, but they are beside the most important point. Ultimately, this is more than a utilitarian debate. This is a moral debate. It is about who we are.

I don’t mourn the loss of any terrorist’s life. What I do mourn is what we lose when by official policy or official neglect we confuse or encourage those who fight this war for us to forget that best sense of ourselves. Through the violence, chaos and heartache of war, through deprivation and cruelty and loss, we are always Americans, and different, stronger and better than those who would destroy us."

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/bin-ladens-death-and-the-debate-over-torture/2011/05/11/AFd1mdsG_story.html

I'll say only one more thing. Other than that, you will have had the last word, at least for now. (BTW, I have great admiration for McCain, a true war hero, and I contributed not a small sum to his campaign. He is wrong on this one, however).

The one thing I'll say is this: It's a question of alternatives. This is what you still resolutely refuse to discuss, but it's the only adult question. It's not like we can just resolve to be pure of heart and stroll to a happy future content with that. We are in a war chock full of ugly choices.

And this war, given the battlefield our enemies have chosen (our cities and towns), is a war for intelligence. Our duty is first and foremost to future victims -- or, more precisely, to make sure there aren't any. In order to keep faith with that duty, we simply cannot take a pass on ANY potentially productive means for gathering intelligence.

al Qaeda operatives are not going voluntarily to tell us what they have planned. There may be instances in which they can be co-opted, but there are certain to be instances in which they can't or, even if otherwise, cannot be co-opted in time to avert a looming strike.

There is a feel-good benefit to simply refusing to use waterboarding. But that benefit comes at a price -- a price I simply cannot get you to take seriously or, so it seems, even acknowledge.

It's true that we don't and probably cannot know in advance what the price will be. So the relevant question becomes: In choosing which unappetizing or even dreadful alternative to take, who should be forced to assume the risk of error? The captured terrorist enemy? Or those of our fellow citizens who will be crippled, maimed, burned, crushed or killed in the strike we failed to avert for want of intelligence?

There are many difficult questions in the war on terror. That, however, is not one of them.

I promised to let it go with the last reply, but I beg your indulgence if I backtrack, since I thought of a way to sum up the problem with one question.

If we could have obtained sufficient intelligence to avert 9-11 by waterboarding a high-ranking al Qaeda operative, but otherwise could not have averted it, would you approve the waterboarding?

Your last question is a philosophical rather than a practical question, which requires some thought.

You could make the situation even more extreme: What if you could save New York from nuclear annihilation, but only by torturing the innocent child of a terrorist in front of him to extract information, would that be morally acceptable?

If I knew that this was the only way I could achieve this essential goal, and save millions of people in the process at the cost only of the intense physical suffering and possible disability and disfigurement of only a single innocent person, then perhaps I'd be an unfeeling monster not to do it.

But in the end, the world doesn't work like that, outside of television series like "24." We live in a world where we don't know the answers -- we don't know if torture will be more effective than other means -- and we have to make these hard moral choices anyway. In the end, the choice you make tells you more about you then it does about your enemies.

I recall some years ago listening to a report about Colonel Robin “Tin-Eye” Stephens, a British commander of a World War II interrogation center, who banned violent interrogation techniques against captured spies. An article in the UK Times

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article6201378.ece

noted that Stephens' reasoning had nothing to do with ethics or humanity and everything to do with efficiency. “Never strike a man,” he said. “It is unintelligent, for the spy will give an answer to please, an answer to escape punishment.”

The British during World War II had much greater cause to use such techinques than we ever had, but I think Colonel Stephens was right to choose the course of action he did, for practical as well as moral reasons.

I'm not sure if that is what you are looking for, but in this world of imperfect knowledge, it's the best I can do.

But then again, argument by anecdote can be quite dangerous. It looks like the British were not nearly as clean during World War II as the article I cited suggested. Their actions were quite savage on occasion. They just appear to have been better hidden:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2005/dec/17/secondworldwar.topstories3

In the end, my thoughts aren't changed though. Today, on the floor of the Senate, Senator McCain said that the debate over these techniques is ultimately "about morality. What is at stake here it the very idea of America."

"The America," he continued, "whose values have inspired the world and instilled in the hearts of its citizens the certainty that no matter how hard we fight, no matter how dangerous our adversary, in the course of vanquishing our enemies we do not compromise our deepest values."

http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2011/05/mccain-denounces-torture-the-very-idea-of-america-is-at-stake-here-video.php?ref=fpb

I agree.

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