Past, President and Future

What makes it hard at the moment to write sympathetically of Barack Obama is the loud chorus of approbation arising from his supporters in journalism as they mark the hundred days. Drudge calls it the “Best President Ever” campaign. It is marked by an abandonment of critical thinking among otherwise thoughtful men and women who comprise, roughly speaking, the grown-ups of journalism, the old hands of the MSM who have been through many presidents and should know better. They are insisting too much. If they were utterly confident, they wouldn’t be.

In the area of foreign affairs, one of the arguments for candidate Barack Obama was that he would put a new stamp—new ways, new style and content—on America’s approach to the world. This might allow some in the world—occasional allies, foes, irritated sympathizers—to recalibrate and make positive readjustments in their attitude toward Washington. With George W. Bush, everyone got dug in, and the ground froze. After 9/11 he cut like a sword and divided: You were with us or against us. He launched a war that angered major allies. For seven years there was constant agitation, and the world was allowed to make a caricature of U.S. leadership. There was no capture of Osama bin Laden, the man who made 9/11 and whose seizure would have provided a unifying Western rallying point and inspired instructive admiration: Those Yanks get their man.

A second foreign-affairs argument for Obama is that we had entered the age of weapons of mass destruction (we’d entered it before 9/11, but only after that date did everyone know) under solely Republican rule. Which allowed anyone who wanted to, to perceive it, or play it, as a Republican war, a Republican drama. There were potential benefits in a change in leadership, one being that the Democrats would now share authority and responsibility for the age and its difficulties. They’d get the daily raw threat file, they’d apply their view of the world and do their best. A primary virtue of that: On the day something bad happened—and that day will come, and no one in the entire U.S. intelligence community will tell you otherwise—we would as a nation be spared, as we got through it, the added burden of the terrible, cleaving, partisan divisiveness of 2000-08. This would help hold us together in a hard time.

Is Mr. Obama putting a new style and approach on the age? Yes. On the occasion of the hundred days one can say: So far, so good. (We are limiting this discussion to foreign policy because in terms of domestic policy there are only so many ways to say “Oy.”) There is an air of moderation, a temperate approach. Mr. Obama shakes hands with everyone, as is appropriate, for if American presidents dined only with leaders of high moral caliber and democratic disposition, they’d often sit alone at the table of nations. Though the controversy was that Mr. Obama shook Hugo Chavez’s hand at the summit last week, the news was the desperation with which Mr. Chavez tried to get in the picture with him. It’s not terrible when they want to be in the picture with you. It all depends on what you do with the proximity and in the ensuing conversation.

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But now a hard issue has arisen, and it may well have bad foreign-policy implications.

Mr. Obama has had great and understandable difficulty in balancing competing claims regarding how to treat government information on prisoner abuse. The White House debated, decided to release Bush-era memos, then said they wouldn’t allow anyone to be prosecuted, then said maybe they would. It was flat-footed, confusing. The only impressive Obama we saw on the question this week was the one described by “a senior White House official” in the Washington Post. He or she was quoted saying, of the internal administration debates, that “the president’s concern was that would ratchet the whole thing up,” and “His whole thing is: I banned all this. This chapter is over. What we don’t need now is to become a sort of feeding frenzy where we go back and relitigate this.”

Assuming the official spoke accurately of Mr. Obama’s attitude, the president was wise in his reservations.

A problem with the release of the documents is that it opens the way—it probably forces the way—to congressional hearings, or a commission, or an independent prosecutor. It is hard at this point to imagine that what will follow will not prove destructive to—old-fashioned phrase coming—the good of the country.

Torture is bad, and as to whether the procedures outlined in the memos constituted torture, you could do worse than follow the wisdom of John McCain, who says, “Waterboarding is torture, period.” This is something he’d know about. Abuse is wrong not only in a specific and immediate sense but in a larger one: It coarsens and damages the nation that does it while undermining its reputation in the world and its trust in itself. I freely admit it is easy to say this on a pretty day in spring 2009, and might not have been when 3,000 Americans had just been killed. In New York it took months for us to lose the terrible, burnt-plastic smell of the smoke. The earliest memos were written by men who still had the smell of smoke in their noses.

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Why have reservations, then, about release of the memos and the investigations that will no doubt follow?

For these reasons. Prisoner abuse has been banned. Mr. Obama himself, as he notes in the quote above, banned it. It’s over. The press, with great difficulty, and if arguably belatedly, did and is doing its job: It uncovered and revealed the abuse. The historians are descending, as they should. Hearings, commissions or prosecutors would suck all the oxygen out of the room and come to obsess the capital, taking focus off two actual, immediate and pressing emergencies, the economy and the age of terror. Hearings, especially, would likely tear up the country as we descended into opposing camps. They would damage or burden America’s intelligence services, and likely result in the abuse of those who acted from high motives, having been advised their actions were legal. As for the memo writers, some of whose constitutional theories were apparently tilted to the extreme in favor of the executive, it is hard to see how it would help future administrations, or this one, to have such advice, however incorrectly formulated, criminalized.

Finally, hearings would not take place only in America. They would take place in the world, in this world, the one with extremists and terrible weapons. It is hard to believe hearings, with grandstanding senators playing to the crowd, would not descend into an auto-da-fé, a public burning of sinners, with charges, countercharges, leaks and graphic testimony. This would be a self-immolating exercise that would both excite and inform America’s foes. And possibly inspire them.

Meanwhile, a resurgent Taliban is moving toward Islamabad and, possibly, the Pakistani nuclear arsenal; Israel and Iran are at loggerheads; and Iraq and Afghanistan continue as live and difficult wars. And that’s just one small part of the world.

What a time to open a new front, and have a new fight, and not about what is but what was.

Hard not to believe it wouldn’t be better to leave this one to history, and the historians. Absent that, a commission is better than a public prosecutor with an endless prosecution, and a public prosecutor is better than congressional hearings. Really, almost anything would be better than that.