Chris Smith: Why Obama's Right on Torture

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Torture is bad. Let’s get that straight, immediately and clearly. But the issues created by its use in the Bush administration are exceedingly murky to anyone not on the absolutist right or left. Fortunately we now have a president who is doing exactly the right thing when it comes to dealing with the mess George W. Bush and Dick Cheney left behind — certainly politically, and mostly morally.

Today’s front page of the Washington Post has a fascinating insider's account of how President Barack Obama arrived at his decisions to release secret memos that had sanctioned brutal interrogation tactics, and to reject the push for a “truth commission” to apportion blame and perhaps punish those responsible. Even discounting self-serving spin (SuperObama “dictated on the spot a draft of his announcement that the memos would be released”), the story shows in terrific detail that we got the guy we thought we were electing back in November: coolly rational, centrist, welcoming of dissent, yet decisive. (Another important point is that the story shows Obama placing great trust in the thinking of holdover Defense secretary Robert Gates.)

The short-term result of the process is close to perfect. Obama has stood firmly behind truth and transparency, opting to disclose what happened under Bush. He knows the country was damaged by torture, and that allowing the designers of that repugnancy to walk away leaves many fair-minded people queasy. Airing the torture memos is the morally correct thing to do, but there’s a substantial amount of political calculation to Obama’s choice to not go further.

He may know that Cheney, perversely, is right, and that torture did in fact reveal some useful information; whether the moral damage was worth the national-security gain is the stuff of endless debate. But it would undermine Obama to have Cheney win even one round. So Obama isn’t falling into the Republican trap of endorsing a divisive, ultimately unsatisfying investigation that punishes middlemen, if anyone, and sucks up all the political oxygen while diverting energy from addressing the current crises in the Middle East and on Wall Street.

Disclosing the details of the waterboarding ugliness directs more outrage where it belongs, with Bush and Cheney, and sates some of the left’s appetite for revenge. And it gives Obama room to dodge calls for a “truth commission” — and, more important, to sidestep Cheney’s attempt to bait him into that old-school Republican specialty, a draining diversion from the fact that two wars are still being fought and an economy is staggering.

Unfortunately, the truth-commission clamor isn’t going away completely. Obama’s putative Democratic ally, House leader Nancy Pelosi, continues to advocate for hearings, if not a full-blown show trial. Perhaps she's posturing to deflect some of the anger on the left. But everyone would be better off to follow Obama’s lead, and allow any pursuit of the evildoers to work its way through the court system. Because we are, thankfully, back to being a country of laws.