Voting "Present" On National Security

Carol Platt Liebau
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Posted: Apr 29, 2009 10:09 PM
This account of the President's news conference includes some of the most revealing snippets in his answers about torture, releasing classified memoes, and the like.  Here are two statements worth discussing:

President Barack Obama said Wednesday night that waterboarding authorized by former President George W. Bush was torture, and the information gained from terror suspects through its use could have been obtained by other means. "In some cases it may be harder," he conceded  . . . 

Obama also said he was "absolutely convinced" he had acted correctly in banning waterboarding, an interrogation technique that simulates drowning, and approved making public the Bush administration memos detailing its use as well as other harsh methods used on terrorist suspects. "Not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees ... but because we could have gotten this information in other ways, in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are."

As I've noted before, President Obama is trying to structure the issue in such a way that he can do a little moral grandstanding without having to take responsibility for the potential consequences of his actions.  Saying, in effect, that there are other, equally effective means of extracting lifesaving information from terrorists that don't involve extreme measures is the national security equivalent of voting "present" -- it's an effort to evade all accountability. 

"In some cases it may be harder" to get lifesaving information without extreme measures, he concedes.  What does that even mean?  And is he that sure that, although "harder," it's still always possible -- always, mind you -- to obtain the same information that might, potentially, save someone's husband or wife or child? Apparently so, because that's what he's implying.

Finally, by insisting that it's just as possible to get the same information through gentler means, in effect Obama is calling the entire Bush administration either incredibly stupid or incredibly evil.  Why in the world would anyone resort to torture if the same information would be available without it?

I disagree with the President's decision on this.  But I could respect it if he said, "I realize that our principles in this regard may have a cost -- and a steep one in terms of American lives.  But all principles carry a price, and this is one that I believe is important enough to be willing to live with the consequences."  That's leadership.  Say what you want about President George W. Bush, but he was willing to stand up for what he believed.

Instead, Obama is trying to have it both ways.  We don't have to resort to extreme measures, he tells us, and we can save just as many lives without them.  Riiight.

It's a fairy tale -- a lot like his promises of new openness and sunny bipartisanship; being able to spend unprecedented amounts of money without unthinkable deficits and inflation; "reforming" the health care system so that everyone can have cheap but excellent care; and so, so much more.