Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Stop Torturing Obama's Torture Policies

I read the Krugman critique of how gently Obama is handling the torture issue but I basically disagree with him, and remain supportive of Obama on how he's moving ahead with this. I do think his basic plan is to delegate a process for handling this that leaves him out of direct decisions - perhaps through the duration of the process. But I'm sympathetic to Obama's reluctance to tackle prosecutions of the lower level people or to vigorously explore the renditions abuses and crimes. The moral good of doing that is reasonably weighed against the costs - how this could make decisions of huge consequence to millions even harder for Obama if he's embroiled in prosecuting his previous administration's policymakers.

Legal systems are not rigid and few would support the police tracking down every violation without any regard to the consequences of those prosecutions. It is appropriate to work towards fixing systemic abuses that create a climate and system where torture happens. That has been done, and was a top Obama priority. It's another thing to become so concerned with prosecuting wrongdoing in one area that you lose track of the far greater threats and solutions such as nation building in the Iraq we partly destroyed, peacemaking in Gaza and future Palestinian "two state solution" lands we have allowed to be destroyed with a misguided Israel policy. Obama's election was to many in the Arab world a huge and powerful statement by the US that the Bush policies were unacceptable to the USA people and changes would come soon.

Strategically I think getting bogged down with torture prosecutions will weaken our chances for change there with questionable corresponding benefits.

The key torture issue point: We should proceed with the current Obama policies of "no torture", no renditions, and a slow close of Guantanamo.

In terms of "looking back" I would argue that the GW administration criminal activity never rose to anything like the levels we see in many countries on a daily basis, and I think that is an extremely relevant point when you want to bring in appropriate accountability to past administrations. We want and need a vibrant, accountable, flexible, intelligent, relevant, effective government structure. Therefore I don't think it's in the best interests of the long term viability of the system to focus so heavily on small numbers of policy abuses that remained confined to small numbers of people were generally posing a realistic potential of catastrophic threats. It *matters* that the people who were illegally abused posed potentially catastrophic risk to national security. Although I agree with those including Obama and McCain who say torture comes with a moral hazard so great we should not use it *even if it would provide relevant information* as some interrogation experts believe it does under some circumstances.

However the incidents of torture generally seem to fall into the realm of warfare where all the participants implicitly agree that problems were going to happen. It's functional for a society to apply rules of law to those who hate that system, but it's not functional (in fact it is dangerous) to have more than trivial sympathy for those that seek to utterly destroy it. There is a real terror threat and I'm alarmed by how many people think this is simply a neoconservative fiction. I think the basic anti-power argument leans way too far in the direction of holding Obama to unsustainable standards of behavior where we spend so much money and time preserving the liberties of those who threaten us so dangerously.

Perhaps more importantly I think many executive decisions are complicated and dynamic enough that they should be made using the collective and often kind of messy processes we tend to use rather than by trying to focus narrowly and exclusively on these crimes when there are *millions of crimes* every day, many of which are against completely innocent and vulnerable parties who are far more deserving of our concerns than terror masterminds. This last point is very important, because there is a very odd tendency for people to get so wrapped up in their particular concerns they forget that the whole point of a legal system is to basically protect society from itself. Legal systems protect the overall system - they preserve rights of those who need protection.

Too often people see the legal system / constitution / courts as a way to try to impose their views rather than as a process to make the necessary decisions about how to hold people accountable. Good systems are not rigid - they are flexible and adapt in ways that trend towards functional societies. A great example of this in action is the US long, ongoing struggles to bring racial equality. We've moved from diabolical (yet arguably "constitutional") rules that allowed slavery to affirmative action rules that are now under fire for creating reverse discrimination. In this case and many others there has been huge progress in the direction that supports broader human rights and higher functioning social systems.

As Tim Geitner was pointing out during his congressional testimony about the TARP plan it is always imperative to ask "compared to what" when you are evaluating various options or working to bring systemic accountability.

Critics will always focus narrowly on defects, missing the healthy forest for the defective trees. Judging the functionality of the entire US system based on the fact that policy makers allowed and facilitated the torture of a small number of people is not appropriate. It's certainly appropriate to investigate how this happened, who approved it,, etc, and we're doing that now.

Although clearly we cannot pick and choose the recipients of legal protection I think we should almost always work harder and worry more about protecting little children than terrorists or even just terror suspects. Even though the legal issues are pretty much the same, the police and neighbors will very correctly will work harder to find an 8 year old missing from a playground than a 30 year old man missing from a late night bar crawl. We can't apply all the rules without regard to the context, yet critics love to ignore the terrorism context as if the stakes are much lower than any reasonable interpretation suggests. Even though my personal view is that the moral hazards of institutionalized torture are too high to bear I think those who think otherwise are not evil or psychopathic - they are doing a different moral calculation that suggests different results than mine does.

Why don't we focus on low hanging fruit solutions with huge ROI and little potential for undermining systems rather than the complex, high level abstractions that are the cornerstone of debates over executive branch high crimes, low crimes, and misdemeanors?

Tangential point before people go off on some of the Neoconesque points above: I am discussing torture policy - something I do not think is very important in the broad scheme of things. In my view our bad policy has now been fixed - score a basket for Obama and move on to the economic and foreign policy items that threaten everybody's life and way of life for decades to come.

I'm FAR more concerned in the irrationality and abysmally low ROI of the whole "fight terrorism" and military show which Obama and the new Democratic cabal is continuing with only relatively minor modifications. Our approx 580 billion on defense - some ten trillion over the past and next decade - is mostly money wasted in the pursuit of an unattainable level of security and stability the foolish electorate demands and Govt pretends is possible with more reckless spending in all sectors. This is NOT for the naive reasons the granola crowd has foolishly espoused - basically that we can negotiate our way out of trouble and use love and understanding against the bad guys - rather it's for the practical reason that protecting a life using a tank strategy costs 100-1000x as much as saving one using oral rehydration therapy.

However I'm going to remain optimistic that the Obama Afghanistan policy will bring a lot more butter to bear with the guns we are sending there now.

Personally I have seen little reason (though this is a very debatable point) to think global stability has been enhanced by our spending and arguably the terror biz has thrived far more and been directed at us far more because of our Israel policies than if we'd stayed out of that multi-millenniel mess. Interesting counterpoint was made recently - I think by Zbigniew Brzezinski - that despite lack of stability in Pakistan and middle east, Africa the world was no longer poised on the brink of apocalyptic destruction as we were during the USSR USA cold war. Something that's really been intriguing me lately are the merits of an idea I do NOT subscribe to - that our massive military has in fact stabilized a world that otherwise might have been subject to even more wars and hardships if we'd been isolationists.

The stability-enhancement-by-massive-military-spending case is stronger for the new stability of the USSR USA China connections than for the third world where conditions are often worse in peace time than ours would be in a war. Therefore I remain convinced history will judge the developed world harshly - not at all for our terror and rights policies which are by constrast with developing world exceptional - but for our lack of concern and lack of engagement with the billions who suffer from basic needs. NOT because US capitalism has exploited them and stolen their water and food but because it has *ignored them* and allowed their shitty economic systems and corrupt leaders to keep them out of entrepreneurial capitalism - the only game that is likely to bring them even a modest level of prosperity.


Anonymous said...

I just worry about what seems like a bit of waffling by Obama when it comes to so-called "extraordinary rendition." This blog sort of captures my concerns. http://tinyurl.com/ddgps8 I just can't understand why the Obama administration would continue to make Bush type arguments in a court of law to deny former detainees their day in court.

Joseph Hunkins said...

Probably because the renditions - though illegal - appear to have yielded useful information.

That's not a justification for illegal activity but I think too many people want to see all this as a one sided horror show when that's far too simplistic.

Interesting bit on the constitution and torture where Scalia argues that since it is not "punishment" you can't make a good case it's unconstitutional.