Obama & the Destruction of the Bush Torture Regime

by Rick Rockwell

President Barack Obama’s first actions show he wants the country’s rhetoric to again match its actions.

He’s not going to say “we don’t torture” while knowing full well he approved the construction of a legal framework to do just that. Within 48 hours of taking office, Obama’s moral legacy is already greater than anything done during George Bush’s time in office. Obama moved immediately to erase the blot on the country’s history: the torture regime constructed by the Bush administration, which was centered at Guantanamo.

But the heavy lifting is ahead. And the truth is, Obama may not have the stomach for it. Certainly, his Congressional allies had the opportunity to thwart or question the Bush administration since at least 2007, but chose instead to pass. They concentrated on winning the White House and electoral politics rather than doing legislative battle with the executive branch.

The recent Congressional record on these matters is not strong. Both Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could have used their positions to battle Bush on the issue of torture. Or the Patriot Act. (And there's also the so-called "Protect America Act" in which they were complict.) Or they could have taken a stronger hand in oversight of the Justice Department. Or they could have pushed for a court decision on Congress’ power to subpoena. But they either failed to marshal their political troops on these issues or took weak equivocal positions. Now, with a Democrat in the White House, they may have changed their tune though on taking the moral stand. But how far will they really go?

Will the international community come looking for Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney or any of their underlings, waving charges of human rights abuse? Not likely. Spain has barely made some of the oppressive regimes of Latin America in the last century accountable for much worse abuses. And which country or group of countries has the cojones to make the lone superpower accountable?

No, as already demonstrated, the only office with the power to keep the U.S. government from again sanctioning torture is the office of the president of the U.S.

But will Obama sanction holding the Bush administration accountable for its actions, and more importantly key members of the administration who shaped that policy? Will he side with those on the left who have wanted such accountability for a long time? Or will he fall in line with past presidents (both Republican and Democrat) who saw protecting the powers of the presidency as paramount over the key constitutional questions of separation and division of powers among the government’s three branches?

Early signs show Obama is willing to give back power in exchange for goodwill and re-establishing moral authority. By ordering the end of the Bush torture regime and striking all executive orders that constructed a legal frame to shield the Bush administration’s actions, Obama also establishes some precedent to say what the limits of presidential power are during wartime. (Certainly, this is also debatable. Does the Congressional resolution giving the Bush administration a blank check in Iraq equal a declaration of war? Legally and technically, such declarations are different.)

The next marker to watch will be if the Obama administration opposes Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) and his pursuit of former Bush administration aides. Conyers wants Josh Bolten (former Bush chief of staff) and Harriet Miers (former White House counsel) to testify about the politicization of the Justice Department. And what if Congress pushes for special prosecutors to pursue former members of the Bush administration for abuse of power, as Conyers wants? How will Obama stand on those issues?

Before the inauguration, typically, Obama cautioned moderation. He noted his administration should be about the future, not looking backward at the mistakes of the Bush administration. (Some Republicans are already delaying Eric Holder's nomination as attorney general as a way to signal to Obama that they will fight him on such prosecutions.) However, part of reclaiming the moral high ground should be making at least some of the key Bush aides accountable for their actions. Obama has bigger problems to tackle than to squander his political capital on pursuing Bush and Cheney, so no matter how this matter is handled, the men truly responsible for approving torture will still get a pass.

But Obama’s bold first moves certainly have lived up to his promise of needed change.

(For more background on Guantanamo and the Bush torture policies please see: "Bush, PBS & Torturing Democracy" and "George Bush: Farewell and Good Riddance.")

(Political graphic by The Heretik.)

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