The Presidential debate in South Carolina focused on foreign policy, and from the general tenor of things we can see that the Neo-Cons should be very happy. The two major takeaways seem to be that the mainstream “favorites”, if elected, will most assuredly be bombing Iran, and most would bring back waterboarding of terrorists. The former is of course to be expected, the latter is exceptionally troubling, and both need to be seriously examined.
Bachmann and Cain are on board with team waterboard, and Perry, while not explicitly saying it, seems to be there as well. The philosophical foundation of this idea of using waterboarding on terrorists is of course, fear. There are scary, horrible people out there who wish to do us harm, and we have concocted a tortured (pardon the pun) logical justification to garner information from them. It is not really torture in the white hot poker, battery cables on the nipples, sense of the term. This is a measured, professional method of extracting information without chance of death. Besides, these people work in unconventional ways, without regard to the rules of war or civilization, using our own systems in order to inflict death and destruction on us. They exist outside of the law, so how can the law protect them? They seek to destroy our way of life and our constitution, so how can they have constitutional protection? We have this tool to use on these outlaws, and if used, we can save lives, so let’s strap them down and start pouring. It is a very simple and compelling argument, especially since it something used on those “foreign” people (I find it hard to believe that this would have so much support if it was being used on, say those white, Christian terrorists, Catholic and Protestant, in Northern Ireland). It is truly unfortunate that we ever deigned to engage in this horrible, unconscionable practice in an effort to keep us “safe”. While it is true that these individuals do horrible, unconscionable things for their cause, the point has never been that they are exceptionally evil, the point is that we are supposed to be better than this.
The calls of naiveté are at the forefront when you try and make a reasoned argument about why this practice is wrong, that the constitution is not a suicide pack and we need to do what is necessary to protect the Republic. For people who fancy themselves as “conservative,” this seems especially foolish. You start this line of reasoning from an indefensible position, one of trust. If you support the notion of waterboarding, you have to start out by assuming the person in custody is guilty, that you have the right guy essentially. You can say all you want about being captured on the battlefield, or reliable intelligence, but you have to admit that there is always a chance that the wrong person is strapped to that gurney. Someone who knows nothing could be subjected to this “enhanced interrogation” because you are trusting the military and the CIA, organizations with somewhat of a poor track record of always being right, to make the determination of who gets this treatment.
The demagoguery gets to its full tilt when we try and justify this with the “ticking time bomb” scenario. This is, of course, movie fiction that does not happen in the real world, but it is a nice way to stifle the legitimate debate, to say we need this at all times, everywhere because someone may someday sneak a nuclear bomb into an American city. We can use another movie analogy though, to argue the other end of the equation. Have you seen the Clint Eastwood classic Dirty Harry? If not skip over this part, for I don’t want to spoil a good movie. Most people do not have issue with the torture scene in that movie. Harry has caught the bad guy, a murderous sociopath, who has buried a young girl with only a short time to live as her oxygen runs out. In an effort to save this girl Harry does what is necessary, outside the limits of the law and the constitution, to find the girl. Harry gets the information, too late to save the girl, but the evil-doer got some of what he deserved. The morally corrupt and dysfunctional liberal criminal justice system then allows the killer to walk scot-free. The audience can place themselves there, can witness the action and not be repulsed, because you can humanize it, personalize it, place yourself in that situation and feel that you would do something similar. But play out the scene differently, the way torturing people often works in real world practice, and the outcome would be very different. When you make the case that gathering the information, in order to save lives, is the most important thing, where do you draw the line? What if Harry could not find our villain? What if he was frantically watching the clock tick and the only clue he could find was that our killer’s 12 year old niece might know where he is? How would the audience react to Dirty Harry waterboarding a young girl to extract the necessary information? This is the problem with starting down this road. You begin from the premise that the most important thing is the information, that it must be gleaned at any cost, then, when and where do you draw the line for what is acceptable? Who is off limits, and when certain methods do not work, what is the next step? I like the argument that you do not do these things because they are wrong, that the premise of our system is that people, not just citizens, are born with certain rights that our government will not infringe upon. Failing that, I demand that supporters of these methods specifically draw out the lines and justifications. Give us your criteria for the who, what, where, when and how, because there will always be someone adding to those criteria, in this “special” circumstance, which historically always been the end result for any government that has started down this road. Good intentions do truly pave the path to hell, and that needs to be remembered when so flippantly talking about something so serious.
As for Iran, where do you start? Sanctions, air strikes, land invasion, what is the end game? Ron Paul is somehow the fool for not advocating these things, yet the other candidates simply say “I won’t let it happen,” without elaboration. How do you stop Iran from developing the bomb? How far are you willing to go? Ten years of constant warfare is quite a lot to ask of the American people, are they advocating another 10 to overthrow and “stabilize” a new Iran? Will any of these candidates commit to asking Congress for an official declaration of war before embarking on this little adventure? Can we have a conversation about how big a threat a nuclear Iran would actually be to this country? We have this equation that the day after Iran develops the bomb, the world ends, that the insane leaders of that country decide the time for nuclear obliteration is here. Is that reasonable? Are we saying there is no sane voice in all of Iran’s leadership, one that will see the implication that the first thing that happens after developing the bomb is that a big giant target is painted on you by all the other nuclear nations? There is no nuke Israel, come out unscathed, scenario for Iran. Dying is the only outcome, and they have to realize this. Do some anxiously await this outcome? Maybe, but I am not of a mind that the public pronouncements of leaders to their constituents equals how they view the world and what their true intentions are. We need to have an honest and frank discussion about what actually constitutes a threat to the United States and what the limits of American power actually are. Bombs do not always have to be the default answer to our problems, and it is not weak or disloyal to question that assumption. Iran poses some real challenges to American foreign policy, but let’s have an actual discussion of those problems and the possible solutions instead of boilerplate “Bomb ’em now, ask questions later.”