The New York Times says of the debate over detainee rights: “It is one of those rare Congressional moments when the policy is as monumental as the politics.”
Indeed. And the fact that the debate is taking place almost solely and exclusively among Republicans and conservatives says volumes about the cynicism and lack of courage on the part of Democrats in both houses of Congress.
Perfectly content with throwing rhetorical bombs on the issue of detainee rights for months, not offering any solutions but rather tossing exaggerated epithets at the President and Republicans, Congressional Democrats are cowering on the sidelines as the most important debate in the War on Terror unfolds on the Hill:
At issue are definitions of what is permissible in trials and interrogations that both sides view as central to the character of the nation, the way the United States is perceived abroad and the rules of the game for what Mr. Bush has said will be a multigenerational battle against Islamic terrorists.
Democrats have so far remained on the sidelines, sidestepping Republican efforts to draw them into a fight over Mr. Bushâ€™s leadership on national security heading toward the midterm election. Democrats are rapt spectators, however, shielded by the stern opposition to the president being expressed by three Republicans with impeccable credentials on military matters: Senators John McCain of Arizona, John W. Warner of Virginia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. The three were joined on Thursday by Colin L. Powell, formerly the secretary of state and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in challenging the administrationâ€™s approach.
If Democrats think they are being clever by not falling into the Republican “trap” of engaging in a debate on this issue, they have outthought themselves once again. All they are doing is being made to appear as weak and vacillating on matters related to the war as Republicans say they are. They are proving to the American people that they are unworthy of ascending to power this November by sitting on their hands while some of the most important issues relating to both our national security and national identity are decided.
What kind of country do we want to be? How much is our view of ourselves tied up in how others see us? Can we still protect ourselves while desiring to be a “good citizen” of the world? Can our Constitution be stretched in order to recognize the rights of those who wish to destroy us? How much power should be granted the Executive during a time of war?
These are not “political” questions in the traditional sense. And I doubt very much whether any nation in history has had such a unique and soulful argument about many of these issues that go to the heart of our sovereignty as well as the core of our Constitutional form of government.
At issue is the law - international and domestic - and how it should apply to prisoners who fall into our hands. On one side is the President and an obedient Congressional leadership who seek to have the broadest possible interpretation of international statutes relating to torture and the incarceration of prisoners. The President wants to give the CIA the authority to use “enhanced” interrogation techniques on high value prisoners while adjudicating the cases of other detainees using the rather blunt judicial instrument of Military Tribunals.
The problem with the former is that those lining up in opposition - notably Senator McCain and Colin Powell - fear that any deviation from a relatively strict interpretation of the Geneva Convention protocols will place captured American military and intelligence personnel in greater danger of being abused (although it is hard to imagine no matter what our policy about interrogations, how much more danger our people would be in if captured by al-Qaeda or a state that supports the terrorists).
As for the latter, the President wants Military Tribunals to be able to withhold evidence of a classified nature from detainees during their judicial proceedings. McCain & Co. want rules of evidence more in keeping with American Constitutional protections.
On this issue, both sides have strong arguments. Given the nature of the war and how it is being fought, oftentimes the only evidence gathered against a prisoner is via other interrogations or informants whose lives would be placed in danger if their identity were revealed. On the other hand, unless a detainee attorney can assess the evidence against his client, it becomes virtually impossible to defend him. And if the purpose of the Tribunal is to establish the guilt or innocence of the prisoner - a process desperately needed given the uncertainty surrounding the circumstances where many detainees at Guantanamo were captured - then one would hope that the more rigorous standards of evidence would be adopted for the proceedings.
The good news is that the President seems willing to compromise:
“The most important job of government is to protect the homeland, and yesterday they advanced an important piece of legislation to do just that,” Bush told reporters. “I’ll continue to work with members of the Congress to get good legislation so we can do our duty.”
The re-interpreting of Geneva Convention protocols against torture has drawn the most fire from McCain and his supporters. What the White House calls a “redefinition” many experts on international law say is an attempt to circumvent the Geneva articles while immunizing American personnel (especially the CIA) from any charges of war crimes. This is extremely shaky legal ground for the Administration and it has apparently not sat well with lawyers at the Pentagon:
Senior judge advocates general had publicly questioned many aspects of the administration’s position, especially any reinterpreting of the Geneva Conventions. The White House and GOP lawmakers seized on what appeared to be a change of heart to say that they now have military lawyers on their side.
But the letter was signed only after an extraordinary round of negotiations Wednesday between the judge advocates and William J. Haynes II, the Defense Department’s general counsel, according to Republican opponents of Bush’s proposal. The military lawyers refused to sign a letter of endorsement. But after hours of cajoling, they assented to write that they “do not object,” according to three Senate GOP sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were divulging private negotiations.
It is likely that this “redefinition” will be altered or even jettisoned in any final version of the bill.
The Republicans certainly had ulterior political motives in bringing this legislation to the fore 6 weeks before a mid term election in order to highlight the Democratic party’s unfitness and irresponsibility on national security issues. But the fact remains that the heartfelt opposition to the President’s proposals by conservatives carries far more weight in this debate than anything the politically motivated Democrats could muster. McCain, Powell, and the rest have proven that they are not only good Americans. They have also proven that they are good Republicans as well. This despite the probability that their opposition to the President will not win Republicans any votes in November nor advance their personal ambitions with core Republican supporters.
It proves to me that there are still people of conscience in the Republican party. In that respect, it may be worth it even if their opposition costs the party control of one or both houses of Congress in November.
James Joyner is in basic agreement (and makes the same comment I did about McCain’s rational regarding torture):
On the merits, I agree with McCain and company, although not necessarily for the reasons they give. It is patently absurd to argue that our terrorist enemies are going to abide by the Geneva Conventions if we do so.
Graham is right that abiding by international law and our living up to our ideals sends the correct message. Iâ€™m more skeptical than he is about our ability to persuade Muslims that weâ€™re the good guys, given that their information is filtered through al Jazeera, the mullahs, and others hostile to us. Still, every documented American attrocity fuels the propaganda fire against us with very little offsetting advantage.
I agree. Now there are certainly appealing arguments to be made on both sides of the issue, but to this point, that’s really not happened. It is indeed refreshing, as Taylor points out, to see a policy discussion happening which isn’t completely driven by politics. It is equally refreshing to see the president go to Congress to discuss the issues.
Certainly, as the NYT article cited hints, politics will eventually enter the picture but for now, a hopefully honest and forthright debate on our nation and its principles is in the offing.
So for the time being ignore the press characterizations of this being a rebuff for Bush or a rebellion in the Republican ranks. It is something, had Congress been doing its job, which should have been settled long before this. And in this case, better late than never.
Sullivan (Hysterical as always but his heart is in the right place):
The sight of so many Republican senators and one former secretary of state finally standing up against the brutality and dishonor of this president’s military detention policies is a sign of great hope. It turns out there is an opposition in this country - it’s called what’s left of the sane wing of the GOP. Slowly, real conservatives are speaking out loud what they have long said in private. The apparatchiks of the pro-torture blogosphere can vent, but it is hard to demonize the new opposition as “leftist” or “hysterical.”
Andrew seems a little vexed that the President will use the issue as a club to beat the Democrats with. It is moronic to think the President would do otherwise. With the kind of opposition Republicans face - exaggerated and hyperbolic charges like those contained in Sullivan’s post - what does Andrew and the rest of the unhinged opposition think the President and Republicans are going to do? Sit back and let their opponents have an open field? Allow them the luxury of remaining quiet while they spout their nonsensical and unfair rhetoric?
As I point out in the post, Bush is in fact playing politics with the issue - any President of either party would do the same if placed in his position. To pretend otherwise is to ignore the major electoral dynamic that has been with us since Jefferson was elected: The best defense is a good offense.