Two weeks ago when the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Democratic majority issued a report on the use of torture by the CIA during the questioning of al-Qaeda suspects after 9/11, the Obama administration was put in a delicate situation. On the one hand, the president and the current director of the CIA wanted to avoid engaging in any activity that would undermine the intelligence community and said nothing to indicate that it would reverse the president’s decision about closing the books on any torture activity in the past. On the other, they were eager to distance themselves from the Bush team and to condemn the use of torture. But many on the left continue to treat this deeply partisan and often misleading attack on the Bush administration and its successful efforts to defend America as an excuse to re-fight the political battles of the last decade. That’s the conceit of a New York Times editorial published yesterday that calls for wholesale prosecutions including that of Vice President Cheney. As I wrote two weeks ago, if Obama and the Democrats are smart, they will ignore that advice.
President Obama hasn’t always acted wisely when it comes to intelligence matters, but he was right to decide early on in his administration that any effort to prosecute CIA officials or anyone else in the government for their actions against al-Qaeda would be a mistake. Bush ended the controversial “enhanced interrogations,” so it was not a matter of a new administration needing to change policy. The only point of such an exercise would be to gratify left-wingers who despised President Bush and Vice President Cheney and were hoping that the new president would reverse all of their anti-terrorism policies, something that Obama had no intention of doing. Even the Obama foreign policy and defense team knew that doing so would undermine their efforts to continue the campaign against Islamist terrorists that they would have to fight.
But after years of angrily biding their time, these liberals were given another opportunity to indulge their Bush/Cheney derangement syndrome with the release of the Intelligence Committee report. Its conclusions were slanted by the bias of the committee Democrats who were nursing a grudge against the CIA and led to them claim their belief that torture didn’t aid the war against al-Qaeda as a fact rather than, as it truly is, merely an assertion that is sharply contested by many, if not most of those who were involved in the effort.
Moreover, it also took the events of the period following 9/11 out of the context of a conflict against a terrorist movement that had already killed 3,000 people on American soil. Nor did the report’s authors choose to take into account the need to prevent a recurrence of those atrocities or the fact that, as we now know, but didn’t in 2001, that the CIA’s work would be rewarded with success.
Whatever one may think of Cheney or the rough methods employed by the CIA, the bottom line is that they ensured that 9/11 was al-Qaeda’s last victory in North America. It is possible to argue that some of their actions were legally questionable but, contrary to the efforts to paint this dispute as one of black and white rather than grey, there is also a good case to be made in their defense. For the administration to try to prosecute anyone, let alone those specifically tasked with defending the American people at a moment when they were under deadly attack, would be an attempt to criminalize a political difference.
That’s just fine with the Times and its leftist cohorts who have always viewed all of the actions taken under the rubric of the war on terror as illegitimate. They remain stuck in a 9/10 mentality that sees that attack on America as a police problem rather than a war in which the U.S. had to use much of its existing defense resources to achieve victory. As Obama seems to realize, going down that road would mean trashing the CIA at a time when it is needed more than ever to deal with burgeoning foreign and homegrown terror threats.
But as bad as such a course would be for U.S. security, it would be just as bad for the Democratic Party.
While the likely Democratic presidential nominee is seen as possessing a sensible and moderate approach to security issues, Republicans are divided between internationalists like Marco Rubio and isolationists like Rand Paul. Prosecutions of Cheney and company would gratify the Democratic base. But it would drag the party back into the past at a moment when they need to demonstrate both resolve and a will to fight and win the battle against ISIS, the group that rose to dominance in Iraq and Syria while Obama was pretending that Islamist terror was finished the moment Osama bin Laden was shot.
While I don’t expect President Obama to be foolish enough to be sucked down into the rabbit hole of vendettas against Bush and Cheney, it appears much of the Democratic base isn’t so wise. If they spend much of the next two years chasing their tails endlessly inveighing against Cheney, it will distract them from current political battles and solidify their descent into minority party status in preparation for 2016. Now that the isolationist moment is over and Rand Paul’s Obama-like foreign policy is no longer the flavor of the month, the GOP shouldn’t mind a debate that positions the Democrats as the ones who are not willing to do whatever it takes to stop the terrorists that grew powerful on Obama’s watch.
Much as the left would like to turn back the clock to the moment before al-Qaeda struck, that isn’t possible. Nor, despite the diatribes published in the Times, is it smart politics. The more liberals waste their time fighting stale battles against their former adversaries, the less likely it will be that they will be able to retain the White House or regain control of Congress.