If Obama Wants the GOP’s Help in Syria, He Must Deal with Torture First

Among the lessons of Syria for Barack Obama, there is one that stands out: The destruction of the Republican foreign policy establishment makes his job harder, and the president is now suffering the consequences of his choice to avoid, as much as possible, dealing with the fallout from torture during the George W. Bush administration.

What is missing, specifically? The Republican side of “establishment” foreign policy. That is, a group of people who are certainly Republicans, but are not particularly partisan and who are comfortable working with the similar set of Democrats. Think Dick Lugar; think Colin Powell; think, perhaps more than anyone over the last 50 years, George H.W. Bush. Those Republicans, as Lugar’s defeat for re-election last year demonstrated, have been driven to the fringes of their party (or perhaps out of it; Powell is still a Republican, but supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012).

Why does that matter for Barack Obama? There just are not very many Republicans remaining who both care about foreign policy and national security and who are also inclined to work with a Democratic president as a matter of course. Those who do have virtually no clout within their party. Which means that when Obama proposes something, he starts with essentially the same zero Republican votes that he starts with on domestic-policy proposals.

Yes, if it’s sufficiently hawkish he’ll have John McCain, and if it’s sufficiently dovish there’s a good chance that Rand Paul will be with him, but that’s not quite the same thing.

Was it inevitable that Republicans would wind up behaving on foreign policy and national security pretty much the same way they behave on domestic policy? After all, politics has never completely stopped at the water’s edge. And some breakup was very likely after the Iraq War, just as the Democratic side of the foreign-policy establishment suffered a breakdown after Vietnam.

And yet … unlike the Democrats with Vietnam, the Republicans certainly could have blamed Iraq on just one faction within the party, and found a way to excuse and rehabilitate a large part of its mainstream foreign-policy community. But that didn’t happen.

The reason? I think a lot of it had to do with torture.


Republicans in the Bush administration didn’t just have to answer for a spectacular policy failure; they also were involved in war crimes. Or, they—and their friends outside the administration—had friends who were involved in war crimes. Leaving that situation unresolved was poison; it made re-establishing an “establishment”-type foreign policy/national security community dependent on, essentially saying one’s friends had not only been wrong on policy, but that they were also particularly heinous criminals. Much easier to simply ignore it—after all, the Democratic anti-torture president was ignoring it. But that meant that the torture apologists (and Muslim-bashers, and otherwise very much non-establishment folks) remained extremely visible voices of the GOP on national security. There simply were no grounds on which to rule out the worst voices without essentially saying that the rest of the lot probably should be in jail.

So there was no reckoning within the GOP. Even worse: with a Democrat in the White House, the Republican default complaint was often going to be “not tough enough,” and the people most likely to make that case, irresponsibly if necessary, were the exact same people most likely to be torturers or torture apologists. There’s nothing at all wrong with one party tending to emphasize force and “toughness” and the other to emphasize diplomacy (and, yes, I know that in actual fact the Obama Administration used or threatened to use force repeatedly); but in this particular situation that meant that the people in the GOP who counted were usually the ones who had been most discredited during the Bush presidency—so that, for example, John Yoo is the go-to Republican for questions about executive power. And, more to the point here, the ones most likely to have purely partisan reactions to new policy questions, rather than working with the Democratic administration.

I’ve long argued that the best way out of this would have been (and would still be) blanket pardons for everyone involved in Bush torture policy, along with generous words from Barack Obama about how even when they went terribly wrong, the people involved were fine public servants reacting to a terrifying situation after the September 11 attacks—followed by a truth commission designed both to clarify exactly what happened and to show why torture was a horrible mistake that should never be repeated. Granted, that would require what many would see as a terrible injustice (letting war criminals walk) in the pursuit of a larger goal (reconciliation that included restoring the anti-torture consensus). And it couldn’t guarantee that goal, although in my view it’s the best chance, and better than the leading alternative of prosecutions.

What we’ve had instead, from Obama, is sweeping the whole thing under a rug. It’s been a failure. Not only does it seem fairly likely that torture apologists will take their place inside the next Republican presidency, and not only are arguments for the efficacy of torture often accepted now as perfectly legitimate in the pages of our great newspapers, but the president has been left without what should be natural partners when he undertakes foreign-policy adventures.

Some important caveats are in order. For one thing, Republicans could, despite the incentives, reform themselves; the first responsibility is theirs, not Obama’s. For another, it could be that rehabilitating the GOP foreign-policy and national-security community was beyond the influence of the Democrat in the Oval Office, even if he gave it his best shot. One more thing: nothing here should be mistaken for a claim that establishment-type folks are necessarily correct on policy. All I’m saying is that Obama might have had more Dick Lugar types to work with, not that those people would necessarily be right more often than, say, John McCain or Rand Paul.

All of this, by the way, ignores another likely positive side-effect of dealing with torture: it would have helped restore the reputation abroad of the United States.

It’s simple: ignoring torture as much as he could has won short-term gains for Barack Obama in that he ducked a fight that could have been ugly … but at a much larger cost to his presidency over the long term. It’s too late to do anything about it before the Syria episode is resolved, but torture still casts a long shadow over U.S. policy, and over his presidency. It’s time for him to act.

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