Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"Obama probably understands this....

Tyler Cowan voices a fear that I've shared:
At many blogs (Sullivan, Yglesias, DeLong, among others) you will find ongoing arguments for prosecuting the torturers who ran our government for a while. I am in agreement with the moral stance of these critics but I don't agree with their practical conclusions. I believe that a full investigation would lead the U.S. public to, ultimately, side with torture, side with the torturers, and side against the prosecutors. That's why we can't proceed and Obama probably understands that. If another attack happened this would be all the more true.
My thought, though, was not that the possibility of backlash would induce Obama to try to foreclose on prosecution, but rather that he was covering his flank with the initial show of reluctance:
...imagine a successful major terrorist attack in the U.S. The country's mood could change in an instant. An authoritarian thug like Giuliani or a demagogic buffoon like Palin could be elected, and really end American civil liberties....

That's why Obama is positioning himself to be pushed. That's why Democrats in Congress won't start investigations without some Republican support. It's not cowardice. It's a matter of building the overwhelming political support needed for a process that will be traumatic in itself and could be destabilizing if coupled with a major external shock.
One assumption that these speculations share is a common one: that Obama is gaming everything out, planning several moves ahead. One hears things like: he reached out to Republicans on the stimulus, knowing he would be rebuffed, so that he could later roll over their opposition (e.g., via reconciliation) on healthcare legislation. Or: he's held off nationalizing major banks so that when the time comes to do so, he will be seen to have exhausted all other options first. So often he is "the one presumed to know," assumed to be several steps ahead of everyone else. A comforting narrative. Sometimes it's even true.

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