In politics, morality is a powerful force. If you hoist the flag at the right time, it will inspire a multitude that will carry you into office. But once you get there, the same flag can prove cumbersome and hard to furl. You can't make it disappear. It can trip you up if you aren't careful.
And that is President Barack Obama's situation now.
Obama caught his big break in politics by citing moral (as well as practical) concerns for his positions on Iraq in particular and the "war on terror" in general The war was wrong, he declared, both strategically and ethically. Viewing the world through the lens of war and war alone—dividing the planet into black and white, friends and enemies—also was wrong, strategically and ethically. Obama promised a more nuanced, ethical and humane approach in our relations with other countries and peoples. That promise is one of the main reasons he is president today.
But now he is being asked to apply—sweepingly—that moral vision to the matter of torture tactics used on suspected terrorists by Americans during the Bush administration, tactics that in and of themselves embody a world view he criticized and rejected. His response has been halting and hesitant. His message has been uncharacteristically muddied. And he is paying the price, at least in terms of message control.
True, Obama is honoring his moral vision, at least in part. He has banned some of the practices at the heart of the controversy, including waterboarding, as unproductive in terms of good intelligence, counterproductive in terms of diplomatic relations and simply wrong. "The decision to ban those practices was one of morals and values," a top administration official said today at a background briefing for a dozen reporters and columnists.
And yet, so far, the president is refusing to apply that same moral standard when it comes to the Bush officials and operatives who planned, sanctioned and performed those same practices.
Agents who were following what they thought were legal orders when they waterboarded someone should not be prosecuted, the president has said repeatedly. As for anyone else—agents who went beyond their orders, the lawyers who wrote the legal briefs that purported to justify those orders, the officials (including President Bush) who sanctioned the techniques to begin with—Obama has been deliberately and increasingly vague about all of them. He doesn't want Congress to investigate; he doesn't want (though he may accept) an independent commission. Matters of prosecution and punishment, he now says, are up to Attorney General Eric Holder. Except, of course, that the language the president used was that "most" (which means presumably not all) of the decision making would be left to Holder.
For an administration that has prided itself on clarity of expression, it is all getting very confusing very fast. Today's briefing, which was supposed to focus on the administration's first 100 days, was dominated at the start by knotty questions about torture, torture memos, legal issues and the like. The senior official expressed frustration about this. The economy—not the recent history of interrogation techniques—is far and away the most important issue on the minds of voters, he insisted. Obama has done the most important thing, he argued, by banning the techniques in question. The American people, he said, want to look forward, and not dwell on issues of the past. On the left there is a lot of "pent-up energy," the official conceded, among opponents of the Iraq War, but that sentiment can be "very divisive and distracting" at a time when the Obama administration is trying to pass a budget and accomplish other domestic goals such as health-care reform.
But for many of Obama's supporters, there is no statute of limitations on the moral concerns that led them to support him in the first place. Under a generous interpretation, the Bush administration blundered out of ignorance and incompetence into choosing, using and justifying a technique—waterboarding—that by common global consensus has been considered torture ever since the days of the Spanish Inquisition. Its use is pretty clearly a violation of both U.S. law and the terms of an international treaty to which the U.S. is a signatory. In other words, the immorality of the practice has long since been codified into law. Neither U.S. nor international law, by the way, provides an excuse for agents who were following what they regarded to be lawful orders.
What is Obama's explanation for not strictly applying the law, American and international? It's not moral, it's practical: We need to move on; we have bigger, more urgent issues to face; we have the morale and potency of the CIA to protect as it tries to deal with treachery and terrorism. But none of that evokes or connects with the stirring moral vision with which Obama started his candidacy only a few years ago. Asked about Obama's philosophy of government, the official said that the president views himself as "a devout non-ideologue. He wants to do what works." And that is undoubtedly true. The problem is, he said something more when he launched his campaign.