NEW YORK—Both major presidential candidates have promised to roll back the Bush administration's torture archipelago. Both say they'll close Guantanamo, abolish legalized torture and respect the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war. Barack Obama also pledges to eliminate "extraordinary rendition," in which the CIA kidnaps people and flies them to other countries to be tortured, and says he will investigate Bush administration officials for possible prosecution for war crimes.
If followed by other meaningful changes in behavior—withdrawing from Afghanistan and Iraq and foreswearing preemptive warfare—restoring the rule of law and respecting the rights of "enemy combatants" can start America's long, slow climb back to moral parity in the community of nations. But there are worrisome signs that Obama and John McCain's commitment to moral renewal is less than rock-solid.
McCain, who claimed to have been tortured as a POW in North Vietnam, says a lot of the right things. "We do not torture people," he said in a 2007 Republican debate. "It's not about the terrorists; it's about us. It's about what kind of country we are." He used his Vietnam experience against fellow Republicans, bullying Congress into passing a law banning torture against detainees held by the military.
Bush signed McCain's bill in late 2005, saying it "is to make it clear to the world that this government does not torture and that we adhere to the international convention of torture, whether it be here at home or abroad."
Days later, however, Bush issued a secret "signing statement" declaring that he would ignore the Detainee Treatment Act. New York University law professor David Golove, an expert on executive power, said: "The signing statement is saying 'I will only comply with this law when I want to, and if something arises in the war on terrorism where I think it's important to torture or engage in cruel, inhuman and degrading conduct, I have the authority to do so and nothing in this law is going to stop me."
McCain, who says as president he would veto a bill rather than issue a signing statement negating its contents, was no doubt angry about Bush's perfidy. But, fearful of alienating Bush and the GOP leadership as he geared up for his '08 presidential campaign, he remained silent.
In February of this year, McCain backtracked still further from his anti-torture position, voting against legislation that would have blocked the CIA from subjecting inmates in its secret prisons to waterboarding, hooding, putting duct tape across their eyes, stripping them naked, rape, beatings, burning, subjecting them to hypothermia, mock executions and other "harsh interrogation techniques."
"The CIA should have the ability to use additional techniques," he argued. He refused to explain why the CIA ought to be allowed to torture while the Department of Defense should adhere to international standards of civilized behavior.
The United States continues to torture.
Unlike McCain, Obama remains a critic of officially sanctioned torture. "We'll reject torture—without exception or equivocation," Obama says. He would also end "the practice of shipping away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far-off countries, of detaining thousands without charge or trial, of maintaining a network of secret prisons to jail people beyond the reach of the law."
The trouble is, Obama isn't laying the groundwork for stopping torture or closing Guantanamo or other U.S. gulags in his stump speeches. He talks a lot about energy policy, health care, jobs and the economy—and withdrawing troops from Iraq so they join the war against Afghanistan instead. If he becomes president, people will expect him to do those things. Without a sustained focus on human rights issues, however, any moves he makes will seem to come out of the blue—and face stronger pushback from Republicans anxious to bash him as weak on national security.
Why doesn't Obama emphasize Bush's war crimes? Maybe he's trying to play the Great Uniter, or maybe he knows that many Americans don't give a rat's ass about the pain inflicted against people they'll never meet in places they've never heard of. Who knows? All we know for sure is that, day after day, Obama fails to talk about what is arguably the worst crime of the corrupt Bush administration.
Of course, renouncing torture isn't enough. Those who authorized it must be held to account. However, it doesn't seem likely that they will.
Asked in April whether he would prosecute Bush administration officials for authorizing torture, Obama delivered his now-familiar duck-and-cover: say the right thing, then weasel out of it. "If crimes have been committed, they should be investigated," he said.
But not for at least four years: "I would not want my first term consumed by what was perceived on the part of the Republicans as a partisan witch hunt, because I think we've got too many problems to solve."
Memo to Obama: This isn't about prosecuting Republicans. It's about prosecuting torturers.
"Prosecution of any officials, if it were to occur, would probably not occur during Obama's first term," Slate reports, citing Obama campaign insiders. "Instead, we may well see a Congressionally empowered commission that would seek testimony from witnesses in search of the truth about what occurred. Though some witnesses might be offered immunity in exchange for testimony, the question of whether anybody would be prosecuted would be deferred to a later date—meaning Obama's second term, if such is forthcoming."
First would come a South African-style "Truth and Reconciliation Commission," where the truth would come out. But the torturers would get off scot-free.
"The commission would focus strictly on detention, torture and extraordinary rendition, or the practice of spiriting detainees to a third country for abusive interrogations. The panel would focus strictly on these abuses, leaving out any other allegedly illegal activities during the Bush administration, such as domestic spying," says Slate. Second—well, there might not be a second. Even if there is, shortsighted Americans' appetite for justice and accountability will probably have been diluted by the time 2013 rolls around.
Mainline media liberals, in conjunction with Obama supporters, are even going so far as to suggest that Bush issue his torturers with a blanket pardon in exchange for their testimony at Obama's toothless commission.
Regardless of who wins in November, we will get a president who's better on torture and other human rights issues than George W. Bush. At least their words sound nice. But real change and moral redemption will only begin if we—Democrats, Republicans and everyone else—demand the next president stands by his pretty promises.
Until they start taking torture, Gitmo and human rights seriously, neither Obama nor McCain should be able to appear in public without facing questions and heckling about these issues.
Ted Rall is the author of Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.