the inquisition and the inquest--part one
President Obama's decision to release detailed information about Bush Administration interrogation policy (the so-called torture memos), while foregoing an investigation of the individuals and agencies involved, strikes me as a reasonable compromise. Nevertheless he is coming under increasing pressure to submit to an inquiry. Although this advice is well-intended, he should probably resist it, for the reasons stated below.
The argument for an inquisition into the inquisition (so to speak) is stated by Paul Krugman in today's N.Y. Times. Essentially Krugman argues that the U.S. needs to regains its moral balance and can only do so by completely and honestly confronting past abuses. This would be worth it, per Krugman, even if it diverted resources from other important goals, although he doubts that it would. There is also a suggestion, by Krugman and others, that a failure to confront the evil would allow it to happen again.
The problem with this argument is that it assumes a sort of idealized inquiry that is very unlikely to happen. If the goal is a kind of truth and reconciliation process, this has to a very large degree been accomplished by the release of the memos, although admittedly without the sort of contrition that accompanied the South African program (it's unclear whether this would be forthcoming, anyway). An ensuing inquiry is much more likely to turn into a highly partisan purge trial of Bush-era officials than a disinterested search for the truth. Some of the likely flavor of this inquiry is suggested by Krugman himself, who--after speaking loftily of the need to restore national conscience--refers to opponents of a probe as "people . . . who stand on the side of the torturers," adding helpfully that "[t]he president cannot lose their good will, because they never offered any."
A second problem is more practical. Supporters of an inquiry appear to assume that it will be a one-sided affair, in which the guilt of Bush, Cheney, and their advisors will be exposed and the country made better for it. But it is at least as likely the accused will counterattack, arguing (e.g.) that the interrogations saved American lives, and that the Obama Administration is effectively continuing or even escalating the existing war on terror. The spectre of studious legal scholars or lifetime CIA employees facing questioning by a bevy of self-interested lawyers or politicians--politicians who, among other things, are likely to know much less about the issues than the people they are questioning--might well produce more sympathy for the subjects of the investigation than its proponents. This is more or less what happened with the testimony of Oliver North in the 1980s, as brilliantly depicted by Sean Wilentz in his book on the Reagan era.
There is also the issue of action and reaction. Krugman and his ilk appear to assume that the liberal ascendancy will last forever. But that is highly unlikely. Much as Watergate eventually was repaid by the Clinton impeachment scandal, the effective criminalizing of policy differences is likely to provoke a similar reaction when and if Republicans are ascendant again. The present cycle of partisan, highly personal politics is thus likely to continue.
I don't think much of the Bush interrogation policies, and said so at the time. But interrogating the interrogators is unlikely to yield a positive benefit. What is needed is a substantive debate on the issue, a debate which the policitizing/personalizing of the problem will only detract from.