Thursday, January 13, 2005

Opposing Gonzales: Beyond Ideology

The other day I was perusing Nathan Newman's blog when I came across an entry entitled "Why the Liberal Focus on Torture?" that piqued my interest. The central argument of this post is that liberals are taking the easy way out by focusing on torture (which he calls a "simple, limited moral problem") rather than the more important issue of the war in Iraq. "The almost exclusive obsession with torture in the present [Alberto Gonzales] nomination fight," he says, "betrays a misguided set of moral priorities by liberals."

While I understand where Newman is coming from, I think his post actually betrays a misguided set of moral priorities across the entire political landscape. Why should opposing torture be a liberal value? Reasonable people may disagree on the war in Iraq, but torture is a different matter altogether. Like it or not, association with the Iraq war does not disqualify anyone from access to the levers of power in the Bush administration (in fact, it seems to be a prerequisite). The same is emphatically not true for torture—or at least it shouldn't be—and it is not merely a liberal position to argue that support for prisoner abuse does disqualify a candidate from becoming the Attorney General. Why the liberals, in Newman's opinion, should reject this common-cause issue in favor of one they're guaranteed to lose and in doing so reinforce the notion that they travel outside of the mainstream is beyond me.

In ending his post, Newman is so wrapped up in the politics of the confirmation hearings that it causes him to gloss over (unintentionally, I hope) the issue of torture:

If liberals don't continually concentrate on fighting over the core issue, like the justice of the war and its consequences such as mass civilian deaths, they won't win on subsidiary issues like torture.
Gail Davis had the good sense to take Newman to task for characterizing torture as a "subsidiary issue." She recognizes that it "is almost the last straw and symbolizes America's failure." This is a failure that all Americans can and should be alarmed about and, as such, it is nothing to turn into a political football.

Newman is not alone. Marie Cocco's recent article for takes this political football and runs with it:

Enabling the Bush administration's habit of escaping accountability for even the grossest failure isn't smart politics. It's cowardice. If Democrats are to compete on the political turf of values, they'd better find some they stand for (emphasis added).
Apparently this is not about moral values or doing what is right; it's about competition and smart politics. How best to express your outrage at the torture of detainees? Hold a strategy meeting, of course.

The unintended consequence of making torture a liberal political issue is that it legitimizes a conservative backlash that actually approves of torture and looks at criticism of Gonzales as a sinister leftist plot.

One of the more brazen attempts from conservatives to turn the Gonzales nomination into a partisan litmus test can be found over at where they are circulating a petition that makes this argument:

Recent news reports indicate the futility of the effort to block the nomination. Therefore, any attempt to stop it can only be chalked up to flagrant partisanship and stone-walling. Moreover, Mr. Gonzales' advice and counsel has helped the Bush administration run a more aggressive, more deliberate, and more results-oriented war against terror, thereby making Americans safer and more secure.
The moral bankruptcy (not to mention logical fallacy) of this stance is so stark that any attempt by people such as these to claim the "moral values" high road should be greeted with scorn. Sadly, when liberal pundits embrace the torture issue as one of their own and associate it with an anti-war position that is likely to have far fewer adherents, they actually facilitate these attacks from the right.

Newman takes a look at some polling data and draws conclusions that seem to support his argument:
While the American people strongly oppose torture, the reality is that support or opposition to torture is actually tied to the underlying issue of the justice and worth of fighting the underlying Iraq war. ("57 percent of strong war supporters say abuse is acceptable, while two-thirds who strongly say the war wasn't worth fighting say abuse is never acceptable.") While highlighting the issue of torture will no doubt make some war supporters who oppose torture uncomfortable, it's clear that the justice of the war itself is the issue driving divides over policies like torture.

Ironically, these data point to a very different conclusion: when torture is discussed in the context of the Iraq war (an issue rife with partisan rancor), the numbers bear out a left-right split, but when it is not explicitly associated with an already identifiable political position, the numbers are quite different (scroll down). I'd like to believe that these numbers more closely match the true feelings of the American population.

Turning torture into a partisan issue overshadows the core truth that Gonzales has so offended: The moral value of our mission in the war on terror depends upon the US living up to a higher standard than our enemy's. If we cannot make a case for the moral superiority of this "way of life" that we are trying to promote across the globe, then the war is lost already. It is in the best interest of all Americans, whether conservative or liberal, that this be avoided at all costs.

When revelations about prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib exploded onto the front pages, the shame and revulsion felt by most Americans was palpable (and nearly universal). Now that torture apologist Gonzales' confirmation hearings are upon us, however, the partisan camps are gearing up for the same old fight, as though whether the US should reward torture is no different than the debate over Social Security reform. Now is the time to resist the temptation to play politics. We should act as though our reputation and our future depend upon it.

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