I support a truth commission on torture. There are certainly sound moral and even political reasons to discover the truth about the outrageous abuses of the Bush era. While many people in the country -- including everyone in the White House -- would like the issue to go away, some sort of truth commission, or at least Congressional committee hearings, is probably inevitable. This is the 800-pound gorilla that is unlikely to disappear, especially with the constant drumbeat from the Republican right, and after Speaker Pelosi's less than stellar performance in her press conference this week.
But we should also be aware that the likely beneficiaries of torture hearings will be none other than the Republicans, especially those on the far right. How can that be? After all, it was the neo-cons and their conservative allies who drove the Bush administration policies that led America to a disastrous war in Iraq and lied to the public and Congress about everything from WMD's to torture policies. How could they possibly benefit from a full airing of the truth of their misdeeds?
Simple. Americans by a wide margin already hold the Bush administration and their Republican allies in Congress responsible for the terrible abuses of human rights, the Constitution and national security, not to mention the meltdown of the economy. There is almost nothing that will come out in truth commission hearings that will shock the country about the Bush crowd. If it were suddenly revealed, for example, that Dick Cheney personally gnawed off the leg of a detainee, most people would likely shrug and consider that well within the character of the former Vice President.
However, what will be an eye-opener for Americans is the news that leading Democrats were briefed on the torture policies, however obliquely, and didn't raise a fuss at the time. The fact that they knew about the torture at the time and are now protesting loudly about it, will make them appear not only complicit, but also hypocritical. Never mind the fact that the Democratic leadership had virtually no influence over the Bush administration policies. It has morphed into a case of "what did they know and when did they know it?" And we all understand where that is going. Add to the mix a heavy dose of fuel provided by Speaker Pelosi when she accused the CIA of lying to her and others in Congress about the torture program. Rest assured that the CIA will aggressively push back against that charge. Now the question becomes "who is telling the truth?" And, again, we can predict how that scenario will unfold.
Here is how the Republicans benefit from all this. First, the Republicans have nowhere to go but up. America blames them for everything from the disaster in Iraq to the economic mess. If they manage to dirty the Democrats' previously clean hands on torture, it's a win for them. And if they can force the White House into taking sides in the debate, then it's an even bigger win, since anything President Obama says on the subject will either lose him support from the left or further alienate the right, and possibly even cost him votes in the middle of the political spectrum. While this won't derail his domestic agenda, it could distract him or slow down his efforts moving forward on the economy, health care, education and other pressing issues.
The other big win for the Republicans is that the truth commission shifts the national debate back to national security, and more specifically terrorism. This is a winning issue for the Republicans -- witness the recent presidential election when McCain, champion of national security issues, was inching ahead of Obama in the polls right before the October economic meltdown. A bright focus on terrorism is red meat for the Republicans. And if, more likely when there is another terrorist attack, the Republicans can expect to reap big political gains as they castigate the Democrats and White House for being "hypocritical pansies" in the war against terror.
As critical as a truth commission on torture would be for America in restoring its moral compass, we should also recognize that it will also be a gift to the Republican party, one that will keep on giving for years to come. While it is perhaps axiomatic that truth is more important than political gain, it is a bitter pill to swallow that those most responsible for the terrible abuses of the past decade are those who are most likely to benefit from an investigation into the truth.
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