President Obama said a lot of important things tonight, but he also regurgitated a disturbing Bushism or two.*

One of these is the term “America does not torture.”

Stated in this particular way, an indisputible statement of principle is conflated with and therefore masquerades as an empirical “fact,” one which is blatantly untrue. This trope was one of the Bush Administration’s many brilliant inventions, and was designed as a public relations counter-response to growing acknowledgement that US military and intelligence personnel not only had tortured detainees, but had in fact been ordered to do so.

In the context of some other disturbing continuities between Bush Administration policies and Obama’s policy so far, this worries me. It should also worry Obama’s advisors: these kinds of rhetorical not to mention policy non-changes are precisely the type of behavior that will undermine Obama’s effort to reengage the international community in the wake of Bush-era unilateralism. Why? Because these particular issues are so closely emotionally associated with Bush-era unilateralism. If there is any sense in Obama’s decision to retain a policy of extraordinary rendition (and I can’t see any), there is certainly no sense in the decision to draw attention and umbrage to it by failing to at least change the rhetoric.

One of the most interesting conversations I had at ISA was about the Geneva Conventions. I had suggested in The National Interest last year that the Bush Administration and the human rights community work together toward an Additional Protocol to clarify the law, and my colleague asked whether I thought this advice still applied after the transition.

I would say it is even more relevant now. The Bush White House flaunted multilateral institutions like the torture regime because Bush’s policy was to flout multilateralism. Obama can’t continue that course – simply reinterpreting and then violating the law – while claiming to embrace multilateralism. But what he could do is lead a multilateral effort to clarify the law. An effort framed in good faith by a skillful and (as yet) largely untarnished leader like Obama could unite both the human rights community and those concerned about how to apply the laws in an era of asymmetric warfare. It could resolve some of the interpretive problems as a community. Obama should shift course and lead this movement before the opportunity is squandered as the US once again instead becomes its target.

*I mean, how it within his perogative or power to “not allow people to plot against America”? What does that mean as a basis for one’s foreign policy?

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