Liberal commentators are expressing disappointment today about Barack Obama's announcement that he won't prosecute CIA operatives for torturing terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay and in other dens of American (and probably British) justice around the world. It is as if, for them, he's compromised himself fatally, becoming--as we all expected--a more articulate version of the Beast that came before him.
Well, that may or may not be so, just as Bush and Co. may or may not have been the Beast we assume them to have been. But as quick as I am to leap on Obama for failing to match deeds to the fine words (and how fine they were) that got him elected, I struggle to see how he could prosecute CIA operatives without prosecuting the lawyers and high-ranking government officials who approved the torture methods being used. That delightful man Dick Cheyney is on record as saying that water boarding is an acceptable method of interrogation in the extraordinary circumstances America faces as it struggles to defeat radical Islam.
"I was only acting on orders," of course, is not an adequate defence. But in Nazi Germany (not that I am drawing parallels between that and America post-9/11: even during the worst excesses of the Bush administration it was restrained by fundamental moral values, even if it showed an extraordinary capacity to rationalise their laying aside for the greater good), the soldier who attempted that defence saw every member of the Nazi high command tried, and the majority hanged.
Unless Obama is prepared to try Cheyney and Bush for war crimes, which he would never do, it would be utter hypocrisy to put those who followed the orders they gave on trial--even if we do have to question the nature of an agency whose fealty to international law is so slight that one call from an illegally elected president will see that law broken so grostesquely by its operatives.