Barack Obama: Surprise The World Again

From the NYT:

“President Obama is facing new pressure to reverse himself and to ramp up investigations into the Bush-era security programs, despite the political risks.

Leading Democrats on Sunday demanded investigations of how a highly classified counterterrorism program was kept secret from the Congressional leadership on the orders of Vice President Dick Cheney.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, who is the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on Fox News Sunday called it a “big problem.” Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, on “This Week” on ABC, agreed that the secrecy “could be illegal” and demanded an inquiry.

Mr. Obama said this weekend that he had asked his staff members to review the mass killing of prisoners in Afghanistan by local forces allied with the United States as it toppled the Taliban regime there. The New York Times reported Saturday that the Bush administration had blocked investigations of the matter.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is also close to assigning a prosecutor to look into whether prisoners in the campaign against terrorism were tortured, officials disclosed on Saturday.

And after a report from five inspectors general about the National Security Agency’s domestic eavesdropping said on Friday that there had been a number of undisclosed surveillance programs during the Bush years, Democrats sought more information.”

Let me add my own little millibar to that pressure. All of these things deserve to be investigated. This is not a matter of focussing on the past at the expense of the future. We will not have the future we want if government officials can break the law with impunity, safe in the knowledge that no future administration will be willing to take the political heat and investigate them.

Since anyone who is reading this probably knows what I think about these questions, I’d like to focus instead on this:

“Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said on “Meet the Press” on NBC that despite his dismay at the Central Intelligence Agency’s past interrogation methods, including waterboarding, he opposed a criminal inquiry into torture, which he said would “harm our image throughout the world.””

I think that is exactly wrong. People around the world are not under any illusions about whether or not we tortured people. They know that we did, and that fact has already, and rightly, done enormous damage to our image.

What they don’t know is whether we are prepared to do anything about it. Do we just lecture other people about their shortcomings, or are we ready to face up to our own? Most of the people I’ve met abroad assume that we will do nothing. They don’t think this because of any particular dislike of the United States; they just assume that that is the way things work. If we do not hold anyone to account for any of the crimes that were committed under the last administration, they will not be surprised.

If we do hold people to account, on the other hand, that will make an impression.

In thinking about this, I am reminded of conversations I had when I was in Pakistan. My first trip there was in 2007, when the campaigns were just kicking into gear. People asked who I supported; I said Obama. They asked: but can he possibly win? I said that while I was reluctant to judge, I thought that he could.

The most common reaction — not uniform, but common — was a combination of several things. On the one hand, I was American and they were not, so the people I talked to naturally assumed that I probably had a better grasp of US politics than they did. Besides, I was their guest, and they were wonderfully polite. On the other hand, however, they found the idea that Barack Obama — an African-American who did not come from a privileged background, whose father was from a Kenyan village — could possibly be elected President literally unbelievable.

It was fascinating to watch them trying to reconcile these conflicting impulses: I was talking about a country I lived in, which most of them had never been to, and I was not obviously insane, but I was saying something that could not possibly be true. And, as best I could tell, there were two reasons why it couldn’t be true: first, whoever the Pakistani analog of Barack Obama might be, that person would never be elected President in Pakistan, and second, they had been disappointed in America’s track record in living up to its ideals, and so were not inclined to believe that it would do so this time.

The last time I went, Barack Obama had secured the nomination. People in Pakistan were astonished, but they were also really inspired. And I don’t think that this was mainly about Obama’s policies. It was about us living up to our ideals: about the idea that in America, anyone really can grow up to be President, and about the idea that enough of us had managed to look past our long history of slavery and discrimination and bigotry that we might elect Barack Obama President.

It gave people hope: the hope that cynics are not always right, and that the fix is not always in.

If we’re interested in our image abroad, we could do a lot worse than simply deciding to live up to our ideals: for instance, the rule of law. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s also the smart thing.