Monday, May 16, 2011

John McCain: Forward to the Past!

John McCain: Forward to the Past!: "

Sen. John S. McCain (R-AZ, 96%) has painted himself into a deep hole over waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation methods. He has staked everything, everything, on two dubious claims:

  1. That waterboarding and the other so-called 'harsh' interrogation techniques (used through 2006 by the CIA against terrorists and other unlawful combatants) is 'torture,' defined by McCain as the equivalent of what his captors visited upon him in the 'Hanoi Hilton.'
  2. That such 'torture' cannot conceivably yield valid information, not even in theory.

How so? Because any form of interrogation harsher than politely asking the detainee to spill the beans necessarily, in every instance, elicits false and misleading disinformation (which apparently cannot even be fact checked, for some unfathomable reason).

Alas, in the war against radical Islamism, McCain has become obsessed with proving these two preposterous propositions, to the point that such proof trumps even victory itself. He believes such measures are never necessary, and that their use sears the very souls of the interrogators and of the nation itself. He also appears to maintain a childlike belief that there is always another way to gain the same intelligence; if only we ask detainees sincerely, compassionately, and charmingly enough, even top al-Qaeda leaders will see the light.

Case in point, McCain's bizarre argument with former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and others who had intimate knowledge of what information was extracted from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libi under waterboarding and other somewhat harsh (but hardly torturous) questioning. Though he wasn't there, John McCain has a vision of what happened (and didn't happen):

Waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques were not a factor in tracking down Osama bin Laden, a leading Republican senator insisted Thursday.

Sen. John McCain, who spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, also rejected the argument that any form of torture is critical to U.S. success in the fight against terrorism.

In an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, the Arizona Republican said former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and others who back those tactics were wrong to claim that waterboarding al-Qaida's No. 3 leader, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, provided information that led to bin Laden's compound in Pakistan.

Impassioned! But extreme passion typically comes at the price of reason.

AP makes a feeble attempt to cast McCain as 'in the loop' anent those interrogations, enough to know for dead certain that they were completely unproductive, fraudulent, and useless; writer Donna Cassata tepidly serves up the fact that Sen. McCain is currently (since 2009) the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, a qualification she concludes gives McCain an 'unrivaled record on the issue.'

But he was neither chairman nor ranking member when the interrogations took place; the Republican who was both is John Warner, now retired, who has not seconded McCain's pronunciamentos. No matter, the point is irrelevant anyway, as it's extremely unlikely that anybody in Congress, including Warner, was fully informed about the nature and extent of intelligence gleaned from those interrogations -- under the principle that 535 can keep a secret if 534 are bound and gagged.

How did McCain become such an authority, particularly on the left, on the morality and effectiveness of enhanced interrogation? Those now prattling about his 'unrivaled record on the issue' utterly villified him during the 2008 campaign; what has since transmogrified him into the senator with absolute moral authority to speak on the issue of interrogations?

The cover story is that John McCain's Communist captors tortured him, so he has a unique understanding of such things. (The real story is that anybody casting calumnies on George W. Bush and other Republicans automatically has absolute moral authority.) But McCain's captors inflicted real, not simulated, torture upon him, for years during and after the Vietnam War. It's hardly comparable, but that's the truncheon they'll use to bash everyone who engaged in or supported the interrogations.

Yet McCain's personal connection is precisely what makes him a uniquely unreliable witness. It's clear that he was so physically traumatized and emotionally devastated by his ordeal that he cannot possibly come to any rational, unbiased conclusion about waterboarding or any other harsh interrogation technique; he's hag-ridden by nightmarish memories and chronic medical problems. You may as well ask a Pearl Harbor survivor what he thinks about the internment of Americans of Japanese descent during WWII.

I happen to like John McCain, and of course I have tremedous respect and admiration for what he went through and how he recovered (mostly) from it. But he has become, for perfectly understandable reasons, phobic on the subject of interrogations.

Phobias do not make a good basis for rational inquiry. An arachnophobe is terrified of a Brazilian wandering spider or a Chilean recluse, two of the most deadly arachnids; but he's equally terrified of a harmless daddy longlegs.

On policy, I very much like McCain's position on spending and taxes; I mostly like his position on immigration (though I still want to know exactly how he proposes to reform the legal immigration system); and he was of course the first major Republican to begin calling for a counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. On the other hand, his role in the 'Gang of 14' constituted an appalling attack on constitutionalism and judicial restraint; his other phobia about campaign fund raising led directly to an attack on freedom of speech; and his penchant for poking his finger in the GOP's eye at every opportunity may well have contributed not only to the election of Barack H. Obama in 2008 but even the Democrats' recapture of Congress in 2006.

I had no difficulty voting for McCain in the 2008 general election against Senator B.O., and I would have had just as little difficulty voting for him against Hillary 'Fist Lady' Clinton. But on the subject of interrogating unlawful combatants for intelligence purposes, McCain is so blind, so deadly blind, that I believe he should simply recuse himself from that entire subject. He does his country far more harm than good on that issue.

John McCain has become a man behind his time. It happens to most folks, if they live long enough; but people who have been, in their lives, powerful mover-shakers and very important personae cling to relevancy as feverishly as they cling to life itself. In practice, this usually takes the form of railing against all that has changed in the world since their own opinions and understandings hardened into concrete, umpty-ump years ago.

McCain understood very, very well the world of the Cold War and Vietnam, of mechanical and electronic marvels, of an economy rooted in Alvin Toffler's second wave of industrial civilization. But there his personal 'theory of everything' froze; and the lightspeed changes since then -- insurgency/counterinsurgency warfare, the microprocessor and biogenetic-engineering revolutions, and an economy increasingly based upon information and microcurrents rather than plugboards and manufactories -- confuse, enrage, elude, and frighten him.

He is a great politician -- for 1985. Alas, it's always 1985 for John Sidney McCain III.


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