Andrew Cohen today takes Barack Obama to task for failing to hold people responsible for torture during the George W. Bush administration, which I think is correct, and assigns some blame to Obama for the GOP pro-torture position, which I think is too strong.
Cohen believes that Obama should have convened a Truth Commission back in 2009. I agree. It would be a very good thing to get on the record, as clearly as possible, whatever intelligence gains -- and deficits -- resulted from torture during the Bush years. I'm fairly confident that torture was a net loss just in its immediate, direct effects, and more so if the indirect effects of damaging US prestige are counted, but I'd be more confident about that if we had a full accounting. (For related points, see Adam Serwer today).
But realistically, there is exactly zero chance that any Truth Commission could change the overwhelming fact that the former Republican Vice President of the United States is going to be out there advocating for torture, and that without something to trump that the odds are very high that a whole lot of other GOP opinion leaders will chose Cheney's position over Barack Obama's, at least as long as Obama is in the Oval Office.
A new Republican president would instantly marginalize Cheney, and if that president chose to publicly re-assert the traditional American opposition to torture then there's a good chance that favoring torture would rapidly become a fringe position again. Until that point, there really is only person who has an excellent chance of marginalizing Cheney and Cheneyism: George W. Bush. If Mr. War On Terror was to declare that torture didn't work, and that it was all a horrible but well-intentioned mistake, I think there's a pretty good chance that most GOP politicians would go along.
That was the thinking, I assume, behind Andrew Sullivan's wonderful open letter to Bush last year; it's the thinking behind my suggestions that Obama issue a blanket pardon for Bush-era torturers, because that might change the incentives for Bush. But in both cases there's really nothing that Obama can do to force the issue, just as there's nothing that Obama can do to get Dick Cheney himself to accept the traditional consensus view. Andrew Cohen should recall that there was a Congressional committee on Iran-Contra, and it totally failed to get Republicans to accept the facts of the case, primarily because the Republicans on the committee -- led by none other than Dick Cheney -- dissented. And while Cohen argues that the 9/11 Commission put conspiracy theories about that event in fringe territory, I don't think that's right, either. Those conspiracy theories were always on the fringe, but the 9/11 Commission did nothing to quiet those conservatives who believed, for example, that Iraq was behind the terrorist attacks.
So, yes, blame Obama for not addressing an issue he should have addressed, but do remember that controlling what the opposition says and believes is far beyond the powers of the presidency.