Amid the commotion over Chuck Hagel's nomination to lead the defense department, Obama's pick for CIA director has received considerably less attention. But if John McCain's stance on torture and his hardball approach to Hagel during his Senate confirmation today are any indication, Obama's old Republican rival could end up being the one that shines a spotlight on Obama's most controversial nomination yet.
The thorny details of foreign policy differences during American presidential campaigns are frequently expunged from the historical record with good reason: they tend to contradict the dominant perception of the given contest. For instance, FDR declared he wouldn’t intervene in European conflicts and Lyndon Johnson positioned himself as the peace candidate to the rancorous specter of an atomic Goldwater presidency.
However, every once in a while, American presidential hopefuls detail exactly what they are going to do, beyond our borders, and then, subsequently, do it. These cases are, also, often purged from the dominant narrative, as they tend to contradict the cultural interpretation of the candidate. For instance, after twelve years of dismal conservative policies, liberals were more than willing to overlook the fact Bill Clinton ran to the right of the elder Bush on two pivotal issues: the crippling embargo against Cuba and the loan guarantees siphoned off for Israel. By the same token, it is often forgotten that that similar strain of cognitive dissonance was applied to John Kerry’s warmongering during the peculiar “Anyone but Bush” days of the 2004 election cycle, with his supporters inventing creative ways to spin his plans to expand the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
And, so it has gone with President Obama. Despite the millions of words that have been typed on the laptops of vexed liberals since 2008, detailing a shocked sense of disappointment with the President, he has, largely, lived up to his foreign policy promises. He said he wanted to put more troops in Afghanistan and he did. He said he wanted to bring the fight against terrorism into Pakistan, whether our ally agreed with our vision or not. He did that too.
Since 9/11, the US media has made a sizable fuss on the question of whose side Pakistan is truly on in America’s “War on Terror,” but the question is hardly ever reversed: is the United States truly on Pakistan’s side? Just imagine, for a moment, the congressional calls for blood that would ring out if Pakistan, somehow, accidentally killed 24 members of the US military or patrolled our skies with drones, killing hundreds of our civilians. The McCain ticket harbored a wacky interpretation of the Iraq War completely removed from reality, but it, certainly, didn’t promise the same kind of military expansion in Pakistan. Nonetheless, the roles were assigned by the media and the bases of the two parties: McCain was the elderly man who wanted to blow up the world and Obama was the candidate whose name could be written with a peace sign and emblazoned on a Volvo bumper sticker.
John Brennan, current White House counter-terrorism advisor and architect of the CIA's controversial new drone "playbook," was Obama’s pick to head the CIA in 2008, while the President was following through on these campaign promises. But the man’s connection to the Bush-era’s torture programs seemed to invalidate him from the position. While the psychological reasons behind trust in Obama probably require rigorous examination, one thing is clear: there was a lot more hope for “Hope” in 2008. Obama had recently condemned the practice of torture and spoke eloquently of one admirable promise: closing down Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
It isn’t talk of closing Gitmo that overshadows a potential Brennan nomination this time, but rather a muffled discussion about closing the office that was trying to close Gitmo. Last week, the State Department reassigned Daniel Fried, the special envoy who had been working on closing the prison, to focus instead on issues related to Syria and Iran. No one replaced him. As the New York Times reported, “The announcement that no senior official in President Obama’s second term will succeed Mr. Fried in working primarily on diplomatic issues pertaining to repatriating or resettling detainees appeared to signal that the administration does not currently see the closing of the prison as a realistic priority, despite repeated statements that it still intends to do so.”
This alteration in collective mood engulfs a recent story that Brennan was well aware of: the enhanced interrogation policies as an agency official under the Bush administration. A new Reuters report cites “multiple sources familiar with official records” who say Brennan “was a regular recipient of CIA message traffic about controversial aspects of the agency's counter-terrorism program after September 2001, including the use of ‘waterboarding.’”
The same report quotes the aforementioned Senator from Arizona, John McCain, who seems to be gearing up for his Brennan questioning during Brennan’s confirmation hearing: “I have many questions and concerns about his nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, especially what role he played in the so-called enhanced interrogation programs while serving at the CIA during the last administration.”
John McCain on torture in a 2007 debate
The fact that McCain is likely to emerge as the most vociferous questioner during the hearing highlights two interesting points. 1.) Since Obama's first election victory, the standards and expectations regarding a shift from Bush’s foreign policy are now, virtually, nonexistent. 2.) One of the only prominent politicians who seems exceptionally concerned with Brennan running the CIA is the only Senator who has been tortured.
Despite McCain’s imperial outlook, history of deplorable war votes, and inability to select a vice-presidential candidate who possessed rudimentary skills in the field of geography, McCain has never faltered in his principled stance against torture. "This is what America is all about," he said in a 2007 presidential debate with Mitt Romney. "This is a defning issue. We weill never allow torture to take place in the United States of America." There was rousing applause.
During Brennan’s confirmation hearing on February 7th, will McCain be the only one who even raises the torture question? If he is, and he grills Brennan with the necessary zeal, the War Candidate may not derail Obama's CIA pick. But he will be raising other important questions--about secrecy, drones, and certainly about an issue that may spark debates about movies but that no one really likes to know or think about, the details of which are still buried inside a classified 6,000-page Senate report. He'll also further position himself to the left of the Peace Candidate he ran against not so long ago, on one of the most important moral issues of our time.