The Senate "torture report" and the reaction to it (both critical and positive) are part of a far-larger problem of legitimacy facing American government, I argue in a new Daily Beast column:
We need to be clear about the ultimate import of the torture report, which covers a period from late 2001 through 2009 and whose release was unconscionably delayed for years. It won't be the cause of lowered international esteem for America or even attacks on overseas personnel. No, that's all due to the same old failed interventionist foreign policy, massive and ongoing drone attacks, and the proliferation of "dumb wars" over the past dozen years under both Republican and Democratic presidents and Congresses.
The torture report is simply the latest and most graphic incarnation of an existential leadership crisis that has eaten through Washington's moral authority and ability to govern, in the way road salt and rust eat through car mufflers in a Buffalo winter. "America is great because she is good," wrote Tocqueville back in the day. "If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great." We've got a lot of explaining to do, not just to the rest of the world but to ourselves. How much longer will we countenance the post-9/11 national security state, which Edward Snowden's ongoing revelations remind us are constantly mutating into new forms and outrages?
This is all far bigger than the run-of-the-mill awfulness of the past decade-plus of bipartisan blunders, mud-slinging, and scandals.
For most of the 21st century, faith in government has been fading like the last light sent off by a star that had died long before we even knew of its existence. Record low numbers of Americans trust the government to do the right thing and record high numbers see it as the biggest threat to the future. The 2000 presidential election was essentially decided by a coin toss, an unnerving reality from which we have never fully recovered. If the highest office in the land is governed by such caprice, maybe all of government is equally unmoored to anything other than a will to power and sheer luck. George W. Bush went into Iraq under specious
circumstances. Under the most charitable interpretation, his administration was simply mistaken. Elected on a promise to undo Bush's record on civil liberties, state surveillance, and foreign policy, Barack Obama arguably has been worse on every score. Is it any wonder that control of Congress is swinging back and forth like a tetherball?
The leadership in both parties is laughable and ineffective, incapable even of pushing a budget through in the official manner while missing no opportunity to sermonize on the real and imagined evils of their legislative adversaries. The torture report taunts both sides equally because in the final analysis, the difference between "How could you support this?" and "How could you let this happen?" is morally null and void.