Torture takes a toll... on Obama

As the release date for more US troop-abuse photos nears, the White House executes another awkward policy turnaround

Has torture talk become torture in itself or is that just too flippant by half?

Here I was tapping away on yet another tale of a high-ranking—former PM no less—Canadian politician taking plain envelopes stuffed with cash from a dodgy lobbyist when I was stopped in my tracks by the latest Obamarama. Just when we were gearing up for the release of 2000 or so more snaps of how abysmally American soldiers have treated prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, the main man said “enough already”.

This is the same President Obama who had promised a new regime of disclosure so that such unmentionables would indeed become mentionable. A cathartic cleansing if you will. So the pics were due to be dropped at the end of this month, but not any more.

That's because the President has it on good advice from his Chief of Defense, who has it on good advice from his man in the field, who has it on good advice from insurgent whisperers that such a show-and-tell would heighten the attacks on US soldiers. Remember, the pics from Abu Ghraib are said to have increased attacks on US troops in Iraq by up to 200% in the immediate aftermath of their release.

As a result, the President has had to go back on his word, begging the question as to why he thought in the first place that pre-authorising the release of the photos was a sound idea. All he did was raise expectations (while raising concerns amongst the families of those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan) and confirm once again for the anti-American community that what you see is not what you get.

Why release the torture memos, which confirm in hideous detail what America has resorted to while it unabashedly lectured the world on human rights and democratic principles, yet clamp down on a few more pictures, the likes of which we have already seen out of Abu Ghraib?

Obama's jumped right into the hot oil himself. He now has to marry his job as commander-in-chief—which demands he protect his troops on foreign soil—with his belief in open government, so elegantly articulated during his job application.

The outcry has been predictable. Suddenly he is being heralded by the Republicans as doing the right thing in withholding the photos while stunning many on his own side with the rather obvious and awkward policy reversal. Two steps forward and one back in the shuffle to clear the dirt from under the mats of the house he inherited.

But politics is all about pragmatism and Obama has taken the political risk that is associated with being a pragmatic guy. It must stick in his craw that pragmatism has triumphed over principle but that’s the truth of it, particularly so when he’s inherited a couple of wars.

So now it will be up to leaks from the Justice Department or some other outlet for the latest batch of photos to make it onto the telly. Most people, I would imagine, won’t care to see the photos, the last lot arguably still etched on the collective mind of not only the West, but fulfilling the role of incentive-in-chief for recruitment in the fight against the West.

Old hat—or old hood—it may sound, but there’s going to have to be some sort of independent inquiry to assess the photos and decide if prosecutions are in order. Makes wads of cash given to Canadians politicians seem trifling really.