Uh-oh. Nancy Pelosi's performance at her press conference re waterboarding has raised, according to the Washington Post, "troubling new questions about the Speaker's credibility." The dreaded T-word: "troubling."
I doubt it will "trouble" the media for long, or at least not to the extent of bringing the Pelosi speakership to a sudden end - and needless to say I'm all in favor of Nancy remaining the face of congressional Democrats until November 2010. But her inconsistent statements do suggest a useful way of looking at America's tortured "torture" debate:
Question: What does Dick Cheney think of waterboarding?
He's in favor of it. He was in favor of it then, he's in favor of it now. He doesn't think it's torture, and he supports having it on the books as a vital option. On his recent TV appearances, he sometimes gives the impression he would not be entirely averse to performing a demonstration on his interviewers, but generally he believes its use should be a tad more circumscribed. He is entirely consistent.
Question: What does Nancy Pelosi think of waterboarding?
No, I mean really. Away from the cameras, away from the Capitol, in the deepest recesses of her (if she'll forgive my naivete) soul. Sitting on a mountaintop, contemplating the distant horizon, chewing thoughtfully on a cranberry-almond granola bar, what does she truly believe about waterboarding?
Does she support it? Well, according to the CIA, she did way back when, over six years ago.
Does she oppose it? According to Speaker Pelosi, yes. In her varying accounts, she's (a) accused the CIA of consciously "misleading the Congress of the United States" as to what they were doing; (b) admitted to having been briefed that waterboarding was in the playbook but that "we were not - I repeat - were not told that waterboarding or any of these other enhanced interrogation methods were used"; (c) belatedly conceded that she'd known back in February 2003 that waterboarding was being used but had been apprised of the fact by "a member of my staff." As she said on Thursday, instead of doing anything about it, she decided to focus on getting more Democrats elected to the House.
It's worth noting that, by most if not all of her multiple accounts, Nancy Pelosi is as guilty of torture as anybody else. That's not an airy rhetorical flourish but a statement of law. As National Review's Andy McCarthy points out, under Section 2340A(c) of the relevant statute, a person who conspires to torture is subject to the same penalties as the actual torturer. Once Speaker Pelosi was informed that waterboarding was part of the plan and that it was actually being used, she was in on the conspiracy, and as up to her neck in it as whoever it was who was actually sticking it to poor old Abu Zubaydah and the other blameless lads.
That is, if you believe waterboarding is "torture."
I don't believe it's torture. Nor does Dick Cheney. But Nancy Pelosi does. Or so she has said, latterly.
Alarmed by her erratic public performance, the speaker's fellow San Francisco Democrat Dianne Feinstein attempted to put an end to Nancy's self-torture session. "I don't want to make an apology for anybody," said Senator Feinstein, "but in 2002, it wasn't 2006, '07, '08, or '09. It was right after 9/11, and there were in fact discussions about a second wave of attacks."
Indeed. In effect, the senator is saying waterboarding was acceptable in 2002, but not by 2009. The waterboarding didn't change, but the country did. It was no longer America's war but Bush's war. And it was no longer a bipartisan interrogation technique that enjoyed the explicit approval of both parties' leaderships, but a grubby Bush-Cheney-Rummy war crime.
Dianne Feinstein has provided the least worst explanation for her colleague's behavior. The alternative - that Speaker Pelosi is a contemptible opportunist hack playing the cheapest but most destructive kind of politics with key elements of national security - is, of course, unthinkable. Senator Feinstein says airily that no reasonable person would hold dear Nancy to account for what she supported all those years ago. But it's okay to hold Cheney or some no-name Justice Department backroom boy to account?
Well, sure. It's the Miss USA standard of political integrity: Carrie Prejean and Barack Obama have the same publicly stated views on gay marriage. But the politically correct enforcers know that Barack doesn't mean it, so that's okay, whereas Carrie does, so that's a hate crime. In the torture debate, Pelosi is Obama and Dick Cheney is Carrie Prejean. Dick means it, because to him this is an issue of national security. Nancy doesn't, because to her it's about the shifting breezes of political viability.
But it does make you wonder whether a superpower with this kind of leadership class should really be going to war at all. Over at the New York Times, the elderly schoolgirl Maureen Dowd riffed off Cheney's defense of waterboarding and argued that, no matter when the next terrorist attack comes, the former vice president would be the one primarily responsible. He is, she said, "a force multiplier for Muslims who hate America."
Really? Last week, while Speaker Pelosi was preoccupied with her what-did-I-know-and-when-did-I-know-that-I-knew-it routine, the Daily Telegraph in London reported what is believed to be the second mass poisoning of Afghan schoolgirls, this time at Ura Jalili High School for Girls in Charikar. Fifty students had to be hospitalized after a mysterious "poison gas" infected the classrooms. As you may recall, under the Taliban it was illegal for girls to attend school, and Afghan insurgents have made a sustained effort to make the price of female education too high. So, in an effort to identify the poison, blood samples have been taken to Bagram air base to be analyzed by the U.S. military, taking time off its hectic schedule of mass torture.
Does waterboarding so outrage the Muslim world that it drives millions of young men into the dark embrace of al-Qaeda? No. But the media fetishization of U.S. "torture" is certainly "a force multiplier" for Muslims who don't so much "hate" as despise America, not least for its self-loathing.
One of the few U.S. commentators to pick up on the Afghan schoolgirls story was Phyllis Chesler, who wrote about it under the headline "The High Cost Of Western Idealism." America and its few real allies fight under the most constrained and self-imposed rules of engagement ever devised, and against an enemy that rejects every basic element of the Geneva Conventions. Perhaps we are so rich, so smart, so advanced that we can fight with one arm and both legs tied behind our back and still win - eventually. Along the way many innocents will suffer. But better that than that a Gitmo detainee with a fear of insects should have a caterpillar put in his cell.
Watching the Democrats champing at the bit last week, I thought perhaps we could cut to the chase and handcuff Cheney and Pelosi to a radiator in the basement of a CIA safe house somewhere. But on reflection this would be an unacceptable level of torture. It would be ungallant to say for whom.
Mark Steyn is a National Review columnist.
By Mark Steyn
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online.