Saturday, January 28, 2017

President Donald Trump says he will defer to his Defense Secretary and CIA head over the issue of waterboarding.

President Donald Trump speaks with British Prime Minster Theresa May. AP/ABC News.

President Donald Trump says that he will defer to his Defense Secretary James Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo on the issue of waterboarding. ABC News. Trump notably disagrees with his newly confirmed cabinet members about the effectiveness of waterboarding and famously called to bring it back, and do worse, on the campaign trail. Trump said that the practice was effective and is nothing compared to what ISIS has done throughout the world. Despite that, Trump said that he was giving Mattis and Pompeo permission to overrule him on the issue. As of this report Trump is not going to bring back waterboarding.

My Comment:
The most interesting thing about this report isn't the fact that Trump supports waterboarding. That is well known and not really anything new. Nor is the fact that he is kind of breaking a campaign promise. I will get to those issues in a moment but what I am surprised by is how Trump is running his White House. 

In the past when a cabinet member disagreed with his or her President, that dispute was kept quiet. It wasn't broadcast on multiple interviews and speeches and made public for the world to see. Indeed, it almost seems like Trump is trying to have his cake and eat it too. He's acting like he is in favor of waterboarding (and may very well be, his descion on it might have more to due with legal issues and bad press) but by deferring to his cabinet, he makes himself look reasonable. If the press wasn't so against Trump, it might even have helped him, but I don't see that happening. If he raised the dead and created world peace the press would still spin it so that he looks like Adolf Hitler Jr. 

I have heard other people speculate, and I would cite a source if I could remember it, that Donald Trump was really likely to run the White House differently than any other President. Instead of a normal presidency who sets down the law of the land, Trump will run it like the president of an actual company. Instead of making every descion himself, he will delegate when possible and only take direct action when necessary. VP Pence would take an active role in the White House and his cabinet members would control a lot of the policy. Given this incident, it really looks like that is the way it is going to be. 

Whether you like that or not really depends on how much you like Trump's VP and cabinet. It really seems like they are going to have a lot of power to do things and will probably come up with policy to a greater extant then we are used too. That's a pretty big change from the Obama, Bush and Clinton White Houses, and presumably the ones that were before them.  I personally don't have a problem with it and would likely do the same thing if I was president, but so far that's largely because I really like Trump's cabinet picks. James Mattis alone is an absolute legend and if he says waterboarding doesn't work then I am inclined to agree with him. 

That does mean though that Trump might end up breaking a few campaign promises. To be fair, if the only campaign promise Trump breaks is this one, it speaks well for him, and so far this is the only one I can think of that he has broken. Trump has been almost obsessive this week trying to push through quite a bit of his promised actions and so far he has been pretty good at keeping his word. Indeed, if Hillary Clinton was president now I doubt she would have gotten a quarter of the stuff done that Trump has, and I think you can agree with that no matter who's policies you support more. He's been getting things done and keeping his word, for the most part. 

But that could change if he gets different advice from his cabinet. Ironically enough, as someone who really wanted what he promised, the idea that he could be so easily talked out of waterboarding makes me a bit nervous. So far, he hasn't been talked out of anything else, but that could very well change down the road. It's part of the reason I am glad Mitt Romney didn't make as Secretary of State...

Of course if Trump was going to break one of his campaign promises, this was a good one to do so on. I have always been of two minds on the issue of waterboarding, enhanced interrogation and even torture. On the one hand I have no moral issue with using the methods to gather intelligence. I have always said that if there was danger of an upcoming attack then it was obviously acceptable to use torture. The pain and suffering of one person isn't worth the risk of deaths from terror attacks. Famously I gave a persuasive speech to that effect back in college in one of my required communication classes (I got a B, but only because I didn't use enough sources). There is also something emotionally satisfying about seeing these ISIS and al-Qaeda monsters getting some of their own medicine, though that's hardly a valid argument. 

On the other hand, even back then I wasn't sure if torture even worked. (as an aside, during the question portion, despite quite a few people disagreeing with me on ethics, nobody even asked if I thought it worked or not). The problem with using torture is that you are extremely likely to get false information. People don't like pain or discomfort and will often make up whatever you want to hear to get it to stop. I think there might be ways to get around that but I don't think it's worth the risk of false positives and false negatives that you could get. There is also the very real issue of mistaken identity where you could have a completely innocent person tortured for no reason.  

I have never been able to make up my mind between those two options. It's a tricky, thorny issue and I don't think I will ever be able to decide between them. In order to prove it works you would have to do it and that seems like a high price to pay if it turns out it's useless, especially if it results in false information. We do know that traditional interrogation techniques do work, so, for now, we might as well stick with them. Still, I worry about the nightmare scenario where a major 9/11 scale terror attack, or worse, happens and we had someone in custody who knew it was coming but didn't talk... 

Of even bigger concern is the fact that not using waterboarding and whatever else Trump wanted to do takes one arrow out of the quiver of the news media and the Democrats. Regardless of your opinion on waterboarding you have to admit that President Bush paid an extreme political price for using it. Not only did he get a ton of flack from the press and international governments, he also had to do quite a bit of legal clean up afterwards. That's a massive headache that I would like the Trump administration to avoid. Hopefully, Mattis and Pompeo

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