Profiles in Cowardice

Sunday, October 1, 2006

ONCE AGAIN, with a midterm election looming, President Bush stoked and won a major legislative confrontation over a complex national security question. Four years ago, it was the Iraq war resolution and reorganization of the government's homeland security functions. In both cases, hindsight suggests that haste and political pressure foreclosed the kind of nuanced debate that might have served the nation well. The same is likely to prove true of legislation passed last week on the treatment, detention and trial of enemy combatants.

But the artificial emergency Mr. Bush created has served his political purpose. His goal was to press opponents to cave to his will, against their better judgment, or to create an issue allowing his party to tar the opposition as soft on terrorism. In this case, thanks in part to the Democrats' weak-hearted abdication, he got both.

Congress had to act immediately, Mr. Bush insisted, or else terrorists could not face justice and the CIA could not interrogate the enemy. But the president says the CIA is not holding anyone, and the administration has dawdled for years without getting military trials off the ground. The only relevant deadline was Nov. 7.

Mr. Bush must bear responsibility for his cynical pursuit of the wrong answer, but he could not have prevailed without a lot of help. Republicans in both chambers, forgetting that Congress is supposed to be an independent branch, snapped to attention when the president told them what to do. At least some of them obviously knew better. Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) courageously championed an amendment to restore the judicial oversight that Mr. Bush opposed. When his amendment failed on a 51 to 48 vote, the senator said he would vote against the bill, calling it "patently unconstitutional on its face." Then he voted for it. The bill, he explained, had good points, and the courts "will clean it up."

Democrats hoped that they could duck behind Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and two other Republicans who for a time fought a lonely fight for a better bill. When the three renegades settled for very little, the Democrats were left exposed, and it wasn't pretty. Nearly all of them voted for Mr. Specter's amendment, yet 12 -- including Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and three other senators facing reelection -- voted for the bill afterward. The rest contented themselves by voting no but did not lift a finger to slow it down or stop it.

"By allowing this administration to further stretch the definition of what is and is not torture," Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) said, "we lower our moral standards to those whom we despise, undermine the values of our flag wherever it flies, put our troops in danger and jeopardize our moral strength in a conflict that cannot be won simply with military might." Stirring words -- but apparently not stirring enough to justify a filibuster.

Only a couple of weeks ago, the Senate was poised to move constructive legislation that would have given the administration the tools it needs but not the power to disappear people into secret prisons and interrogate them using techniques too shameful to name in public. Yet Mr. Bush's pressure tactics worked again. He has the lamentable legislation he wanted -- which will bring discredit onto this country in any number of ways -- and Republicans are busily blasting Democrats as terrorist-coddlers anyway.

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