'A Defining Issue'

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Monday, December 10, 2007

FOR MOST of this year there has been a stark divide in the presidential campaign on the subject of torture. The candidates have repeatedly been asked whether they would subject suspected terrorists to waterboarding, an ancient torture technique that was prosecuted as a crime by the United States for more than 100 years before the Bush administration adopted it for use on captured al-Qaeda leaders. The Democratic candidates have ruled it out, while most of the Republicans have either hinted that they would allow it or refused to respond. The noble exception has been Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the only candidate ever to experience torture, who has spoken repeatedly and with great eloquence about the harm it causes to American interests.

Now a second Republican candidate has broken with the Bush administration's shameful record. After meeting in Iowa last week with a group of former senior military officers who oppose torture, Mike Huckabee told reporters that waterboarding is torture and that "torture should not be the policy of the United States of America." Although interrogations of enemy detainees should be "thorough," Mr. Huckabee said, "when we go to the point of violating our own moral code, then instead of advancing our country, its safety and our security, we in fact jeopardize it."

It's a measure of how far President Bush has departed from fundamental American values that Mr. Huckabee's statement would be at all remarkable. Yet it immediately placed him at odds with Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mitt Romney, both of whom have said they oppose torture while refusing to condemn, in practice, common methods of illegal abuse. Mr. Giuliani has been positively enthusiastic in his endorsement of "intensive questioning" and sleep deprivation -- which was the torture most commonly employed in Soviet gulags. Last May he said would tell interrogators to use "every method they can think of," including waterboarding, if he believed a prisoner had vital information.

At least Mr. Giuliani has the courage of his convictions. Asked about waterboarding at the last Republican debate, Mr. Romney ducked and dodged, saying that "as a presidential candidate, I don't think it's wise for us to describe specifically which measures we would and would not use." That drew an immediate response from Mr. McCain, who said he was "astonished" that "anyone could believe that's not torture."

"My friends, this is what America is all about," Mr. McCain said. "This is a defining issue and clearly, we should be able, if we want to be commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces, to take a definite and positive position on, and that is, we will never allow torture to take place in the United States of America."

Mr. McCain has taken a stand, and now so has Mr. Huckabee. That leaves Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Romney on the wrong side of an issue that should indeed be fundamental to the choice of the next president.

Click here for other editorials in the Ideas Primary series.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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