IMAGINE THAT a U.S. soldier is captured and subjected to waterboarding. Would Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann consider that torture?

Maybe not, given their disappointing responses to a question about waterboarding posed during Saturday’s Republican debate. And if they did object to the soldier’s treatment, they’ve lost the moral authority to argue against it.

Both Mr. Cain, who is leading the field of GOP contenders, and Ms. Bachmann, a congresswoman from Minnesota, expressed approval of the controversial technique, which has been considered torture since at least the Spanish Inquisition.

“I don’t see it as torture. I see it as an enhanced-interrogation technique,” Mr. Cain answered, adding that he “will trust the judgment of our military leaders to determine what is torture and what is not torture. That is the critical consideration.”

Is Mr. Cain not aware that military leaders have emphatically rejected waterboarding and other forms of torture? Did he not know that active and retired military leaders have said that the use of such abhorrent techniques makes it much more likely that U.S. service members would be subjected to such brutality?

For her part, Ms. Bachmann said she would be “willing to use waterboarding” if she were elected president. “I think it was very effective. It gained information for our country.”

Later in the debate, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum joined Ms. Bachmann in praising the effectiveness of “enhanced-interrogation techniques.” And Texas Gov. Rick Perry endorsed “using the techniques, not torture, but using those techniques that we know will extract the information to save young American lives.”

Bush administration officials, including former vice president Dick Cheney, have asserted that waterboarding led to important intelligence gains. It is not clear this is true. But even if it is, there is no evidence to suggest that such information could not have been gleaned using legal methods. Moreover, intelligence agents and military officials have consistently said that torture leads to unreliable admissions by victims who are desperate to stop the mistreatment.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman were the only other candidates to be asked Saturday about waterboarding. They rightly rejected its use. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), a former prisoner of war and the GOP’s 2008 nominee, said he was “very disappointed” with the embrace of waterboarding by some of the candidates.

On Sunday, President Obama rightly reiterated why it is important for the United States to reject such barbarity. “If we want to lead around the world, part of our leadership is setting a good example,” Mr. Obama said. “Waterboarding is torture. It’s contrary to America’s traditions. It’s contrary to our ideals.”