Calling defeat victory

President Bush put the best possible face on it, inviting Sen. John McCain to the Oval Office and asserting “we’ve been happy to work with him to achieve a common objective, and that is to make it clear to the world that this government does not torture …”

Far from being a compromise, the McCain-authored ban on cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment of prisoners was a near-total capitulation by the White House. Five months ago, Bush flatly threatened to veto any bill containing a ban on torture.

When it became clear that some kind of restriction would pass, Vice President Cheney personally interceded to seek an exemption for the CIA. McCain was adamant that the ban would apply to all U.S. personnel. Then Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, unsuccessfully sought a provision allowing the president to issue waivers from the ban.

Votes in the Senate, 90 to 9, and the House, 308 to 122, showed that Congress wasn’t having any of it, and by veto-proof margins. The president bowed to the inevitable, clearing the way for passage of two priority defense bills to which the ban is attached.

The administration’s seeming endorsement of the use of torture, in defiance of international treaties and existing U.S. law, made the United States appear like an arrogant bully, ignoring standards it insisted others adhere to. It did serious damage to the United States’ longstanding claim to be a leader in human rights, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice found on her European swing.

The Bush team took office determined to restore powers to the presidency that they believed had seriously eroded. The White House asserted the right to imprison at will, torture, ignore basic constitutional protections, eavesdrop and wage war.

In a significant way, the McCain provisions assert that the United States is a nation of laws and principles and that the presidency is restrained by checks and balances.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)