Thursday, April 30, 2009

Jim Manzi's "Against Waterboarding"

The latest anti-torture argument comes from the right, by way of Jim Manzi at The Corner. I would summarize it as follows: the tactical or short-term benefits of torture outweigh the strategic or long-term costs. Manzi's argument is well-reasoned -- and unlike many anti-torture opinions -- does not rest on historical ignorance, naivete, or denial of facts and logic. But it has significant weaknesses. Most of his arguments simply don't apply to the positions of someone arguing from my particular viewpoint.  But I want to focus on a few specific points that I think weaken his position.

Manzi lays out two cases for why waterboarding is or is not "categorically" or "inherently" evil. Obviously I fall into the "is not" category, but I disagree with one major aspect of his "simplified" case.

Inducing fear in a manner carefully calculated not to produce physical harm is not torture, and is very, very much less severe than most things done in war. 

A true defense of the possible necessity and utility of torture (such as mine), does not rely on arguing about the definition of torture. If waterboarding isn't torture, then the pro-waterboarding argument isn't susceptible to anti-torture reasoning at all. 

In examining the strategic utility of waterboarding, Manzi looks at historical examples of both non-U.S. and U.S. use of waterboarding as a "widespread technique to gain intelligence from captured combatants." He then notes that those examples resulted either in strategic failure, or at best in success that was something other than a source of pride to the user. At first glance this is a powerful argument based on historical examples. But there is one major problem. No one is arguing for widespread use of waterboarding. The Bush administration used it on three people, out of all those captured. The situation is simply not comparable in scope to the Philippine Insurrection or any of the other conflicts Manzi uses as an example. 

Arguing that waterboarding should be an option for a carefully selected few is far different than advocating it for widespread use in interrogation. This reflects another problem with Manzi's post. He's specifically rejecting the use of waterboarding, but it is unclear if that means he's also against other coercive techniques. If so, then his examples mean more. But when restricted to waterboarding, they are almost a type of strawman.

Manzi's argument as a whole also seems to focus on military use of, and on official recognition and support for waterboarding. His case against them is pretty strong. But it is not much of an argument against the limited, secret use of such techniques by the CIA. In some respects his post is actually a better argument against torture in general, than an argument against the practice of waterboarding actually carried out by the Bush administration.


  1. The practice of waterboarding as carried out by the Bush administration was officially sanctioned as legal and non-torture.

    True, its use was limited and not comparable in scope to examples from past wars, but that difference is to be expected given today's more limited and asymmetric warfare.

    Bush's program was not the extra-legal, non-sanctioned, ultra-secret use that you advocate. In fact we'd never be able to talk about what you advocate, because there wouldn't be any authorization memos, Congressional oversight, or other evidence to corroborate its use.

    Whenever you're confronted with a solid argument against torture, you retreat behind saying that what you advocate is more secret and surgical and wouldn't create all these strategic and political problems. Fine. But please quit pretending that's what Bush did.

  2. "Fine. But please quit pretending that's what Bush did."

    I'm not. And I didn't attack that part of his argument. It's a good argument against official sanction. But the point remains that if you use the examples that he gave, it is very easy to point out that only 3 people were waterboarded.