There's no shortage of pyrotechnics or take-downs in the week-long battle between liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias and Marc Thiessen, former speechwriter for George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. The point of contention is the Bush-era use of waterboarding and whether it is akin to the waterboarding used during the Spanish Inquisition.

The debate is vigorous and personal. But it quickly becomes clear that much more is at hand, with both writers using waterboarding as a platform to evaluate the legacy of the entire Bush administration. Rather than simply rehashing their positions on waterboarding--Yglesias condemns it, Thiessen defends--we've teased out the even weightier discussion of Bush's legacy, to which Thiessen himself is tied.

  • Thiessen: Liberals Wrongly Vilify Bush White House  More than anything, this is Thiessen's chief complaint. "For six years," Thiessen told the New York Times in the quote that started it all, "the left has had a field day with this, running around saying we tortured people and comparing us to the Spanish Inquisition." Thiessen writes at National Review, "folks like Yglesias continue to make the specious comparison." He allies himself with the CIA:
And so each time I feel obligated to respond, to defend the honor of the courageous men and women of the CIA who kept us safe and who cannot defend themselves. [...] when folks like Yglesias open their mouths on this topic, they demonstrate once again that they are speaking from a pinnacle of near-perfect ignorance.
  • Yglesias: Bush Team Was Bad at National Security  He says it can all be traced to torture. "One thing that dimwitted and immoral people do when under pressure is decide that lashing out with a kind of dimwitted and immoral violence is going to help them. Consequently, they got the dimwitted and immoral idea that they ought to torture people." He adds of Thiessen's criticism of Predator drones, "From inside this twisted mental space, the notion that killing terrorists is too soft on terror starts to make sense. After all, in Thiessenland it’s better to let four terrorists go free if that lets you torture a fifth."
  • Thiessen: We Kept You Safe, Liberals  Thiessen worries that liberals from Yglesias to Obama don't appreciate the Bush White House's contribution to national security. He focuses on Obama's use of drone strikes. "When we located KSM in 2003, we didn’t send a Predator to kill him; we captured him alive and brought him in for interrogation," he boasts, citing other captured terrorists. "If we had killed them, there would likely be craters in Karachi, Djibouti, London, and Los Angeles to match the one in New York City."
I suppose the natural question to ask, though, is why these kind of comparisons to the Spanish Inquisition and the Khmer Rouge and the Korean War-era People’s Liberal Army seem to bother torture advocates so much. The basic point made by torture advocates (when they’re not quibbling about whether or not you should call techniques poached from a torture resistance manual “torture”) is that the problem with liberals is that we’re not sufficiently willing to engage in brutal treatment of prisoners in order to compel their cooperation. But do you know who really didn’t shy away from brutal treatment of prisoners? The Spanish Inquisition! The Khmer Rouge! These are people who knew how to get the job done and it strikes me as deeply hypocritical of torture fans to turn around and get all squeamish and liberal when they hear that the inquisitors added a garrote or two into the torturing fun. [...]

If torture in the name of a good cause is as awesome as Thiessen says it is, then why is it such a point of pride to try to maintain that what he advocates isn’t quite as brutal as what was done in the Inquisition? Could it be that somewhere lurking beneath the defensiveness, the partisanship, the blinkered worldview, and the immorality is a little nub of a conscience?