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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Friday, 15 September 2006
The King and the Rebels
Topic: For policy wonks...
The King and the Rebels
The week's political events should always end with a flourish - with accusations and defensiveness and attacks and counterattacks. It gives political junkies something to argue about on the weekend, and gives everyone else something to think about if the weekend games are dull blow-outs and there are no good movies available - after the chores, of course.

The "everyone else" in this case settles on thinking about who's really in charge, who should be in charge, and where we as a nation are heading, as kind of rainy day last choice. Except for when you see too many people you know losing their jobs, and you have vague odd worries too, and when you find your adjustable rate mortgage just jumped and the new monthly actually hurts and you can't do much about it, and when all the bills seem strangely larger (especially the medical stuff and gasoline), and it's been a long time since you had any sort of real raise, and when you blow by the news and see the scenes of our wars that were supposed to be fast, effective and clean but aren't, and see all these people in very nice countries not liking us much either - except for those sorts of times, we aren't a nation much interested in who runs things. A very small percentage of the population has a family member involved in the wars - in Afghanistan or Iraq. We have no draft. With the troop level there nearing one hundred fifty thousand no one much notices any local effects - there are three hundred million of us. Do the math. And there's no call for sacrifices - rationing and all that sort of thing. We're told to go shopping and act normal - otherwise the terrorist will have won. And that's fine. We just want to be left alone.

But it's an election year, so no one will be left alone. Some the advertising will even creep into the NFL broadcasts - some political aspirant or other claiming his or her opponent is a sleazy fool. How are you supposed to know? You shrug. But no one can hide from all this.

And why would you? It's become great theater, as they say. It's not that bad to consider.

The conflict has been building for weeks, culminating in, on Friday, September 15, a late morning press conference where the president took on the press and was in rare form, riding his high horse, trying to contain what some say is a revolt in his own party - major people on his own side saying he was wrong on one of the biggest issues of the day, or really a core issue about just who we are as a nation, and they just weren't going to go along with him. This was his chance to say, in public and on the record, that they were wrong, that everyone was wrong - he knew what was right and where did they get off with this "no" business? It was "unacceptable to think" what they seemed to be thinking. Those were his exact words. It was classic. All he needed was a few ball bearings to roll around in his hand, of you remember the movie.

The full transcript is here and the Associated Press account here, but context is in order.

Over the last several weeks, as the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan deteriorated, and Israel's adventure in Lebanon went sour, the White House decided a series of speeches was just the thing - to rally America. Cheney and Rumsfeld opened the campaign, most notable with Rumsfeld's speech to the American Legion in Salt Lake City, where he said those who disagreed with the administration were intellectual and morally confused - and knew nothing of history. That started the "we're really fighting fascists" thing off with a bang - lots of talk of Hitler and all. That was the history to which he refered.

That was followed by a series of speeches by the president where the new working theory of what's going on was laid out - Iraq doesn't really matter as it's just part of a larger war, against "Islamic Fascists" who want to take over the world. You may think the Sunnis and Shi'a hate each other, and Hamas and Hezbollah have different aims, and Iran wanting nuclear weapons has little to do with the daily mayhem in Baghdad, and North Korea and maybe even Cuba are other issues - but it's all one grand conspiracy against us and our way of life, and all one big war now. Throw in Venezuela and Syria too. So don't think about Iraq that much. Think about the big picture. And that was the theme of the president's speech on the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

This accomplished a number of things, politically.

First, it changed the subject. At the time of the press conference there was a third day of tortured bodies found in the streets of Baghdad - over sixty Wednesday, and two dozen each of the next two days, and by the end of the week the new Iraqi government has announced they intended to get themselves a giant trench around the whole city of five million, to keep the bad guys from driving anymore car bombs in from the countryside. Yes, that hardly addresses the sectarian kidnappings and assassinations, but it might help. In any event, the idea was to keep people from thinking so much about Iraq. The worldwide, multifaceted and interlocking enemy - as bad or worse that Hitler and all - trumps worrying that we'll lose Baghdad or the Anbar province. There are biggest fish to fry, or whatever. This is new.

Secondly, this is good politics for the coming November elections, where the president's party may very well lose controls of congress. Under the new mantra - America is safer, but we're not yet safe - you tell people they should be very, very afraid. This is far worse than you ever imagined. But, because it is, you need to stick with the party that knows how to deal with danger and takes no crap from anyone. You have to vote Republican. Your life depends on it. There is an ad campaign that pretty much says that. Of course, as hundred of political writers have pointed out, this is dangerous. No only may some not believe the premise that everything is really connected if you think about it a certain way, folks might wonder what brought us to this pass. They could blame the president and his party - as they were in complete control of our government for the last six year. The ABC-Disney television movie might help there - laying out how most everything was Bill Clinton's fault - and it was released at just the right time. So maybe the blame thing has been neutralized. Still the words "not yet safe" do invite grumpy voters to ask the natural questions - "Why are we not safe now? Just what have you guys been doing?"

The last bit of context for the press conference is the president recently announcing that, well, we did have secret prisons - sorry about the denials - and we're sending fourteen people we've held in those to Guantanamo for trial, military tribunals actually. There they will get a fair trial and then be executed. BUT, since the Supreme Court ruled the military tribunals as they were planned were illegal as originally planned, congress has to pass laws to make them legal. The changes were simple. Make it so we don't have to tell them what the evidence against them actually is. Make it so that what they say "under coercion" is admissible as valid and true evidence. And, as part of that, make what coercion we have used - waterboarding, forced hypothermia, stress positions for forty hours at a stretch, and all the rest - be clearly defined as not torture at all, or anything forbidden in the Geneva Conventions we helped develop and helped revise in 1949, and to which we are a party. This last part requires that congress pass news legislation that redefines how we interpret the Geneva Conventions - the words say "this" and we, for our purposes and our legal system, take them to mean "that."

This was an election-year masterstroke. The wimpy Democrats would come out against torture and say these guys deserved real due process - and they'd lose their seat as any Republican running against them could claim they cared more about the rights of the terrorists than about the safety of Americans.

The problem is that it didn't work out that way. Three key senators on the Republican side said no - torture is not what we do, or should ever be doing, and everyone get due process, as that's how we do things in this country. The three were John Warner of Virginia, once Secretary of the Navy and head of the Armed Services Committee, John McCain of Arizona, who had been a prisoner of war for five years in Vietnam, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former military lawyer and still a reserve JAG officer. Then Colin Powell, the president's former Secretary of State and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent a public letter to McCain saying plan to redefine the Geneva Conventions would cause the world "to doubt the moral basis" of the fight against terror and "put our own troops at risk."

This has to be stopped, thus the press conference - and warnings that the United States had lost the high moral ground to adversaries got an angry - "It's flawed logic." And the president said if he didn't get the changes he wanted in the Geneva Conventions and all the rest - he'd tell the CIA to just stop all interrogations. What would be the point?

The Democrats just sat back and watched, in amazement, except for what the AP reports here -
"When conservative military men like John McCain, John Warner, Lindsey Graham and Colin Powell stand up to the president, it shows how wrong and isolated the White House is," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "These military men are telling the president that in the war on terror you need to be both strong and smart, and it is about time he heeded their admonitions."

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said, "Instead of picking fights with Colin Powell, John McCain and other military experts, President Bush should change course, do what the American people expect, and finally give them the real security they deserve."
But they really didn't have to say anything. The fight was internal -
Bush took vehement exception when asked about Powell's assertion that the world might doubt the moral basis of the fight against terror if lawmakers went along with the administration's proposal to come up with a U.S. interpretation of the Geneva Convention's ban on "outrages upon personal dignity."

"If there's any comparison between the compassion and decency of the American people and the terrorist tactics of extremists, it's flawed logic," Bush said. "It's just - I simply can't accept that."

Growing animated, he said, "It's unacceptable to think that there's any kind of comparison between the behavior of the United States of America and the action of Islamic extremists who kill innocent women and children to achieve an objective."
Yes, there's a bit of tautology there - we are good, so no matter what we do, what we do must be good. We cannot lost the high moral ground - even after Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the kidnappings and secret prisons and what looks to the world like torture - because we are good underneath it all, and our motive are pure. He seem to be saying that when you know you're good you can do anything at all, and whatever you do would automatically be good, because you're good. Since he cannot possibly be that simple-minded, one has to assume that was for the rubes in his base, to get them to the polls in November - all the Democrats, and these Republican traitors, are telling America we're no good, so get out there and vote for the good folks!

In any event, this seems like a bit of a big deal. The Washington Post, when the president visited congress the day before, said this -
President Bush rarely visits Congress. So it was a measure of his painfully skewed priorities that Mr. Bush made the unaccustomed trip yesterday to seek legislative permission for the CIA to make people disappear into secret prisons and have information extracted from them by means he dare not describe publicly.

Of course, Mr. Bush didn't come out and say he's lobbying for torture. Instead he refers to "an alternative set of procedures" for interrogation. But the administration no longer conceals what it wants. It wants authorization for the CIA to hide detainees in overseas prisons where even the International Committee of the Red Cross won't have access. It wants permission to interrogate those detainees with abusive practices that in the past have included induced hypothermia and "waterboarding," or simulated drowning. And it wants the right to try such detainees, and perhaps sentence them to death, on the basis of evidence that the defendants cannot see and that may have been extracted during those abusive interrogation sessions.

There's no question that the United States is facing a dangerous foe that uses the foulest of methods. But a wide array of generals and others who should know argue that it is neither prudent nor useful for the United States to compromise its own values in response.
The usual response to that is what good are values when you're dead? But the president actually said that the nation's ability to defend itself would be undermined if these rebellious Republicans in the Senate did not come around to his position - "This enemy has struck us, and they want to strike us again, and we'll give our folks the tools necessary to protect the country. It's a debate that, that really is going to define whether or not we can protect ourselves."

The New York Times notes this -
Mr. McCain and his allies on the committee say reinterpreting the Geneva Conventions would open the door to rogue governments to interpret them as they see fit.

In a statement late Friday, Mr. McCain stuck to his position, saying that his proposed rules included legal protections for interrogators. "Weakening the Geneva protections is not only unnecessary, but would set an example to other countries, with less respect for basic human rights, that they could issue their own legislative reinterpretations," he said.

Mr. Bush rejected the crux of Mr. McCain's argument when a reporter asked him how he would react if nations like Iran or North Korea "roughed up" American soldiers under the guise of their own interpretations of Common Article 3.

"You can give a hypothetical about North Korea or any other country," Mr. Bush said, casting the question as steeped in moral relativism. "The point is that the program is not going to go forward if our professionals do not have clarity in the law."
See Marty Lederman here -
At last, the issue is publicly - and when all the smoke has cleared, the central question is quite simple:

And it is this: Should the CIA be legally authorized to breach the Geneva Conventions by engaging in the following forms of "cruel treatment" prohibited by "common" Article 3(1)(a) of those Conventions?:

- "Cold Cell," or hypothermia, where a prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees, during which he is doused with cold water.

- "Long Time Standing," in which a prisoner is forced to stand, handcuffed and with his feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours.

- Other forms of "stress positions" and prolonged sleep deprivation, perhaps akin to "Long Time Standing."

- Threats of violence and death of a detainee and/or his family.

... It's important to be clear about one thing: The question is not simply whether, in the abstract, it would be a good or acceptable idea for the United States to use such techniques in certain extreme circumstances on certain detainees. I happen to think that the moral, pragmatic, diplomatic and other costs of doing so greatly outweigh any speculative and uncertain benefits - but that is obviously a question on which there is substantial public disagreement, much of it quite sincere and serious. Instead, the question must be placed in its historical and international context - namely, whether Congress should grant the Executive branch a fairly unbounded discretion to use such techniques where such conduct would place the United States in breach of the Geneva Conventions. And that, of course, changes the calculus considerably. Does Congress really want to make the United States the first nation on earth to specifically provide domestic legal sanction for what would properly and universally be seen as a transparent breach of the minimum, baseline standards for civilized treatment of prisoners established by Common Article 3 - thereby dealing a grievous blow to the prospect of international adherence to the Geneva Conventions in the future?

It would be one thing - a momentous thing, no doubt - for the United States to propose that Geneva itself be amended to permit certain extreme interrogation techniques in certain limited circumstances. In that case, the principal question would be whether torture and its close equivalents are ever acceptable, and whether they could and should be regulated under a legal regime that would somehow keep such techniques within "proper" bounds, if there are any. But as the issue now stands, the advisability and morality of such techniques, as such, and the practical questions of regulating such conduct, although obviously of great importance, are overshadowed by an even more solemn question: whether legalizing such techniques is worth an effective repudiation of Geneva by the most powerful state on the planet, with all that such a repudiation would entail for the future of Geneva and other international agreements.
That's where things stand.

And to put that in context, see this from a reserve soldier in Iraq -
I was deployed in my reserve unit (USMCR) as part of operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield. Marine infantry, and we were on the front lines, supposedly to guard a gunship base, but really, though, the gunships guarded us.

Not too much later, it was time to take prisoners. One of the platoons went north, and when they came back, there were stories about how Iraqi soldiers lined the roads, trying to surrender. I spent a week guarding Iraqi men in a makeshift prison camp, a way-station really, and more than I could count. They didn't look like they were starving or dehydrated. Apparently, once the ground war began, they just pitched their weapons and headed south at first opportunity. The more I've thought about it, the more I realize that they knew bone deep that they'd get fair treatment. We gave them MREs (with the pork entree's removed) but almost immediately some Special Forces guys arrived and set up a real chow line for them. We gave each man a blanket, (I kept an extra as a souvie) and I think I saw a Special Forces doc giving some of them a once over.

Once, only once, one of them got all irritated and tried to get in one of the Corporal's faces, loud. (I was a lance-corporal). He wouldn't back down, so the Corporal gave him an adjustment, a rifle butt-stroke to his gut, not hard, but he went down. The Corporal sent me for the medic. The guy was ok, and now calm (or at least understanding the situation), and hand-signed that he was out of smokes and really, really needed one... Not a bad guy, just stressed-dumb and needing a smoke. None of the others prisoners in the camp even registered it.

We went north to mop up not long after that. I saw the Iraqi weapons: rocket launchers a little smaller than semi-trailers, hidden in buildings, AKs in piles, big Soviet mortars and anti-tank mines, everywhere but unarmed. They had food too. Pasteurized milk to drink, but most gone bad by then. Some of the mortar rounds were still in crates. They had long trenches that were hard to see in the dunes, bunkers with maps, fire-plans laid out, and blankets, all placed with decent vantage for command and control. They even had wire laid for land-line communications. The point is, they could have fought. Not won, no they couldn't have won, but they could have fought. Instead, they chose to surrender.

Looking back, I think that one of the main drivers in these men's heads was that they knew, absolutely, that they'd get fair treatment from us, the Americans. We were the good guys. The Iraqis on the line knew they had an out, they had hope, so they could just walk away. (A few did piss themselves when someone told them we were Marines. Go figure.) Still, they knew Americans would be fair, and we were.

Thinking hard on what I now know of history, psychology, and the meanness of politics, that reputation for fairness was damn near unique in world history. Can you tell me of any major military power that had it? Ever? France? No. Think Algeria. The UK? Sorry, Northern Ireland, the Boxer Rebellion in China... China or Russia. I don't think so. But America had it. If those men had even put up token resistance, some of us would not have come back. But they didn't even bother, and surrendered at least in part because of our reputation. Our two hundred year old reputation for being fair and humane and decent. All the way back to George Washington, and from President George H.W. Bush all the way down to a lance-corporal jarhead at the front.

It's gone now, even from me. I can't get past that image of the Iraqi, in the hood with the wires and I'm not what you'd call a sensitive type. You know the picture. And now we have a total bust-out in the White House, and a bunch of rubber-stamps in the House, trying to make it so that half-drowning people isn't torture. That hypothermia isn't torture. That degradation isn't torture. We don't have that reputation for fairness anymore. Just the opposite, I think. And the next real enemy we face will fight like only the cornered and desperate fight. How many Marines' lives will be lost in the war ahead just because of this asshole who never once risked anything for this country?
For a slightly different take, see Bill Montgomery here -
What will be on the table then is the question of whether a nation as powerful and potentially dangerous as America (the proverbial bull in the china shop) can survive on brute force alone - without moral legitimacy or political prestige, without true allies (save for the world's other leper regimes) and without "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind." We're not there yet, but that's the direction we're heading in, and a unilateral decision to redefine the Geneva Conventions (without actually admitting that we're doing it) would take us another few hundred miles down the road.

What this amounts to (and what Powell was really complaining about) is the final decommissioning of the myth of American exceptionalism - one of the most powerful weapons in the U.S. arsenal. Without it, we're just another paranoid empire obsessed with our own security and willing to tell any lie or repudiate any self-proclaimed principle if we think it will make us even slightly safer.

To put it mildly, this is not the kind of flag the rest of the world is likely to rally around, no matter how frantically we wave it. Even Shrub seems to understand this somewhere in the dimly lit attic that is his mind - thus his recent remark that an America that doesn't advance the cause of freedom is an America that has lost its soul. It's easy to paint this as delusional, or an updated version of the old Orwellian slogan that slavery = freedom, but Shrub at least seems to understands that America will have to convince the world it stands for more than just power, privilege and profit if it's going to attract the support of the 80% of the world that lacks all three. How, exactly, would ditching the Geneva Conventions further this goal?

Then again, maybe it's best if the myth gets busted. Maybe America should take public responsibility for torturing prisoners - instead of just pawning the job off on the Jordanian or Egyptian or Saudi intelligence services, who could and would hook car batteries to testicles while we piously pronounced our hands (and hearts) are clean. A U.S. torture statute would at least bring a certain degree of clarity to the issue, eliminating the "vague" and "open to interpretation" policies that have long allowed the United States to enjoy the fruits of torture (and other crimes) without actually committing them ourselves. I know that's not exactly the kind of clarity Shrub was asking for today, but it would still be a refreshing outbreak of honesty.

That said, though, nobody should have any illusions about what that kind of "clarity" would reveal and which side of the moral line the United States would be seen standing on.
So, is this what we signed up for?

Actually, it not that much about torture - it's about power, and who has to follow the rules. It's that frat-boy thing again. That a little disheartening, but then it's great theater.

We'll see how it plays out in November.

Posted by Alan at 23:27 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 15 September 2006 23:31 PDT home

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