Topic: For policy wonks...
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 -
But they really didn't have to say anything. The fight was internal -
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 -
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 -
See Marty Lederman here -
That's where things stand.
And to put that in context, see this from a reserve soldier in Iraq -
For a slightly different take, see Bill Montgomery here -
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.