No one much here follows politics in Thailand, but Tuesday, September 19, there was this -
You had to dig for perspective, like this on Thaksin Shinawatra, the telecommunications mogul who became prime minister of Thailand in 2001. It seems Thaksin responded to the terrorist threat there by passing an emergency powers law, dismantling local councils in the Muslim south, and dispatching thousands of soldiers to the south, officially turning southern Thailand into a war zone. This won him reelection in 2005, but then -
Thai military leaders are looking to consolidate their hold on power after staging a coup while the prime minister was at the UN General Assembly.
Martial law has been declared, and the coup leaders have announced that regional commanders will take charge of areas outside the capital, Bangkok.
They have ordered provincial governors and heads of government agencies to report to them in the coming hours.
The country's stock market, banks and schools will be closed on Wednesday.
BBC World, CNN and other international TV news channels have been taken off the air, while Thai stations have broadcast footage of the royal family and patriotic songs.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra cancelled a speech he was due to give at the UN General Assembly in New York on Tuesday evening.
As the situation in the south worsened, Thaksin chose not to respond by restoring rights and freedoms. Strengthened by his personal convictions and by the idea that as a democratic leader he would enjoy public support for anything he did, he took the opposite approach, muscling the press more and consolidating power. His notion of democracy only strengthened his resolve. "Thaksin's idea of democracy is he does what he wants, every four years you decide whether he's right, and then if you vote for him, shut up again for four more years," one Thai expert told me.
... For their part, Thais have begun to wake up from Thaksin's spell. This summer, the prime minister's popularity ratings fell below 50 percent, and confidence in his government has remained low ever since. The Thai media, like its counterparts in the United States and other democracies where initial rally-around-the-flag sentiment has waned, has become more aggressive. Thai journalists have probed procurement scandals in Thaksin's government, and they united to help defeat an effort by one of the prime minister's allies to buy into the most respected Thai-language newspaper, Matichon. Even in parliament, where Thaksin controls the majority of the seats, MPs have become so disgusted with Thaksin's style, as well as the continued violence in the south, that some of the prime minister's own party members have begun to speak out against him.
Gee, that sound awfully familiar, and they even had their own Patriot Act, sort of.
And "he does what he wants, every four years you decide whether he's right, and then if you vote for him, shut up again for four more years." Just what President Bush was saying in 2004, of course, with that business about how he'd had his "accountability moment" - the election - and things were settled. Then came the plunging approval ratings and the revolt of key members of the legislature controlled by his own party. The trip to New York was clearly a bad idea.
Okay, first there was Hungary - riots in the street as the lies caught up with the man in power, then this coup in Thailand. The parallels in leadership are ridiculously obvious, and the reactions so unlike anything that would happen here - a popular uprising in the streets in one place and a coup in the other. We don't work that way, or even like the Brits who forced Blair to announce he's leaving. We just keep on keeping on.
You do get things like this, Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post, wondering what's happing here, but not channeling Stephen Stills -
Yep, this is more serious than what Stills was singing about - the rather tame riot on Sunset Strip, back in 1966, a block down the street actually. This is a little more serious.
I wish I could turn to cheerier matters, but I just can't get past this torture issue - the fact that George W. Bush, the president of the United States of America, persists in demanding that Congress give him the right to torture anyone he considers a "high-value" terrorist suspect. The president of the United States. Interrogation by torture. This just can't be happening.
It's past time to stop mincing words. The Decider, or maybe we should now call him the Inquisitor, sticks to anodyne euphemisms. He speaks of "alternative" questioning techniques, and his umbrella term for the whole shop of horrors is "the program." Of course, he won't fully detail the methods that were used in the secret CIA prisons - and who knows where else? - but various sources have said they have included not just the infamous "waterboarding," which the administration apparently will reluctantly forswear, but also sleep deprivation, exposure to cold, bombardment with ear-splitting noise and other assaults that cause not just mental duress but physical agony. That is torture, and to call it anything else is a lie.
It is not possible for our elected representatives to hold any sort of honorable "debate" over torture. Bush says he is waging a "struggle for civilization," but civilized nations do not debate slavery or genocide, and they don't debate torture, either. This spectacle insults and dishonors every American.
And it's not just a Post Columnist. How about the associate deputy attorney general under President Ronald Reagan, Bruce Fein, with this -
Something is up, and the conservatives are just catching up - that lettres de cachet business was discussed in these pages in early February here. It's an obvious parallel. Welcome to the club, Bruce.
The most frightening claim made by Bush with congressional acquiescence is reminiscent of the lettres de cachet of pre-revolutionary France. (Such letters, with which the king could order the arrest and imprisonment of subjects without trial, helped trigger the storming of the Bastille.) In the aftermath of 9/11, Mr. Bush maintained that he could pluck any American citizen out of his home or off of the sidewalk and detain him indefinitely on the president's finding that he was an illegal combatant. No court could second-guess the president. Bush soon employed such monarchial power to detain a few citizens and to frighten would-be dissenters, and Republicans in Congress either cheered or fiddled like Nero while the Constitution burned. The Supreme Court ultimately entered the breach and repudiated the president in 2004's Hamdi v. Rumsfeld. Republicans similarly yawned as President Bush ordained military tribunals to try accused war criminals based on secret evidence and unreliable hearsay in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Convention. The Supreme Court again was forced to countervail the congressional dereliction by holding the tribunals illegal in 2006's Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.
So McCain and the others stand up on this issue - no Hungarian riots or Thai coup here - but it hurts. The Washington Post reports here that McCain's opposition to torture could really hurt his chances for the Republican presidential nomination - it's a matter of loyalty, something about alienating the Republican base McCain has been cultivating. But it's that, and more than that -
To be clear then, it is a moral imperative of some sort to torture bad guys - even if the information elected is totally bogus and cannot be verified, and it turn the world against us, and puts our troops in real danger if they are captured. Okay then.
In a reprise of criticism showered on McCain during his 2000 campaign, some prominent conservatives are branding him a disloyal Republican and an unreliable conservative because of his assertiveness on the detainee issue.
… The senator's actions "are blocking our ability to gain from terrorist captives the vital information we need," said a front-page editorial Saturday in the Union Leader of Manchester, N.H., the largest newspaper in the state with the first presidential primary.
Conservative radio talker Rush Limbaugh said Friday that opposition to Bush's approach "is going to go down as the event that will result in us getting hit again, and if we do, and if McCain, et al., prevail, I can tell you where fingers are going to be pointed."
And if you want to keep your seat in congress, it's good politics -
But that's Andrew Sullivan. What else would you expect from a gay conservative Republican of the old school?
I do think that the fast-evolving base of the GOP is likely to be roused by the promise of torturing terror suspects, and that running on Guantanamo Bay may make sense if you want to rile up these people - and, boy, do they need riling.
I understand Rove has postponed using 9/11 families against the Geneva Convention - he'll wait till later in the campaign to do that, if it becomes necessary. But make no mistake: Rove isn't going to duck the torture issue. He's going to brandish it. McCain, Graham, Warner: these men represent the old Republican Party, not the new pro-torture, Christianist, Jacksonian base. Rove would love to isolate the old, decent guards from the Southern base and find a candidate to continue the Bush legacy. And this may be his opportunity.
And there's the religious competent here. Janet Hook and Richard Simon offer this, in the September 19 Los Angeles Times, concerning the political price John McCain may be paying for his stance on torture and coercive interrogation -
It would seem then the unrestricted right for the CIA to abuse prisoners is now a traditional value, and endorsed by the evangelicals. They really did like Mel Gibson's Christian snuff film The Passion of the Christ - it got them all excited, what with Jesus spending all of one Friday afternoon in a stress position, almost exactly of the sort we now use, and dying from it, just as more than a few of our prisoners have. That it did some good is obvious - Jesus died for our sins and all (it is called Good Friday, after all) - but why are we the Romans here? It's very confusing.
"This very definitely is going to put a chilling effect on the tremendous strides he has made in the conservative evangelical community," said the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, one of several conservative activists who support Bush's proposal on interrogation techniques.
One "DK" at Talking Points Memo puts it this way -
But then the gamble is that this is a winner, politically. They're willing to do anything to protect us, no matter how stupid or reprehensible, or illegal. Would any Democrat have the guts to do that? So there you have it.
The torture debate in Congress - I never expected to write such words- - is as surreal to me as watching the collapse of the Twin Towers. If the Democrats are able to take control of at least one chamber in November, then surely the President's pro-torture bill will be viewed in hindsight as the nadir of the Bush presidency. If not, how much lower can things go?
I am beyond being able to assess the political implications, one way or the other, of this spectacle. Regardless of which version of the bill finally passes, this debate is a black mark on the soul of the nation. Of course passage of a pro-torture bill will diminish US standing internationally and jeopardize the safety and well-being of U.S. servicemen in future engagements. But merely having this debate has already accomplished that. Does anyone honestly believe that if Congress rebuffs the President in every respect that the rule of law and the inviolability of human rights will have been vindicated? Of course not.
… Only the weak, scared, and evil torture. Those who order and sanction torture, but leave the dirty work to others, are an order of magnitude more culpable morally. (A special place is reserved for the lawyers who give legal cover for such orders.) In their fear and their weakness and their smallness, the President and those around him stepped over the line. To do so in the heated days after 9/11 is understandable to a point, though not justifiable. Yet they persisted, first in saying that they did not step over the line and now in seeking to redraw the line. So which is it?
They are descending from the morally reprehensible to the morally cowardly.
Of course one should note here the Republicans who are jumping ship and lining up with the Democrats on this issue - Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, Richard Lugar, Mike DeWine, Gordon Smith, John Sununu, Lincoln Chafee, and Chuck Hagel. Very odd. Rush Limbaugh and Reverend Sheldon are going to be very unhappy.
Can the folks at the conservative Boston Herald (not the Globe) be right when they print this -
Oh my. But William "Bill" Kristol, the public voice of the neoconservative movement, at The Weekly Standard urges Republicans to campaign on torturing military detainees here. What does he care if Archbishop Desmond Tutu says this -
At one level this battle between the White House and a rebellious handful of Senate Republicans is a war of words - a fight over legalese, interpretations, meanings. At another level this is about core American values, about the rule of law and maintaining this nation's reputation for taking the moral high ground. And this time George W. Bush has picked the wrong fight at the wrong time with the wrong people.
What, like the folks in Hungary or Thailand?
You taught us no government worth its salt can subvert the rule of law. We believed you. That's part of what you have as a gift for the world. Then how can you commit Guantanamo Bay? Take back your country.
And besides, the president said he'd shut down the CIA program if he doesn't get his way, to which a retired diplomat says this -
And Tim Grieve here notes how Byzantine all this has become -
I try hard to respect the Office of the President of the United States, but it is truly a miserable wretch of a man who would threaten to disband the CIA interrogation program if he doesn't get his wish to eviscerate a good deal of Article 3 compliance thereto, as the President threatened at a press conference last week. This hullabaloo about "outrages against personal dignity" versus "shocking the conscience" is a tempest in a teapot. Outrages against personal dignity are like pornography, which is to say, you know it when you see it (sometimes, indeed, they fuse somewhat, like Rumsfeld's Pentagon authorized tactic at Guantanamo of having female guards rub their breasts in the face of a male detainee, before smearing fake menstrual blood on him, in a particularly noxious use of our military personnel).
Article 3 compliant interrogations have stood us in good stead for decades, and there is absolutely no convincing reason for a carve-out allowing the CIA to avoid compliance with its provisions. We know that Army Field Manual compliant interrogations are more than effective, and we know further that torture often leads to false confessions and unreliable information. So if Congress has the will to face the President down (which they must), the CIA interrogation program should be allowed to continue, but with the interrogations pursued in accordance with the requirements of the Geneva Convention. This is, after all, how the uniformed services are again now (after belated remedial action) satisfactorily interrogating detainees. Bush, like a petulant adolescent who risks not having his way, is threatening to shut down the entire CIA program if his gutting of portions of Article 3 doesn't prevail through Congress. Then, the cowardly pro-torture crowd, should god forbid a terror attack subsequently occur, will blame those noted anti-American appeasers and defeatists like John Warner, Colin Powell, Jack Vessey, Lindsay Graham and John McCain for allowing the carnage.
One would think even this President would not be so reckless as to shut down an important interrogation program merely because he'd have to comply with Article 3, which would be more than effective regardless. Or so one would at least hope. But he will likely disingenuously argue he cannot abide risking CIA interrogators facing criminal liability because of vague and confusing standards, as if "shocking the conscience" is crystal-clear black-letter law, and "outrages against personal dignity" constitute some amorphous, hyper-confusing morass of conflicting standards. For decades these standards have been more than clear, so this rationale must be seen for what it is, utter and complete claptrap. Appropriate legal safeguards for interrogators can be drafted into the law, but the bedrock principle here must be total fidelity to Article 3 norms, not so we here can preen as detainee rights purists, but rather so as to preserve America's moral leadership on an issue so critical to the ideological component of the war on terror, so as to prevent other governments from rushing to a race to the bottom on detainee and interrogation treatment standards, and not least, to better be able to protect our own POWs, from a position of moral strength, when they are, as they inevitably will be, captured by foreign forces.
Of course, very little if anything surprises me anymore with this White House.
But Powell is now considered a fool. Before, he was a useful idiot.
Memo to Tony Snow: The next time you're inclined to say that Colin Powell is "confused" about issues related to the "war on terror," perhaps you should retract the thought before it comes tumbling out of your mouth.
The White House is apparently offering a new proposal on military tribunals and detainees now, its plan to rewrite the Geneva Conventions' Common Article 3 dead on arrival in the face of opposition from Senate Democrats and at least five Senate Republicans - all of whom were provided political cover when Powell wrote a letter saying the president's previous proposal put U.S. troops at risk. Snow last week attributed Powell's opposition to confusion on the part of the president's former secretary of state. He tried to retract the charge, but the president piled on anyway, dismissing Powell's missive by saying that he'd seen "all kinds of letters" about his plan and suggesting that Powell had somehow equated the United States with terrorists.
Powell's response? In an interview with the Washington Post, Powell says that the way in which the Bush administration has waged its war on terror is causing the world to question America's bona fides. "If you just look at how we are perceived in the world and the kind of criticism we have taken over Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and renditions," Powell tells the Post, "whether we believe it or not, people are now starting to question whether we're following our own high standards."
Case in point No. 1: A government commission in Canada Monday released a report in which it found "no evidence" that Maher Amar - subjected to rendition by the United States and then torture by Syrian officials-- had committed any crime or posed any threat to Canadian security.
Case in point No. 2: Bush's plan itself. As experts on both sides of the issue tell the New York Times, the president's plan to "clarify" the Geneva Conventions' prohibition against "humiliating and degrading treatment" was driven by a desire for latitude, not specificity. Among the techniques on the table, experts say: "sleep deprivation, playing ear-splittingly loud music and waterboarding, which induces a feeling of drowning."
For Powell, it's a goose-and-gander issue. "Suppose North Korea or somebody else wants to redefine or 'clarify'" the Geneva Convention protections that U.S. soldiers now enjoy. "To say that we want to modify, clarify or redefine Common Article 3, which has not been modified for the 57 years of its history, I think adds to the doubt" about whether the U.S. really has the high moral ground in the war on terror, he says.
But this Maher Amar? He's back in the news?
His case was first discussed in these pages here, on December 21, 2003, for goodness sakes.
Two years, eight months, and twenty-nine days later the New York Times reports this -
We refused to cooperate in the inquiry? Yep. State secrets. And we said he couldn't sue us for damages. State secrets.
OTTAWA, Sept. 18 - A government commission on Monday exonerated a Canadian computer engineer of any ties to terrorism and issued a scathing report that faulted Canada and the United States for his deportation four years ago to Syria, where he was imprisoned and tortured.
The report on the engineer, Maher Arar, said American officials had apparently acted on inaccurate information from Canadian investigators and then misled Canadian authorities about their plans for Mr. Arar before transporting him to Syria.
"I am able to say categorically that there is no evidence to indicate that Mr. Arar has committed any offense or that his activities constituted a threat to the security of Canada," Justice Dennis R. O'Connor, head of the commission, said at a news conference.
The report's findings could reverberate heavily through the leadership of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which handled the initial intelligence on Mr. Arar that led security officials in both Canada and the United States to assume he was a suspected Al Qaeda terrorist.
The report's criticisms and recommendations are aimed primarily at Canada's own government and activities, rather than the United States government, which refused to cooperate in the inquiry.
But its conclusions about a case that had emerged as one of the most infamous examples of rendition - the transfer of terrorism suspects to other nations for interrogation - draw new attention to the Bush administration's handling of detainees. And it comes as the White House and Congress are contesting legislation that would set standards for the treatment and interrogation of prisoners.
"The American authorities who handled Mr. Arar's case treated Mr. Arar in a most regrettable fashion," Justice O'Connor wrote in a three-volume report, not all of which was made public. "They removed him to Syria against his wishes and in the face of his statements that he would be tortured if sent there. Moreover, they dealt with Canadian officials involved with Mr. Arar's case in a less than forthcoming manner."
… The Syrian-born Mr. Arar was seized on Sept. 26, 2002, after he landed at Kennedy Airport in New York on his way home from a holiday in Tunisia. On Oct. 8, he was flown to Jordan in an American government plane and taken overland to Syria, where he says he was held for 10 months in a tiny cell and beaten repeatedly with a metal cable. He was freed in October 2003, after Syrian officials concluded that he had no connection to terrorism and returned him to Canada.
The Washington Post adds more - in Syria, Arar "was beaten, forced to confess to having trained in Afghanistan - where he never has been - and then kept in a coffin-size dungeon for ten months before he was released, the Canadian inquiry commission found."
We have to torture the bad guys to get the vital information that would save lives. But what we get is… what they think we want to hear. Pain and fear of death does that. He screamed out that, yes, he HAD trained in Afghanistan with the bad guys. So, don't we get to sue the guy we tortured if we find out what he said is just something he made up to get us to stop the torture? What are our options in that case? Torture him more, or file a complaint with some court or other? Can we bring an action against him for being innocent AND lying about it when we beat the crap out of him? Surely the Attorney General is working on that.
Is that far-fetched? See Glenn Greenwald here -
But the same day the president addressed the UN and did just that. As one commentator summed it up - "The sad fact is that, even among Middle Eastern countries governed by aspiring or actual democrats, the United States is less and less a moral model. Our beacon has dimmed not because of who we are but because of what we've done. And President Bush made clear today that he's not going to do anything differently."
For the last four years, the United States has been (and still is) a country which kidnaps other countries' innocent citizens (including those of its own allies); brings them to Jordan, Syria and Egypt to be tortured (sometimes for as long as a year); lies to its allies about what it is doing with their citizens; and then, when the innocent citizens are finally released and they go to an American court to try to obtain compensation from the US government for their disappearance and torture, the Bush administration tells the federal judge that the case must be summarily dismissed because national security would be harmed if the administration were held accountable in a court (and the courts then comply).
Do any other counties in the world kidnap civilians who are citizens of other countries and torture them?
… So on top of operating secret torture gulags in Eastern Europe, we also kidnap people, charge them with no crime, given them no opportunity to defend themselves, send them off to be tortured for months, and then when it turns out that they are completely innocent, we block them from obtaining compensation in our courts because our Government claims that national security would be jeopardized if they were held accountable for their behavior.
How can you be an American citizen and not be completely outraged, embarrassed, and disgusted by this conduct? What the Bush administration is doing on so many levels is a grotesque betrayal of every national value and principle we have claimed to embraced and fought for. Can it even be debated at this point that the Bush administration has so plainly, as Billmon described it the other day, "forfeit(ed) forever its ability to chastise the human rights abuses of others without triggering a global laughing fit?"
Who would ever take seriously the notion that a Government that engages in this behavior can lecture anyone on human rights abuses or import democratic values around the world?
Nor are we. This is neither Thailand nor Hungary.