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"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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Tuesday, 11 July 2006
Are Things Changing?
Topic: NOW WHAT?

Are Things Changing?

There were three big news stories on Tuesday, July 11, and two were astounding, and one just depressing. That third was the massive railway bombing in India, in what used to be Bombay but has a different name now - Mumbai. But it's still the financial center of that nation, and, depending on what source you use, 147 or 163 people died, and nearly five hundred were badly injured. Being precise about the number dead is for the sensationalists. It was more than enough. Precision is for the cable news channels wanting more eyeballs on the commercial slots they sell to advertisers - how awful, so watch more. Horror keeps people from switching to Antiques Road Show.

And what was this about - Kashmir? Or are the Muslims still ticked about splitting things up in 1947 and the Hindus getting modern India while they got Pakistan? Is that still playing out internally? Pakistan has condemned the bombings, but that is pretty much pro forma these days. All the commentary on the right over here is that this was obviously al Qaeda and they're out to kill everyone, and only George Bush can stop them, if we'd just let the man do whatever he wants that we don't want to know anything about. The commentators on air from India found that idea rather stupid, but they were polite about it - no, this is something else. But we over here need a narrative that feels both familiar and scary, so that got a bit of play. But this wasn't about America and those who despise our policies and actions. This just wasn't about us. That's hard for Americans to understand. Everything else is, isn't it? Yeah, it's not fair.

The two other big stories of the day were all about us, much to the relief of many a news anchor and media sales department.

The first was that, in a stunning reversal, which the administration said wasn't a reversal at all, the Pentagon sent out a directive ordering civilians and uniformed commanders in the field to review all practices and paperwork to ensure that they follow Common Article Three of the Geneva Conventions, the one they said just didn't apply to those we have held down Guantánamo way. That one outlaws violence, torture, cruel treatment, and "humiliating and degrading treatment" of prisoners of war. That's explained here. We would never do any of that of course, officially (only a few "bad apples" did such things), so this is just a clarification. We said we could do such things if we decided we should, and now we're saying we won't, maybe.

We'll play by the rules of the treaty we ratified and signed, as the Supreme Court ruled here (PDF format) that this was, in effect, the law - treaties are the law of the land when ratified - and the law is clear, it does apply to the guys we picked up here and there. All the stuff about these folks being a different sort of prisoners - not prisoners of war and not criminals but something entirely new and amazing, with no traditional rights - was baloney. What we ratified clearly and explicitly accounted for such "enemy combatants" - so the proposed military tribunals, where you couldn't know what you were being charged with, you couldn't see the evidence or know your accuser, and you couldn't attend much of the proceedings, where evidence obtained by torture was entirely admissible, and you could only challenge anything at all after you were convicted, were clearly lame, to be generous. The rights of prisoners of war pertained. Common Article Three of the Geneva Conventions (here) had to be followed. The administration had argued in court that following such rules would make hunting down terrorists impossible. And now they say they've really been following the rules all along, and this directive is no big deal, just paperwork.

That's very puzzling, but you have to save some face. And if Common Article Three is to be followed, not only are the odd tribunals unlawful, so are the other approved techniques to get these people to say things - waterboarding, stress positions that sometime end in death, forced nakedness, the dogs, the sexual stuff and so on and so forth. Of course when they don't die, or commit suicide, what they do say is rather worthless - just anything at all to make it all stop. That this is obvious makes what's been going on even odder. Perhaps one thing said in a thousand might be important, but you just never know what. But then it is doing something. That seems to matter a lot, or did until now. And of course you feel powerful and in control.

Timothy Noah here is puzzled by the claim we've been following the rules all along, and unpack the logic this way - "1.) The United States is inherently good; 2.) Inherently good countries don't violate the Geneva conventions; 3.) Ergo, the United States can do anything it wants to suspected terrorists and it still won't be violating the Geneva conventions." And at this link he posts the actual directive ordering everyone to play be the rules (scroll down), and highlights what bullshit it contains. It's depressing.

Andrew Sullivan, the one conservative who seems to have had a little problem with torture, here, is very happy with the directive -
The United States has now apparently ended the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Gonzales nightmare of abandoning the base-line demands of the Geneva Conventions. After Hamdan, this is a great moment in a war we can now fight as honorably as the United States has fought every other war since the Geneva protocols were instituted. Much of the military, most of the CIA, almost all the JAG's, the Supreme Court and overwhelming majorities of both Senate and House disagreed with the torture policy. But the White House cabal prevailed. No longer - in the Pentagon, at least. As far as the military is concerned, America is America again. And this president's brutality has been reined in.
And he points to the New York Times quoting some of those JAG and military officers here -
"This was the concern all along of the JAG's," Admiral Guter said. "It's a matter of defending what we always thought was the rule of law and proper behavior for civilized nations."

... "We should be embracing Common Article 3 and shouting it from the rooftops," Admiral Hutson said. "They can't try to write us out of this, because that means every two-bit dictator could do the same." He said it was "unbecoming for America to have people say, 'We're going to try to work our way around this because we find it to be inconvenient.'"

"If you don't apply it when it's inconvenient," he said, "it's not a rule of law."
Yep, these guys didn't give into what Sullivan calls "the demands of foolish expediency or the cult of the president-as-monarch."

And there's what the Army captain who blew the whistle to the business at Abu Ghraib said here -
Some argue that since our actions are not as horrifying as Al Qaeda's, we should not be concerned. When did Al Qaeda become any type of standard by which we measure the morality of the United States? We are America, and our actions should be held to a higher standard, the ideals expressed in documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Others argue that clear standards will limit the President's ability to wage the War on Terror. Since clear standards only limit interrogation techniques, it is reasonable for me to assume that supporters of this argument desire to use coercion to acquire information from detainees. This is morally inconsistent with the Constitution and justice in war. It is unacceptable.

Both of these arguments stem from the larger question, the most important question that this generation will answer. Do we sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security? Terrorism inspires fear and suppresses ideals like freedom and individual rights. Overcoming the fear posed by terrorist threats is a tremendous test of our courage. Will we confront danger and adversity in order to preserve our ideals, or will our courage and commitment to individual rights wither at the prospect of sacrifice? My response is simple. If we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession. I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is '"America."
Yeah, yeah, but Dick Cheney is pissed.

And other things are afoot. The fellow who made the Pentagon announcement was James Haynes, and on the same day the Senate opened nomination hearings - an appointment to the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth District. The item is here. When he was general counsel to the president, back in November 2002, he endorsed this list of "interrogation techniques" for use by the military and CIA -
... forced nudity; forced grooming; "[u]sing detainees['] individual phobias (such as fear of dogs) to induce stress"; 20-hour interrogations; stress positions (i.e. hanging from wrists from the ceiling); waterboarding (the use of a wet towel and dripping water to induce the misperception of suffocation); and "scenarios designed to convince the detainee that death or severely painful consequences are imminent for him and/or his family."
It's a little joke. Pack the court with judges who start moving things back to where they had been. Very clever.

Andrew Sullivan is all worked up about this matter here, and links to others who are too. But the man will be approved. It's a loyalty test for the Republican senate.

And too there's this, someone pointing out the directive about following the rules is fine and dandy, except it doesn't have much to do with those we won't say we have in custody, the ghost detainees we don't report to the International Red Cross or anyone, and those in places no one knows about. Cheney and his chief-of-staff Addington, wanted to create what they call "outer space" - beyond our laws and anyone's knowledge - where all bets were off and no one would know what we're doing at all. That's still out there.

So should the president have given in here? There's a lot of anger out there at what seem to be what the Supreme Court forced him to do. Why not just let the man do whatever he wants that we don't want to know anything about?

See what one conservative says to other conservatives at "Right-Thinking from the Left Coast" here -
I'm generally not against what Bush is doing in principle, but I am totally opposed to the way he has gone about it. As I've said a thousand times before, think long term people. You might be one of the Kool Aid drinkers who thinks that George W. Bush has the light of God shooting out of his asshole, but what is going to happen the next time a liberal Democrat gets elected? What are you going to say when President Hillary decides to spy on the American people, and uses Bush as a precedent? I imagine all of these self-styled 'conservatives' are suddenly going to remember that old Constitution thing from way back.

Freedom and liberty are, at least in my mind, not negotiable, no matter which party is in power. The right in this country is split. On the one hand there are people like me who still give a shit about the concepts of limited government and individual liberty, and then there's the other side, for whom making sure queers can't marry and getting Adam and Eve into science class ranks a close second to blindly supporting anything a president does, provided he has an R after his name.
Things aren't going well on that side. As Nelson Muntz would say - "Ha, ha."

The other big story of the day on Tuesday, July 11, wasn't really a story about an event, but a realization that something else has changed. That started with the Time Magazine cover story here - we witnessing a "seismic" shift in the Bush administration's foreign policy - "the end of cowboy diplomacy" and the substitution of "patience" for "pre-emption."

The end of Cowboy Diplomacy? The New York Times said just about the same thing here, and the Washington Post and others ran similar items.

Fred Kaplan has something to say about all that here - Reports of the death of "cowboy democracy" are greatly exaggerated.

The Time item did say Bush's response to North Korea's Fourth of July missile tests "even more surprising than the tests" themselves -
Under the old Bush Doctrine, defiance by a dictator like Kim Jong Il would have merited threats of punitive U.S. action - or at least a tongue lashing. Instead, the Administration has mainly been talking up multilateralism and downplaying Pyongyang's provocation.
And the New York Times said Bush "finds himself in an unaccustomed position: urging patience."

Kaplan says this is no big deal -
Bush did denounce North Korea as a member of the "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union Address; he has colorfully (and accurately) disparaged Kim Jong-il, the country's dictator, before and since. But he never issued "threats of punitive U.S. action," not even at the end of '02, when Kim crossed a truly serious "red line" by abrogating the Non-Proliferation Treaty, kicking international inspectors out of his nuclear reactor, and reprocessing his once-locked fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium.

Bush took no action three and a half years ago for the same reason that he took no action after the missile test: The Joint Chiefs of Staff told him there were no good military options; they didn't know where all the nuclear targets were, and North Korea could retaliate by launching chemical rockets at South Korea and Japan.

As for "talking up multilateralism," that's not new either, and, when it comes to North Korea, it doesn't mean as much as the reporters seem to think. Yes, Bush is urging the reconvening of the "six-party talks" - a Beijing forum at which the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and the two Koreas - discuss Pyongyang's nuclear program. But the first round of those talks took place in August 2003, back when the Bush Doctrine was riding high, before Condoleezza Rice became secretary of state and supposedly pushed the president onto diplomatic avenues.

The thing is, Bush never took the six-party talks seriously. Every time they crept toward progress, Vice President Dick Cheney took care to tug at his envoy's leash. When the envoy was finally permitted to meet face to face with North Korean diplomats, he was given strict orders not to offer terms of negotiation. He could talk - just not about anything meaningful.
Same with Iran. There's nothing new, just no other options.

It comes down to this -
The Times analysis states the matter more accurately: "Mr. Bush is discovering the limits of his own pre-emption doctrine." Yes, he's bumping into its limits, not rethinking or overhauling it.

Whatever's happened to the "old doctrine," the Time story does pose a question that's on the mark: "Can the U.S. find a new one to take its place?"

This is what's really going on. Bush and his team have slowly discovered that their prescriptions for changing the world - regime change, preventive war, and spreading democracy by force if necessary - aren't working and aren't going over with the world. But they don't know what to do about it; they don't know how to go about their business differently. Bush is drifting, not changing.

Time quotes a "presidential adviser" as saying, "There's a move, even by Cheney, toward the Kissingerian approach of focusing entirely on vital interests. It's a more focused foreign policy that is driven by realism and less by ideology."

This is preposterous. Where is the shuttle diplomacy? Where are the beginnings of a regional conference to stabilize Iraq? Where is the slightest nod toward talks - serious talks - aimed at keeping Iran and North Korea from joining the club of nuclear nations? These are "vital interests." Where is the "focusing" and the "realism" to attain them? When the administration starts behaving in a way that suggests it's asked these questions, then we can start to talk about a "seismic" shift in foreign policy. Until then, there's only the rumble of hot air.
Oops. There was no story there. Or the story is that the administration looks like it's changing quite a bit, but it's just because they can't avoid the conclusion that Plan A is crap and there is no Plan B. They don't do Plan B's - that's for the weak-willed. So whatever it is they're doing looks all new. But it's just deer-in-the-headlights panic, both harmless (no new wars), and completely ineffectual.

Hey, it's an improvement. The news of the day was dismal enough as it is. Take what you can get.

Posted by Alan at 23:26 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 12 July 2006 07:03 PDT home

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