Friday, January 14, 2005

Condoning torture

Andrew Sullivan offers a passionate, damning piece in the New York Times book review on how the Bush regime has condoned the use of torture. The essay ranges broadly, from the lack of accountability within the Bush regime, to the openness of a society that allows reports on these abuses to be published, to the disturbing indifference of the American electorate.

Sullivan has no qualms about specifying where the blame for the widespread use of torture must be laid:

Bush clearly leaned toward toughness. Here's the precise formulation he used: "As a matter of policy, the United States Armed Forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva." (My italics.)

Notice the qualifications. The president wants to stay not within the letter of the law, but within its broad principles, and in the last resort, "military necessity" can overrule all of it. According to his legal counsel at the time, Alberto R. Gonzales, the president's warmaking powers gave him ultimate constitutional authority to ignore any relevant laws in the conduct of the conflict. Sticking to the Geneva Convention was the exclusive prerogative of one man, George W. Bush; and he could, if he wished, make exceptions.

The president's underlings got the mixed message.

Unlike the vast majority of his fellow conservatives, moreover, Sullivan appreciates the way in which both the publicity about the torture and the fact of the torture itself have (perhaps fatally) compromised any hope the Americans had of achieving success in the struggle against Islamist extremism; that is, if "success" is defined as the creation of pro-American democratic regimes in the Muslim world.

Like most neocons, Sullivan's a moralist: he wants the United States to be on the side of the angels. What he fails to recognize is that, first, America has never been on the side of the angels in the Middle East, and second, the horrific nature of war itself -- particularly war in the age of the decentralized mass media -- precludes the possibility of waging a war on the side of angels. (The bumpersticker "Who would Jesus Bomb?" captures the point nicely.) Sullivan may have been credulous enough to believe that Bush went to war to liberate the people of the Middle East, but world opinion rightly rejected the representation of this war as a new turn in America's Middle East policy. Rather, world opinion, and Arab opinion in particular, viewed the war as an attempt to vindicate sixty-plus years of American policy goals in the Middle East: a licentious cultural agenda, a free trade economic agenda, and political agenda bent on keeping Arab states weak and indulging the Israeli settler movement.

Whatever the justice of this conception of the U.S.'s Middle East policy, subsequent events have done nothing to undermine them. Both the collapse of the original rationale for the war (namely to disarm Iraq of its putative WMDs) and the nastiness of the war itself have only reinforced antebellum opinions that the war itself was nothing but old school American imperialism dressed up in hypocritical evangelical rhetoric. While Sullivan's moralizing was sincere, as his criticisms of the Bush regime's pro-torture policies demonstrate, the silence (and even active apologies) of the vast majority of the American right about the Bush regime's widespread use of torture has confirmed in the eyes of the world the vacuity of Bush's moral claims on behalf of the war.

Ironically, here is where the hard-right seems to have the goods on the neocons, including Sullivan: if the point is to stick with the basic American policy goals in the Middle East, while at the same time winning "the war on terror," then the strategy must be to intimidate and destroy those who are so angry at America that they are willing to take up arms against us. Now, if you subscribe to this view -- that is, that the U.S. never did anything wrong in the Middle East that would warrant the hatred of the region's people, and that the attacks of 9-11 are thus mere representations of evil that must be crushed without further question -- then it seems to me that you ought to have the courage of your convictions. If you hold these views, then you ought to be willing to say, straight-forwardly, that these people are evil-doers who need to be wiped out; and you then must be willing to break some eggs to make the omlette. Abu Ghraib and the rest were just such eggs. Taken in this light, Bush's statements on torture were clearly meant as an unambiguous signal to the men and women in the field that we have to win this fight at all costs, up to an including the cost of always being nice guys. Indeed, this is exactly what Sullivan himself concludes.

Sullivan doesn't like this line of reasoning, but that may just indicate that he is too squeamish to advocate doing what's required to win the war according to the terms on which it was launched. If you want to be an imperialist, you need to have the stomach to do it right. For example, if a mob publicly slaughters some of your mercenaries on a bridge, you must have the willingness to raze the town, and to do it without apologies. The Romans and the Brits always understood this. But that just underscores how incompatible it is to be both an imperialist and also on the side of the angels. Bush's real problem is that (thank God) this is the twenty-first century, and he can't get away with just razing Fallujah.

The hard fact is that there's no such thing as a clean war against a popular insurgency -- something both the hard right and the hard left recognize. Unpleasant though it may be for Sullivan to admit this to himself, the reason the Iraqi insurgency is popular is that many Arabs recognize that the insurgents and Islamists offer the only coherent opposition to Western (and especially American) policies and practices that the vast majority of local populations find abhorrent. (This isn't just the view of Susan Sontag; it's also the view of at least some within the C.I.A.)

On some level, Sullivan must grok the actual popularity of the Iraqi insurgency, which is why he goes to such strenuous lengths in his blog and elsewhere to deny the widespread popular support for the insurgency in Iraq (and Islamist extremists generally). Sullivan claims our opponents are merely thugs and gangsters whose only relationship to the local population is to terrorize them. But do we really think bin Laden could have survived years of being hunted if he wasn't a popular hero among the peoples of the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands? Don't we know that Hamas, in addition to supporting terrorist attacks on Israelis, runs most of the social services in the Gaza strip? The examples could be endlessly multiplied. Sadly enough, there's no clear distinction between the ter'rists and the people we're trying to "liberate." This point becomes obvious when you read any account of how hard it is for American soldiers to tell the difference between friend and foe in Iraq.

Yet for all my criticism of Sullivan, what's most remarkable about this piece -- and about Sullivan's writing generally -- is his willingness to criticize himself, to admit that as a public intellectual he must bear co-responsibility for the policies he advocates, even when they fail. Thus he asks himself:

Did those of us who fought so passionately for a ruthless war against terrorists give an unwitting green light to these abuses? Were we naïve in believing that characterizing complex conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq as a single simple war against "evil" might not filter down and lead to decisions that could dehumanize the enemy and lead to abuse? Did our conviction of our own rightness in this struggle make it hard for us to acknowledge when that good cause had become endangered? I fear the answer to each of these questions is yes.

American political polarization also contributed. Most of those who made the most fuss about these incidents - like Mark Danner or Seymour Hersh - were dedicated opponents of the war in the first place, and were eager to use this scandal to promote their agendas. Advocates of the war, especially those allied with the administration, kept relatively quiet, or attempted to belittle what had gone on, or made facile arguments that such things always occur in wartime. But it seems to me that those of us who are most committed to the Iraq intervention should be the most vociferous in highlighting these excrescences. Getting rid of this cancer within the system is essential to winning this war.

I'm not saying that those who unwittingly made this torture possible are as guilty as those who inflicted it. I am saying that when the results are this horrifying, it's worth a thorough reassessment of rhetoric and war methods.

And finally, Sullivan leaves parting words for any Democrats who may feel a smug (or horrified) sense of "I told you so." For despite the partisan polarization over the war, the fact is that

the saddest evidence of our communal denial in this respect was the election campaign. The fact that American soldiers were guilty of torturing inmates to death barely came up. It went unmentioned in every one of the three presidential debates. John F. Kerry, the "heroic" protester of Vietnam, ducked the issue out of what? Fear? Ignorance? Or a belief that the American public ultimately did not care, that the consequences of seeming to criticize the conduct of troops would be more of an electoral liability than holding a president accountable for enabling the torture of innocents? I fear it was the last of these. Worse, I fear he may have been right.

Sullivan's account of Kerry's calculated avoidance of the torture issue seems to me to be both correct and utterly damnatory of both Kerry and the Democratic Party. It also helps explain why I voted happily for Dean in the primaries, but could only vote for Kerry by holding my nose. Dean at least had the courage to say what he really believed about the war, to react with honest moral emotions. The fact that the Democratic Party chose to reject Dean's moral honesty in favor of an "electable" triangulating billionaire arriviste tells you everything you need to know about what's wrong with the Democratic Party today, and why it's not surprising that they lost the last two elections.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, very well written. I'll be back.

In this dishonest and corrupt climate, it's hard to tell whether Sullivan actually gives a *amn, or is just trying to polish his centrist creds... perhaps realizing the strong chance of future political changes.

No one should pay attention to him, but then he gets published in big media so ....

medium is the message, eh?