Wednesday, May 30, 2007

War and Politics

This is the week after Memorial Day; we’re in a war and we're losing. Surely our soldiers deserve a public discussion of the war and the politics that fuel it. Thing is after four years trying to foster a discussion that is as broad as possible without being utterly redundant is impossible. Maybe every writer in America should be writing about the war today, but I’d bet that no one would find half of what we have to say interesting. It is a basic dilemma faced in keeping my blog going. It seems that everything I want to say has been said two dozen times by far better minds and in far better ways. But still I'd like to focus for a moment on the war's effects on politics.

By politics I don't mean the status of war funding bills or the reactions of party leaders to polls about the war. I mean the deeper question of how the American people understand what they are doing and thinking. This is our government. As little as our political leaders know or care about such things; they work for us. What we do and think as the American People about such important things as the sociology of power and the struggle in Iraq, we seem to know even less about the political values and traditions that they, and all of us, are supposedly fighting for. In this regard, it's always instructive to read the comments of those who write for the organs of far-right know-nothing, the Weekly Standard and the National Review. What's most remarkable about these guys is that they consider themselves hard-headed realists, people who, as George Bush once pathetically said of himself, "just know how this world works." But they seem to have as little grasp of conservative principles as they do of historical reality.

Here's the right-wing pundit Jay Nordlinger, a former leftist who became a rightist and who has no idea how far he has drifted into extremism.

“Don't the French make you sick sometimes? The United States, I would wager for good reasons, has declined to sign a treaty that "bans governments from holding people in secret detention." ... And here's what the French foreign minister said, when signing in Paris: "Our American friends were naturally invited to this ceremony; unfortunately, they weren't able to join us." Snigger snigger snigger.

I understand the conservatives have a thing for the French. They aren’t point of this excerpt. Consider the very disturbing phenomenon that Nordlinger is describing. Nordlinger calls himself a conservative and completely misses the irony. Aren't conservatives, the idealistic kind anyway, supposed to fear unlimited government power? Aren't they supposed to favor transparency and accountability in government? Yet here's Nordlinger proclaiming that the government must have "good reasons" for keeping prisoners off the books, unnamed and unregistered -- an clear invitation to lawlessness and impunity about which he is utterly complacent. What would John Stuart Mill say about this casual endorsement of the ability of government to act in an unfettered, unmonitored, unaccountable manner against the person of anyone it deems a threat? What would Friedrich Hayek or Barry Goldwater say?

Actually, I spend a good deal of time reading the conservatives, and I'm convinced that lawlessness is what Nordlinger and his pals at National Review actually favor. They have consistently downplayed American involvement in torture, for example. Here's Nordlinger's colleague Douglas Kmiec, writing in 2005 that then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales never condoned torture: "Under law, torture is independently prohibited and the president has denounced it from the beginning. Judge Gonzales has never written anything to the contrary."

Oh, didn't he? Well, he didn't call it torture, and technically he didn't write the words himself. But one of the many things Gonzales did on behalf of an eccentric doctrine that holds that the American president is above the law (the radical "unitary executive" theory) was to approve a memo written by John Yoo of the Office of Legal Counsel in 2002, signed by Yoo's supervisor Jay Bybee. This extraordinary document asserts that most of what we would intuitively call torture really is not: "The victim must experience intense pain or suffering, of the kind that is equivalent to the pain that would be associated with serious physical injury so severe that death, organ failure, or permanent damage resulting in a loss of significant body function will likely result." Everything short of that, a vast field of endeavor for the demented, is fair game.

Yoo, a foremost proponent of the "unitary executive," also argues that for an act to be considered torture, there must be a “specific intent” on the part of the accused to inflict pain; "...even if the defendant knows that severe pain will result from his actions, if causing such harm is not his objective, he lacks the requisite specific intent even though the defendant did not act in good faith." What, exactly, does that mean in legal terms? It means that interrogators can't ever be punished for being torturers unless "specific intent" can be proved -- a virtual impossibility.

The views expressed in this memo, it should come as no surprise, are in no way in accordance with the Geneva Conventions or with the international Convention Against Torture, to which the United States is a signatory and in concrete ways it laid the groundwork for the use of torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. For an idea of the role of this memo in the larger scheme of things, check out Mark Danner's book “Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror”. No matter how much this administration tries to blame a few ordinary soldiers for Abu Ghraib, as Seymour Hersh has shown, responsibility goes right to the top.

So why are conservatives defending the government's right to break the law and to inflict punishment unaccountably? Even on individuals who may not have been charged with any crime, much less found guilty of one? (as was the case with many of the detainees at Abu Ghraib) Of course they justify their means by ends: the necessity of winning the war on terror. But this doesn't make any sense, and if people like Nordlinger and Kmiec and Charles Krauthammer all of whom have minimized acts of torture when the United States engages in it, had actually done their homework, they would see why. Never mind that torture is illegal and wrong. Never mind that it degrades us as a society, that it is a slippery slope to anti-democratic government. Never mind, even, that it galvanizes many in the Muslim world, handing their demagogues an argument that the U.S. is no better than its enemies, and turning those who have experienced torture into implacable jihadis. Torture does not even work, and often produces bad information that damages the operations of the torturers' side in the field. This is a fact widely recognized by the military and its professional interrogators.

Would the use of torture be a net gain or loss for the forces of democracy in the war on terror? Anyone who understands and believes in classical or modern democratic liberalism, or democratic conservatism, would have to say a loss; so why the defense of torture on the political right? Is it because those on the right who do this don't understand conservative principles, or don't follow them? It’s hard to say. But these writers are the voice of the average conservative on the street who believe and recite often what they say. They believe that we’re fighting terrorists in Iraq, rather than stuck between two factions driven into a civil war by an occupying force. They believe torture is acceptable. What I’m saying is that we shouldn’t ignore these people and the ideas they have. They deserve to know the truth. These ideas need to be challenged. The people who believe them deserve to be treated with respect, and the best way to do that is to confront them with reality. Of course they aren’t going to listen to you, but keep saying it anyway.