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Rogue nation ’tis of thee, land of impunity

Posted by Thomas Nephew on November 12th, 2010

In new memoir, Bush makes clear he approved use of waterboarding (R. Jeffrey Smith, WaPo, 11/3):

In his book, titled “Decision Points,” Bush recounts being asked by the CIA whether it could proceed with waterboarding Mohammed, who Bush said was suspected of knowing about still-pending terrorist plots against the United States. Bush writes that his reply was “Damn right” and states that he would make the same decision again to save lives, according to a someone close to Bush who has read the book.

After headlining this story “But you know, what the hell” on Facebook, I got into an online discussion with a friend about it a couple of days later; his take was not quite a shrug, but something like it — more or less “nothing new here.”  To be clear: he didn’t approve of the torture at all, he just didn’t see what was newsworthy about the story.  And indeed, the Post story continued:

Bush previously had acknowledged endorsing what he described as the CIA’s “enhanced” interrogation techniques – a term meant to encompass irregular, coercive methods – after Justice Department officials and other top aides assured him they were legal. “I was a big supporter of waterboarding,” Vice President Richard B. Cheney acknowledged in a television interview in February.

My friend argued that for either Bush or Obama, “Expecting public self-critical analysis from these folks is like expecting Hulk Hogan to admit that pro wrestling is rigged.” I replied:

You mistake my point, which I expressed too obliquely. My point is “simply” that we appear to have Bush’s confession that he broke laws and international obligations against torture. His blustery confidence that he was right to do so is irrelevant; the point is that he confessed to doing so. Were this a country with a functioning legal system, this would prompt prosecutors to begin legal action.

My brevity was intended to convey: this is how to commit a crime and get away with it. First, commit the crime. Then, hide it as long as possible. Then, deny it was a crime. Then, deny what you did fit the definition of the crime. (“We do not torture,” he said repeatedly.)  Always, blur responsibility so that it was perhaps ‘bad apples’ who freelanced the crime. Then persuade your successor to take part in the coverup. Then write a book about it.  [...]

Bush’s contrition isn’t the issue to me, I couldn’t care less about that. Our betrayal of ourselves is.

My friend made the reasonable point that if the public can’t be bothered with Bush’s lies to get us into a war, the chances of its getting bothered about torture are even less.  Maybe so.  Yet while there is perhaps some question about a head of state of a sovereign nation tilting that nation to war, there are actual, specific statutes and treaty obligations against torture, and specific means to see that failing to meet those obligations is punished.  Somehow, torture seems so specific and wrong to me that it seems harder to evade responsibility. Though this war was not, war might sometimes be justified; torture can never be. At any rate, in his Nation article George W. Bush: Torturer-in-Chief, Georgetown law professor David Cole points out:

…Bush and Cheney are not immune. In fact, the United States is legally obligated by the Convention Against Torture, a treaty we helped draft, and have signed and ratified, to investigate any credible allegations of torture by a person within US jurisdiction. And if the United States does not take action, other nations are authorized to do so, under the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” which treats torture as so heinous that its perpetrators can be investigated and prosecuted by any country if their own country fails to take corrective action. [...]

…the principle of universal jurisdiction, combined with our government’s failure to take any steps toward accountability, means that Bush and Cheney can be investigated and prosecuted anywhere in the world. They may feel confident that President Obama will not have the temerity to hold them accountable, but it’s not clear they should be confident about the rest of the world. Two investigations of US complicity in torture are already pending in Spain, where Pinochet was initially investigated. And Poland has recently opened a criminal investigation of torture at a CIA “black site” there. Bush and Cheney may want to limit their vacations to the homeland for the foreseeable future.

To join my friend in realism — whether as a means of triaging doomed expectations or not, whether disillusioned or not — I don’t suppose that much will come of this, either. I don’t really expect Spain or Poland to indict Bush or Cheney, though I’d frankly cheer if they did; I imagine they’ll back down if confronted, though I’d support them not doing so.

It seems like all those of us appalled by all of this can say is ‘shame.’ But maybe that isn’t just a matter of scolding or blushing; maybe shame means more than mere emotional discomfort. For starters, we obviously undo the reciprocal expectation that American soldiers can expect not to be mistreated by their captors.  But there are other results, less tangible, but maybe more influential.

Even if there aren’t formal consequences for systematic, high level US approval of torture (and failure to punish that), there will be informal, but powerful ones.  Public opinion around the world — among even our closer allies — is not going to be very teary-eyed about the accelerating loss of US prestige/dominance in the world.  That loss mainly has to do with economic decline — but we’ll have simultaneously, and I’m afraid rightly, lost respect and friendship as well. We’ll just be the crazy, nasty Uncle Sam in the attic, a near-rogue nation if not a full-fledged one.

That image will be all too well founded, and that will matter. As we get used to torture by the US, we will need to get used to its consequences as well.

2 Responses to “Rogue nation ’tis of thee, land of impunity”

  1. the talking dog Says:

    IF Bush, Cheney, Addington, Yoo, et al., are ever forced to face anything resembling justice or accountability, it will be at the hands of a Republican Administration, and probably a conservative Republican Administration at that (Sarah Palin?). Not that I’ll hold my breath that this would happen, mind you. But certainly, no Democratic President would ever EVER want to be accused of “partisanship” [after all... David Broder might be offended]. But a Republican just might see things “differently.”

    It was, of course, that great liberal Ronald Reagan who was responsible for signing many of the anti-torture treaties that our pals George and Dick have merrily and brazenly violated, and that Barack has insisted on being an accessory to violating himself by giving George and Dick a pass.

    Things happen in… funny ways. Not that I expect to see “accountability” any more than I would have expected it in the latter stages of any other declining empire. But as the late great Studs Turkel would have said… hope dies last.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    “hope dies last”: I just finished a quite excellent, polemical book that puts it a little differently, as its title “The Mendacity of Hope” suggests. Roger Hodge (Harper’s Magazine editor) closes:

    “Having embraced and professionalized the powers of force and fraud previously associated with the likes of John Yoo and Dick Cheney, Obama has embarked on a course of war that will certainly invite further abuses of power. His political survival now depends on martial success in a land that has defeated some of history’s most brutal strategies of conquest. Obama has set a trap for himself, but because he is such a clever politician, the spring is just as likely to fall on us instead. [...] As terrible as the new administration has been with regard to finance and health care, its record on torture, detention, and executive power is even worse. Obama has institutionalized the usurpations and abuses of the Bush regime; they are now part of the Washington consensus. Our constitutional system may never recover.

    Such insidious governance demands serious, sustained opposition, not respectful disagreement or fanciful historical apologies or mournful lamentations about the tragedy of his presidency. Principles can be sacrificed to hopes as well as to fears.

    Not your hopes for accountability, that is, but the “hope and change” kind of hopes, which are the main variety of that emotion these days. We need less hopes of that kind, more clarity of your and Mr. Hodge’s kind.

    = = =
    (It’s great to hear from you again — not that the interruption was your doing. I got kind of tangled up in my own feelings of inadequacy about the Wittes project. I kind of made the mistake of “looking down” and finding I was way too high up for my own comfort, and about to make all kinds of ‘mistakes’ I worried would be held against me. I’ll have another look; Goldsmith and Wittes came out with another op-ed a day or two ago, so that might give me an entree to the whole thing.)

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