Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Stars of Rack and Wheel Are Beautiful People

The Bush administration has come up with an interesting way to neutralize the effects of that pesky McCain Amendment which is gathering steam now in the House after passing in the Senate. First, some background: the short version of the story is that the McCain Amendment would make it the law of the land that all entities within the US government adhere to, at a minimum, the standards set forth in the Army Field Manual on the interrogation of prisoners (prohibiting cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment - with certain specific exceptions). At present, according to the Bush administration's legal authorities in the Department of Justice, the CIA and other intelligence gathering entities are exempt from such requirements. The initial response from Bush and Cheney to McCain's attempt to create a unified standard of conduct for interrogations has been to push for the attachment of a provision to the McCain legislation that would preserve the CIA's exemption - so that the CIA could continue to use torture and abuse in the interrogation process.

It appears that even the Bush administration is getting a little skittish about taking such a public stance against an anti-torture bill - especially because the McCain legislation is enjoying bi-partisan support in Congress and in the nation at large. So, they've come up with a solution: if the McCain bill will force the CIA to adhere to the Army Field Manual on interrogation, and as it stands the rules set forth therein would likely preclude the use of torture, then why not just amend the Army Field Manual. That way, everybody is happy: McCain gets his bill, and the CIA and other entities involved in the interrogation process can keep on doing what they were doing. It is as clever as it is cynical and morally dubious. Unfortunately, by amending the Army Manual, the Bush administration may be in effect widening the breadth of the current exception from just the CIA to the armed forces in general. Under the newly amended manual, not only would the CIA be free to act in abusive ways, but no rank and file soldiers would have a broader array of abusive practices to call upon. In other words, if given the choice, shooting down the McCain bill would have a better result.

The recent stealth approach is so disturbing, that even Victor Hansen (a solid Bush-booster) has written an op-ed denouncing the back door torpedoing of the McCain legislation. Strange days indeed. In light of these recent moves, I thought it would be a good time to look at some of the potential costs of changing America's moral footing on the torture and abuse of detainees. Lounsbury has some interesting, and in my opinion well-balanced, thoughts (via Nadezhda):

I have followed with some bemusement the 'debates' over torture in the US media.

I have to say, they are fairly grotesque on some level.

Let me say that my pragmatic self accepts that from time to time outfits like the CIA may have to engage in, well, less-than-Snow-Whitish behaviour. I accept that in the same way I accept that in the Middle East and similar neighborhoods in business one has to turn a blind eye towards certain things.

But in both cases, they should not be the baseline, the standard. They should be exceptional, else quickly a rot sets in.

Turning to the issue of torture, I find it astonishing that so few US commentators understand the profound damage this entire process is doing to the US image and standing. These are not mere trifles, look to the cold hard world of finance, we still care about reputational risk, even if it is more about appearance than fact. Lose your reputation, and your transaction costs skyrocket, to say the least.

The US is losing its brand power, as it were, in the area of government. American society is largely attractive to many, the American story and its socio-economic dynamism (however exagerated and mythologised, still relatively better than most of the world, including the developed world). However, this brand is being pissed away by bumbling fools who do not understand its importance, and think gross, short termism is strategy.

It is, in short, grotesquely stupid. As Talleyrand (a real favourite of mine, although it was likely Boulay de la Meurthe's phrase) is said to have said, "It is worse than a crime, it is a blunder."

However, it is typical of the childish, indeed often Hollywoodish manner in which the Beit Ibn Bush has conducted its affaires.

Regardless, what I found most, well, depressing I suppose, was the plebian ignoramus definitions of "US interests" as if one does not have to continually do business globally. Pure idiot insularity. Now it is well taken one can not let bleeding heart little idjit Leftist protestors who manage to be offended by anything at all dictate one's actions. However, at the same time it is rather trivially obvious that alienating, above all needlessly, large swaths of international opinion not so idiotically and knee-jerkingly opposed to American interests is counter productive.

However, the arguments being bandied about on these "news" programs struck me as rather Bolsheviki in their bizarrely ideoglurghish party line content.

In some sad ways they are perfect illustration of why I have taken to calling a good swath of the American Right, Right Bolsheviks.
Yes, this is a theme I have been trying to hammer away at repeatedly of late. I see now that the Bush administration is growing fond of viewing the Iraq conflict as a counterinsurgency - complete with military leaders brushing up on relevant texts on the subject matter (better late than never I suppose). Who knows, they might eventually even come around to the understanding that in many ways the meta battle with al-Qaeda is also very similar to a counterinsurgency war - though, as Kingdaddy points out, there are differences that should make our counterterrorism effort easier to abide with a higher prospect for success. I'm no expert on the matter, but I can tell you that both counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts demand a level of concern, responsiveness and attention to the hearts and minds of the target population. Supporting torture will not win us any raves in this regard - to say the very, very least. An anonymous commenter on Lounsbury's post makes the point a different way:

For every person you're able to extract any useful information from by torture, there are a thousand -- or a million -- who would freely give information if America made even a pretense of living up to its ideals. The true power of America is not that it can break people's legs -- any petty dictator can do that. The true power of America is that it represents something people want to cooperate with. By refusing to torture people under any circumstances, you take one small step toward staking out an absolute moral position. The statement "America will never torture people because it's wrong." means America stands for something. America will only be trusted when it will refuse to do some things that are wrong even if they are expedient.

The bottom line here, in case you missed it, Mr. President, is that torturing people will actually lose the U.S. far more vital intelligence than it gains. If you won't stop torturing people because it's wrong, stop torturing people because it's bad policy.
As if we needed more than the moral justifications to outlaw torture anyway. You'd think that the larger policy concerns would have permeated an administration that is finally coming to grips with the reality that exits beyond its bubble encased group-think: American principles matter. Regardless of how many times you try to trumpet those principles, people will stubbornly look to the real world manifestations. Those examples will ultimately decide how seductive our vision is, not the marketing effort or the shade of lipstick applied to the pig. In such a world, and in such a mission, torture has no place. Plain and simple.

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