July 12, 2005 [LINK]

War, law, ethics, and torture

In the Washington Post's Outlook section on Sunday, Juliette Kayyem critiques U.S. interrogation practices. She begins by granting that Sen. Durbin's comparison with Nazis was unwarranted (as if that needed to be said), but still thinks that the "administration surely bears the lion's share of the blame" for the outrage over Guantanamo. In her mind "the administration consistently seeks to blur this distinction [between targets of interrogation and the interrogation tactics used] or ignore its import. "This is why the conservatives' outrage at the outrage rings so hollow." She thinks the U.S. would attain a higher moral ground and thereby garner more respect around the world if armed forces and intelligence officers were bound by a stricter code on acceptable interrogation practices. I was skeptical about the efficacy of such a formal legal mechanism in war time, where crucial snap decisions must constantly be made in unique situations in which no precedents exist, but I remained attentive to her arguments until I reached the concluding section:

But ultimately, the interrogation debates are not about how the world feels about us, but how we feel about ourselves. [Italics added.] Do we really believe that the insurgents in Iraq, or the terrorists worldwide, are motivated by our detention or interrogation procedures? Isn't it much more likely that our continuing presence in Iraq, for example, or our failure to provide security for its people, or even our support of autocratic regimes in the region might have more to do with the animosity that we now face there?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you fatuous liberalism at its finest. Anyone who thinks that "how we feel about ourselves" (raising our self-esteem?) is among the main objectives of national security policy is just not serious. Leaving aside the way she holds out the U.S.-led occupation and the lack of sufficient occupation forces as explanations of anti-U.S. sentiment, it must be pointed out that she blatantly ignores the Bush administration's bold push for political liberalization in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the successes our policies have already engendered elsewhere in the region. Some people are just blind to the facts of world politics. There is one general reason for anti-U.S. sentiment in Iraq: the poisoned civil society bequeathed by the 30+ year Baathist regime; and one specific reason: fear among the formerly dominant Shi'ites that the Sunnis and Kurds will wreak vengeance upon them. Most Iraqis support their new government.

By coincidence, I've been participating off and on in a polemical comment thread on Randy Paul's Beautiful Horizons blog. I took excepton to Randy's scathing derision of the President's Statement on United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, unwittingly unleashing a torrent of vitriol. (Is it any wonder I'm reluctant to include comments on my blog posts?) Randy and other Bush critics have made much of the memorandum written by former Justice Department official Jay Bybee, who is now a federal judge. It is posted at tomjoad.org, though no source is given, so it can't be authenticated. John Dean (yes, that John Dean) derided Bybee and his legal arguments, but it seemed pretty reasonable to me. I can't find anything in it that justifies torture. The basic thrust of the Bybee memo was the need for the United States to resist politically motivated legal challenges from countries that are hostile to our interests. Though it is hard for liberals to accept this, the pursuit of justice in the international realm is always tainted by politics, interest, and favoritism.

By another coincidence, at the Fourth of July parade in Staunton I saw a veteran Army Reservist who has served in Guantanamo I had met last year, and he saw with his own eyes that the detainees are being treated very well. He can't vouch for the interrogation techniques, however. There must be something to the FBI reports about the abuse some detainees apparently suffered, but the recent outrage looks very contrived to me, and I will remain skeptical until further evidence emerges. Torture is unacceptable in a free, civilized society such as ours [as if that needed to be said], but simple prudence dictates that interrogators be given greater leeway in certain cases where they are convinced that heavy psychological pressure is the only way they can get information that would save thousands of lives. I just hope enough of the Bush critics understand that we all share an interest in gaining such intelligence before the next attack against us is launched.