Bush’s Strategic Blunder on Torture
September 22, 2006
You need not know anything about the Geneva Convention or international law to understand the current debate over President Bush’s proposal to weaken protections for U.S. held detainees. The president’s current hard line position — that the fate of the CIA interrogation program is in jeopardy since current law is too vague — was not derived from any legal treatise but from Karl Rove’s campaign playbook and the proposal is more about defining the debate for the mid-term election than about clarifying the Geneva Convention.
Rewind to summer 2002. Before hitting the campaign trail, President Bush dropped his opposition to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and immediately adopted another hard line position — threatening to veto any bill that did not strip many union and civil service protections for department employees. Bush’s position created an impasse with democrats, which he used successfully to define and attack the democrats as being “more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people.”
The president’s current hard line once again relies on the politics of “fear and smear” to reduce the debate to a false argument that democrats are more concerned about protecting terrorists than the American people. This time, however, the president miscalculated as not only is defending torture after Abu Ghraib anything but the moral equivalent of the homeland security debate but this time his opponents include prominent members of his own party.
The issue itself is not complex. Under the 1949 Geneva Convention prisoners may not be subject to cruel, inhuman, humiliating or degrading treatment or punishment and violations may be prosecuted as war crimes under U.S. law. On Dec. 30, 2005, President Bush clearly stated that it was against U.S. policy to use “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” when he reluctantly signed the Detainee Treatment Act
applying Geneva Convention protections to detainees.
Nine months later and weeks before the mid-term election, President Bush now contends that this very same language is “so vague that it’s impossible” for personnel to participate in the program without fear of liability. The administration proposal waters down Geneva Convention protections to only prohibit acts causing severe suffering, thereby allowing many practices currently prohibited, while also
covering their tails by applying this standard retroactively to escape prosecution for abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
Bush’s arguments are contradicted by the Army Field Manual and CIA training manual, as both manuals stressed that “torture … is a poor technique that yields unreliable results (and) may damage subsequent collection efforts.” The Army manual especially warns that “(r)evelations of use of torture by U.S. personnel will bring discredit upon the U.S. and its armed forces while undermining … support for
the war effort” and placing American prisoners “at a greater risk of abuse.” The Army manual also did not have any trouble with vagueness, providing examples of prohibited practices that include practices that the Bush administration endorses such as sleep deprivation and position torture, and offering a simple test — do not engage in any activity that you believe may be against U.S. or international law if perpetrated on American troops.
President Bush wants Americans to believe that no other president has waged war against evil regimes or confronted this issue before. The reality is, however, that in each of the greatest challenges of American history, our leaders have to chosen to follow the course of the founding fathers who, as historian David Fischer notes, believed that they had to beat the British “in a way that was consistent with the values …
and principles of their cause” despite atrocities committed by King George’s troops.
That is why Washington directed his troops to “(t)reat (British prisoners) with humanity” and Lincoln instituted a written code of conduct for the Union Army prohibiting “the intentional infliction of any suffering, or disgrace.” That also is why the United States has followed the same standards in every war prior to the current conflict. The wisdom of those standards is confirmed by history which, as reported in
a recent Army War College journal, clearly demonstrates that the use torture is always “a major strategic blunder … (especially) in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency warfare (where) the moral component of the fight is strategically decisive.”
Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) correctly recognizes that this issue “has nothing to do with al Qaeda, (but) it has everything to do with America.” The irony of Bush’s miscalculation in adopting the methods of King George over the principles of the founding fathers is that it reveals to the country that the administration that piously claimed to represent “American values” has no idea what those values are.