Blogs > HNN > Democracy, Torture, and TV

Jan 26, 2005 2:59 pm

Democracy, Torture, and TV

I am afraid; very afraid. No, it's not because terrorists might soon take over the codes to all 104 American nuclear reactors and melt them down simultaneously (although that's a nice plot twist on "24," which seemed to have exhausted plot twists after nuclear explosions and biological terror that last two years). Instead, it's our fearless leader's inauguration that has got me frightened.

As President Bush described it: "By our efforts, we have lit ... a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world." Thus did President Bush cement his position as either the most disingenuous, megalomaniacal (or both) president in American history (or at least since John Kennedy, as Richard Cohen writes in the Post Does he understand how this kind of language sounds to anyone who's either familiar with the history and contemporary realities of US foreign policy or who has experienced the fire first hand? Does he even care how such language, in light of the reality of US actions around the globe, inflames people against the US?

Writing in the New York Times of the Arab press, al-Hayat, one commentator asked whether there will be any difference in the next four years and answered that the problems in the region will only be aggravated if Bush's stated policy goals in his inaugural speech are carried out. This is because, rhetoric aside, they do not represent a move toward supporting democracy, which is precisely what the US should in fact—rather than just rhetoric—should be doing. As Abdulwahab Badrakan explained: "The second Bush is good and awesome, and one can depend on him under two conditions: the first is that he realizes what he said and really means it. And the second is that you believe him. After all, who can disdain his oral defense of "freedom"? Who can reject his opposition to tyranny? These are two sublime choices related to all humanity. However, there is a problem with Bush, in the inside and outside, for freedoms with him did not experience any progress inside and outside the U.S. Moreover, many peoples and governments consider Bush's America as a model of tyranny itself." Similarly, Zein al-Abadin al-Rakabi writing in Sharq al-Awsat focused on the ritual of the Christian prayer opening the proceedings and the clear religious symbolism, which is clearly linked to the larger Crusader imagery for many Muslims.

At least in the Arab press (I haven't had the time to check the Turkish or Iranian press yet) the inaugural speech was greeted with foreboding tinged with sadness. Why? Because most every inhabitant of the non-West (and most of the so-called West for that matter) knows full well that Bush's words: "So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," is just an utter lie. And so when Bush rightly explains that "the best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world," people are sad because they see the US as a force against—not for—such freedom, especially in the Middle East and especially if we consider freedom in the broadest (cultural and economic as opposed to formal political) sense. And so, as President Bush exclaimed in his supposedly "radical" speech (as the NY Times described it) "Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul," I am left wondering, How are the former inhabitants of Falluja, or the 100,000 other dead Iraqis feeling about our sponsoring of freedom in their country?

But foreign policy is not the only problem with the Bush speech. He claimed in his section on domestic policy: "By making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny, we will give our fellow Americans greater freedom from want and fear and make our society more prosperous and just and equal." This is very easy to claim, as long as you assume no one checks the statistics. This is because the reality is that poverty rates have rose every year since Bush's first inauguration. There might be "more" prosperity in aggregate terms, but it is increasingly skewed toward the top 10% of the population. As a Census Bureau report on poverty, inequality and health insurance levels available at demonstrates that poverty and inequality have gotten worse during the last four years; they show no signs of ameliorating any time soon. As for justice, I doubt the backdoor draft being meted out to reservists is considered just; nor is the Patriot Act, the use of torture, the mass killing of civilians, the use of death squads, the horrific wasting of hundreds of billions of dollars that could be used for so many good and god-worthy purposes, in any way constitutes a move toward a just America or world.

But let's get back to foreign policy, since Paul Krugman can do the economics of Bush Administration policy much better than I or anyone else. Now that Condoleezza Rice has invented Term II's version of the "axis of evil" ("outposts of tyranny"-- Belarus, Myanmar, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe) we can wonder why China and Russia are left off, since their governments and systems are responsible for much more misery than all of these countries put together? Of course, there's no chance that the US is not an "outpost" of tyranny. But maybe that's because we're the Walmart: As one French newspapers (sorry to quote the French for all your French-haters out there): "With this president, the world feels like it's dancing on a volcano."

Oh, and what does it mean, as the Washington Post reported on January 23, that the secret new black ops unit created by the Pentagon will be put to work when "a hostile country close to our borders suddenly changes leadership... We would want to make sure the successor is not hostile"? Can this mean, for example, that if Castro dies we will make sure that the next leader of Cuba is a US client by whatever means necessary? Sure sounds like it? Can we blame Cubans for being so paranoid of the US? Or Haitians? Or Venezuelans?

More on John Yoo: In a LA Times article of January 23, 2005, Rice refused to answer a question of whether "waterboarding"—basically holding someone under water until they are ¾ drowned to get them to answer questions, is torture. "I'm not going to speak to any specific interrogation techniques," Rice said, adding that it was up to the Justice Department to define torture. Well, we know that former DOJ official Prof. Yoo doesn't think it's torture. As he explained in the same article, "What the administration is saying is we're not going to torture people… What the administration does not want to say, and I think for good reasons too, is what methods the United States might or might not use short of torture." Well, isn't this reassuring. Except that the whole point is who defines what is "short of torture." And that's the Attorney General and President! So if someone, say Yoo, thinks waterboarding isn't torture and Bush and Gonzalez agree, then we can ride the waves as much as we want and, Guess what? We're not torturing anyone! Especially all those innocent people that articles in today's NY and LA Times and Washington Post reveal we've been torturing—excuse me, surfing—in various facilities in Iraq.

Yoo further explains regarding when waterboarding is or isn't torture: "It depends on the circumstances." Yet he agreed that sleep deprivation for five days would be torture. But haven't doctors have shown that people can go weeks without sleep without any long term damage to the body? Can the same be said about repeated waterboarding? If it's not so bad, how about Yoo demonstrate for us when it wouldn't be torture, since he's played a key role in helping cloud its definition.

Indeed, Yoo still refuses to own up to the failed track record of torture for obtaining useful information. He explains in the same article: "The only way we can stop future attacks by Al Qaeda is by learning from [captured suspects] what their plans are… It doesn't make sense to take options off the table at this time." Hear that? "Options." Not torture, of course, because we don't define it as such; just options… Sort of like the sensory deprivation techniques being used on the Secretary of Defense's pot-head son on "24" in the last two episodes—as if a pot head would go crazy because he's blindfolded and some circa 1970s synthesizer sounds resembling an old ELP or Pink Floyd album are played through headphones. Yeah, that'll break him! (Oh, and of course, the pot-smoking anti-war demonstrator has wound up leaking information that led to his father's kidnapping. Can't trust those long-haired hippy peaceniks in any generation).

Back to Yoo, who continues: "The last thing you'd want to do is publicly disclose how you interrogate people, because it would allow them to prepare their people to resist interrogations," Of course! The terrorists would never know our techniques unless they were discussed on CNN or the Times. How silly of me. The tens of thousands of people subjected to them won't tell their friends and families, for sure. Keep up the great work, boys! Our secret interrogation methods will never be discovered in Iraq with all those former Baathist torturers running around…

Back to fantasy land (I think…) It was nice on "24" tonight to watch our military—to whom the episode was dedicated at the end--going in and in footage clearly designed to mimic the news footage from Iraq, storming buildings and killing real bad guys. Of course, it's rarely so neat in Iraq; thus the 100,000 dead figure. And I've seen enough of the evidence first hand to know the reality of such operations on the ground, whether in Baghdad or Nablus (for a detailed first hand account of how these missions so often go awry, see Nir Rosen's accounts of his time imbedded with the Marines as reported in Asia Times last year (go to for his excellent analyses). What a propaganda tool "24" has become—even more than Fox's pre-game football show—right down to the Secretary of Defense authorizing the CTU folks to use unconventional interrogation methods on his son ("You're my son, but my duty is to my country," he explains before authorizing them to strap him down, hook him up and turn on the Moog). Of course, if the Secretary of Defense is willing to sacrifice his son for the cause, why should we care about all those Iraqis sacrificed as well…

Final thoughts on Iraq this week: As Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the real world's version of arch-criminal Kaiser Soze (as played brilliantly by Kevin Spacey in "The Usual Suspects") puts out his latest rant against all things good and just, I am struck by Juan Cole's (see view that he is in reality a "black psy-ops" figment of the Baathist-led insurgency's imagination. I tend to agree, and most Iraqis I know still don't believe he's real; he's too convenient and too ethereal—popping up here and there, never seen but always almost caught, responsible for everything bad in Iraq. But if we assume that someone from the insurgency wrote his latest speech (and not the CIA), then it proves once again how brilliant Bush's rhetorical support of democracy has been, even though in reality it's been all hot air. As I wrote as the invasion started in a CS Monitor piece titled "How the Peace Movement Blew It" (the title was not mine and it pissed me off with its bluntness when I saw it, but in fact it well summed up the reality of the situation), as long as the Left can't offer a true holistic alternative to the invasion that would have highlighted the need for the world to deal with Hussein (but all the other rulers of the region too, let's remember, although most paled in comparison to his brutality), Bush is going to win the propaganda war against the anti-war movement. And now we see Zarqawi, whoever he is/they are, falling into the same trap by screeching about infidel and un-Islamic democracy, and generally showing the world what murderous moron he is. Bush's democracy rhetoric makes his enemies speak out against democracy, which only reinforces his argument.

Karl Rove couldn't have written this script any better. But he may not have the last laugh; as the Times is just reporting, major Sunni leaders are demanding a seat at the post-election table to draft the permanent Constitution. This would be a major victory for the process laid out by the Americans (and let's hope for Iraq's sake that whatever our feelings about the US occupation this does occur); but it could wind up coming back to Haunt the Bush Administration if it turns out that Sistani and company have been playing the Americans. The Bush Administration's disaster scenario: the new Shi'i dominated government brings in enough Sunnis to have"national" legitimacy and then demands a strict timetable for US withdrawal, cancels most contracts with US firms, and demands reparations for the damage wraught by the occupation and war crimes trials for senior American occupation personnel involved in military operations and running detention centers. If the US senses this is a likely outcome, don't be surprised if the chaos in Iraq gets even worse than has been predicted after the election. Chaos is far better than the humiliation of the International Criminal Court being asked by a newly sovereign Iraqi government to bring criminal charges against its former American sponsors.

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More Comments:

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 1/31/2005

this is a very insightful comment and i appreciate the reference.


Robert F. Koehler - 1/30/2005

As far as I'm concerned our President is a first class Goof. Whatever his original policy intentions were back in 2000 he foolishly allowed, bought into and got used by neo-con ideologues and the policies of other war-party elements in his administration after 11 September. No doubt he shared some of their views all along, but the usurpers deftly exploited his boundless ignorance to their advantage and convinced Mr. Lightweight to ignore the more reasoned & sensible policy proscriptions of others in the foreign policy establishment.

The hubris and stupidity of that move carried him only so far as mid 04 when the whole circus act started crumbling in Iraq due to the continuing insurgency and adverse media reporting. It appears to me that another usurpation is in swing with neo's purged & others corralled and contained in the office of the vice presidency. The 'realists' have taken over the State Department where another first class Goof can be contained and controlled. And though there is a lot about Mr. Rumsfeld I don't like he is no idiot, and appears to be taking seriously the clamoring & bitching that roils underneath him like a volcano to neo-con chagrin and rage, which is pure music to my ears. The louder they yell the more certain I am that something right is being done.

As for world opinion there is nothing new here. Aside from maybe 2 or 3 countries throughout the world (excluding Americans - don't count) Bush is rightfully scorned, vilified, condemned and viscerally hated no matter what he does or says. Karl Rove can't change that. The only thing Rove can do is to try and save his and George's ass from the American masses who don't know, don't know that they don't know, and don't care that they don't know. The only thing America's Hordes care about is having it all and slopping it up at the trough. They just love all that self congratulatory & high minded talk about how great and wonderful America is, until they are required to make it real with their money, bodies and blood. And the key to making that ass-saving miracle happen lies in the hands of those Rove & Bush inanely and rudely brushed aside some 3 years ago when they embarked on their ill advised & ill fated crusades.

Daddy George and can you believe it? Bill Clinton too. Have been both recruited out of retirement to save Junior from himself. Whether it's his unconscionable tardiness in dealing with the tsunami, or Dad explaining his goofy son's inaugural address to the world, were going to be seeing a lot of the Mr. Ex's in the foreseeable future. And if Carter can rise above his petty moralizing we will be seeing something of him too. During the 70's there was this slogan: Bring...Back...Dick! For the past 5 or so months I have been chanting: Bring...Back...Bubba! I am no great admirer of Clinton, but after four years of what we got I've been grieving mightily for what we formerly had. It soothes my soul to see Bill & Dad standing together, despite their party differences, most likely united behind the task of saving the Office of the Presidency no matter what Cheney says, whom even Junior in a moment of incredibly rare lucidity, never evidenced before managed to publically correct. Maybe therein is a glimmer of hope, but I ain't holding my breath.

As for the difference between what the civilian leadership & their appointees say and what is exactly done, a Mr. James Rosen from McClaskey Newspapers asked a panel of analysts from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) this:

"I was at a National Security Council background briefing I think it was last week, and I was struck by the disparity between their optimism and their take on the overall situation. I mean obviously they admit the insurgency now and they admit other problems. But when you listen to them and other administration people speak, people in the State Department, versus when I hear folks like you talk and some of your peers, other experts on the Middle East and Iraq, there's just a complete gap. It's like two competing different realities talking about two different places. Could any of you take a stab at why you think that's the case and how that can possibly be the case?"

Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow & the CSIS Burke Chair in Strategy replied:

"First, we're all using the same numbers, so to the extent people are basing this on facts they're coming out of the administration.

"Second, in 40 years of being around in Washington, and two-thirds of that in government, having had to spin everything when I was in government as favorably as possible, it's scarcely an unfamiliar or partisan activity. Governments are not objective, regardless of what government is involved. They're always defending their policy and putting the most favorable face on it they can.

"But I'd also have to say that the three of us not only visit the region but talk to a lot of people from the region, and a lot of them are U.S. military and a lot of them are officials. And people who have to solve problems have to admit the problems to begin solving it, so I think there's a great deal of realism among the military, the people in the State Department, the people working in the field, and they're not spinning things favorably or unrealistically when they go out and try to deal with the realities on the ground."

Bathsheba Crocker, CSIS Co-Director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project also added:

"I think, again I agree with everything that Tony just said. I think maybe a point to add would be that it has been possible throughout this entire post-Saddam period, and I alluded to this earlier, to pick up particular things that one can point to and say look, this is a sign of progress, or we're doing okay in a certain area, or things look slightly better in this area or whatever it is.

"I think my sense all along has been that the problems of the type that the three of us have been alluding to today are large enough that they basically overwhelm and undermine any particular instances of progress you might be able to turn to.

"I think on that note I might just pick up on something that Tony was talking about earlier which is the fact that we have an enormous amount of focus on the insurgency which is now, as you suggest, something administration is admitting exists. And understandably why that remains the bulk of our focus here.

"For the average Iraqi, it's arguable that their main concern on the security front is not necessarily the insurgency which is largely confined to particular regions in Iraq, but rather just the rampant law and order that pretty much exists throughout the country.

"Those are the kinds of things that we don't hear as much about, but I think again do tend to overwhelm a bit any notion that in a particular area you may be able to point to something and say look, things are actually going okay."

Now I would suggest reading the whole panel discussion so as to get a fuller understanding of the above comments in the full context given, but the point I'm making is what Mr. Cordesman politely implied & Mrs. Crocker seconded, is the essential futility of digging for any meaning in what any politician, appointees and party-hacks have got to say. I myself have gotten to the point that whenever any one of these types open their mouths, his or her orifice starts taking on the image of a floating target I want to shut up with a baseball bat. And the off the cuff - lip shots from our First Goof in Chief informs that nothing less than a heavily, lead-weighted, Louisville Slugger will do the job. That most irresponsible remark ever uttered: "Bring it On!" Has still got me parked & circling in orbit out in the stratosphere because I am a combat vet and instantly knew who would pay the piper for that hollow blustery. Nobody would want to see me and Bush in the same room with a baseball bat in my hands. I don't think I would be able to control myself and don't have to be as generous as Mr. Cordesman, who by the way, has a lot of authority with me.

Some elements of your last paragraph concerning Sunni desires to participate in the post-election process I heart-fully and genuinely hope and pray for too. As for whatever harsh facts George, Rove, Cheney, neo-cons & co may have to swallow or take it up elsewhere, well...that's too bad since they aren't in total control of the process in Iraq anymore. There are far too many better men and women, like the two analysts above who are giving their all & best to make outcomes in Iraq palatable to all parties concerned, including the US. Its not going to be easy and they aren't passing it off as a cake walk, but seeing adults and experienced people now on the scene I am infinitely more confident we have a least a 50/50 shot at straightening this mess out.