Elections and Torture

I suspect there are some among critics of the Iraq war who will be secretly or even publicly pleased if the election in Iraq scheduled for this Sunday goes badly, marred by violence and a certain degree of chaos. That, as some might argue, would validate those who criticized the initial invasion of Iraq and the shifting of the mission (as the pesky WMD proved consistently elusive) to the utopian vision of establishing democracy in Iraq and eventually throughout the Middle East.

I, on the other hand, am hoping against hope that it comes off with at least a certain amount of credibility and a minimum of violence. That doesn’t seem likely, of course. But even a messy election with a certain amount of disruption that nonetheless yields a relatively decisive result and leaders who are modestly serious about writing a constitution that doesn’t plunge the country into civil war could be spun to look good enough.

Good enough for what? For the administration to declare that our mission has been successful and begin to draw down U.S. troops.

I know, I know. The Pentagon says it plans to keep at least 120,000 troops in Iraq for at least two years. If it plays out that way, you can be sure some bad things will happen that will provide justification (or a pretext) to those who will want to ratchet up the commitment. It could happen.

Keep Expectations Reasonably Low

On the other hand, it is just possible that if the perception develops that things are going tolerably well in Iraq, but that too many Americans are still at risk and our forces are overstretched considering other potential problems, along with a developing perception that just maybe the presence of U.S. troops exacerbates chaos rather than calms it, pressure could develop both within and outside the administration to start removing U.S. troops. It’s a long shot, perhaps, but the chance of almost anything positive coming out of the Iraq misadventure is a long shot.

As we move into the post-election phase, then, it would probably be useful for those who desire the early withdrawal of U.S. troops (and perhaps even the beginnings of a reassessment of U.S. policy) – insofar as we have a shred of influence – to interpret events so as to encourage the perception that things may be messy, but they’re good enough to warrant withdrawal. There are limits, of course. The election Sunday could be a bloody fiasco. But if it’s only mildly chaotic, that could be seen as good enough to believe the Iraqis have a chance to reconstitute their society in their own way.

The definition of success should be latitudinarian. Nobody instilled with a shred of realism expects that blissful peace and order will descend on Iraq any time soon. It is more than possible that the outcome will involve a de facto, if not a de jure, partition. While a great deal has been done to instill a sense of Iraqi nationalism in those who live there, and some seems to have developed, the country was, after all, the artificial creation of British colonialists after World War I. It is just possible that the best hope for something resembling relative peace is to have the dominant majorities in the three major regions – Shia, Sunni, Kurd – have effective autonomy over local matters, and perhaps something close to a veto over how young people from their regions are expected to serve in the military. I can even imagine an outright formal partition of Iraq into three countries.

To bring this up is not necessarily to suggest that this is the best solution, but to argue that there is a multitude of possible outcomes in Iraq that would be good enough for us to make a case that it’s time for the Iraqis to handle their own affairs without guidance and weaponry from the United States. The main objective, it seems to me, should be that Iraq, however constituted, is not a serious threat to its neighbors.

A secondary objective might be the resumption of enough oil production and export that Iraqis can finance the bulk of their own rebuilding, and do it their way rather than our (or Halliburton’s) way. To be sure, reliance on a single main resource to build an economy is a two-edged sword. Oil can provide money, which can buy other resources. But a single resource can be subject to central control more easily than an economy built on diverse resources and enterprises, and that usually means an authoritarian government that stifles the emergence of whatever entrepreneurial impulses may exist in the population, which makes the emergence of a diverse economy geared to participate in the global economy less likely.

However, oil is Iraq’s major resource. The Iraqis are likely to use it in ways that do not benefit the population at large much – though doing better than Saudi Arabia and other countries is a remote possibility if there’s a learning curve. But the major criterion for removal of U.S. troops should be the likelihood that once they leave, the country won’t become so chaotic that it poses a serious (not just a potential) threat to its neighbors. Given that the U.S. troops are themselves a magnet for foreign terrorists and jihadists, and that their presence more than likely increases the quantity of chaos rather than keeping it in check, that case shouldn’t be too difficult to make.

Whether it will be accepted, or even taken seriously, of course, is another matter. Certainly our wise and prudent counsel before the war didn’t gain much traction or effect policy much. But those who labor for the maximum freedom and peace for the maximum number of inhabitants of the earth must, almost by definition, be content with making the case to the best of our abilities. Being wise (how’s that for hubris?) does not give us the right to impose our version of wisdom on others by force. We may be frustrated that others don’t buy our advice, but resigned to the fact that oftentimes they won’t.

Tolerating Torture

For the longest time, I was relatively resigned to the idea that Alberto Gonzales was simply going to be U.S. attorney general and all the fulmination in the world would make little difference. His close relationship with W, after all, goes back a long way, he has what some people consider a compelling story as a Mexican-American who has achieved a great deal, and the Republicans have a solid majority in the Senate. Besides, the office has a long, if not especially honorable, tradition of less-than-sterling scholars of the law. Jack Kennedy appointed his brother Bobby, theretofore known mainly as a political hatchet man. Gonzales’ immediate predecessors have been Janet Reno and John Ashcroft. If either of them was fit for the job, what would it take to be unfit?

I still think he will almost certainly be confirmed. However, during the confirmation process, I have become increasingly convinced that he was more intimately involved than I had known before in a systematic or at least widespread process of undermining inhibitions against U.S. agents, agencies, and military people committing torture – or at least cruel and inhumane treatment – on prisoners, detainees, and others. I doubt we’ll be able to stop his confirmation, but perhaps there’s a chance to use the process as a way to reopen or expand the discussion of the appropriateness of torture as a policy of the U.S. government.

One of the best discussions of the issues revolving around Gonzales’ participation in the decision-making process after 9/11, especially his infamous 2002 White House Office of Legal Counsel memo [.pdf] on the U.S. statute limiting torture, is by Marty Lederman, a lawyer who used to work in the OLC himself. I’ve written on this before, but let me summarize some of my concerns.

Almost immediately following 9/11, and especially after the Afghanistan invasion, people in various branches of the government began working, as a Mafia lawyer might work when he knows his boss is up to something dastardly but wants to keep him from going to jail by avoiding certain really obvious and easily detectable crimes, to find ways to allow military, CIA, and civilian interrogators to use "enhanced" techniques to extract information from detainees.

The problem was that the 1949 Geneva Convention and a 1994 U.S. law forbid the use of torture. How to permit it? Read the Conventions and statutes very carefully to find out if there was any wiggle room. Is "cruel and inhumane" undefined or defined sloppily? Aha! Maybe we can push the definitions to permit more coercive techniques. Are there precedents for giving the president enhanced authority and power in certain emergency situations? Maybe we can push that authority a little more to say he can authorize torture or almost-torture, or perhaps immunize those who engage in it from fear of prosecution.

Now I don’t know, and I don’t know if anyone can be sure unless a lot more information comes out that is not likely to come out for years, whether all this activity, at the Department of Justice, the Defense Department, and the White House, trickled down to Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and gave those perhaps temporary perverts reason to believe that what they were doing was authorized from on high. There are strong reasons to believe so, but I’d like to know more before being definitive.

Whether authorization or winking and nodding led to Abu Ghraib or not, however, it should be shocking to any free American that government officials were so busily working to rationalize torture or near-torture. The government’s real job is to defend our rights – not to protect us as a nanny might from every real or imagined threat conceivable – and I don’t think torturing people is a good way to defend my rights. Those who sought to expand the range of permissible interrogation techniques deserve at least some exposure and (in a just world) the general disdain of decent people.

Instead, of course, most of those who participated in this unseemly endeavor, including Mr. Gonzales, have been promoted or given medals. That strikes me as a strange way to promote decent moral values.

I suspect Mr. Gonzales will be confirmed. But I hope some people in the Senate use the occasion of the vote to move beyond partisanship, to begin and expand a serious national discussion of the seemliness of torture in the misbegotten and misnamed "war on terror."

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).