Neocons, NYT Demand More War, Torture

The neoconservatives are drifting back into the Democratic Party fold from whence they came, attempting to limit the terms of the discourse on foreign and security policy so there will be no surprises from the new administration. Media neocons like Bill Kristol and David Brooks are jumping on the Hillary bandwagon, convinced that she will, if anything, prove to be more hawkish than her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice.

The mainstream media is also doing its bit. The New York Times leads the way in stifling any real debate, recently featuring on its opinion pages a "Transitions" series that incorporates the views of designated "experts." The choice of contributors, including Madeleine Albright, William Cohen, and Peter Bergen, has guaranteed a consensus that America’s use of its military might in the international arena is a force for good. One piece, titled "Let Russia Stop Iran," was written by three Israelis who are members of the Institute for International Security Studies, a think-tank in Tel Aviv dedicated to Israeli security.

Notable among the contributors are two leading neocons, Danielle Pletka and Reuel Marc Gerecht, both of whom support torture and war with Iran. Pletka is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and Gerecht is currently a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a think-tank that focuses heavily on Israeli security. Gerecht was also at AEI but recently lost his sinecure in a purge that reportedly was initiated by Pletka. Michael Ledeen also was removed and wound up with Gerecht at FDD, and Joshua Muravchik is also reported to be leaving AEI.

Pletka is Australian born and is reported to be a close associate of Martin Indyk, also an Australian by birth, who became U.S. ambassador to Israel under Bill Clinton. She was educated in the United States, worked in Israel and the U.S. as a journalist, and eventually found a niche on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where she served as a staffer. AEI regards her as an expert on the Middle East, though there is no evidence in her official bio that she speaks either Farsi or Arabic.

Pletka’s "The Syrian Strategy" might be described as predictable in that it dismisses diplomatic attempts to improve relations with Syria, which would, inter alia, divide it from Iran and potentially remake the status quo in the Middle East. Per Pletka, Syria has been "funneling killers into Iraq to oppose coalition forces, assassinating its opponents in Lebanon, arming Hezbollah to attack Israel, and starting a nuclear weapons program with help from North Korea," all of which are assertions that intentionally narrow the terms of the discourse but are debatable or even manifestly false.

Pletka reasons that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad "can maintain his grip on power only as long as he is seen as a vital instrument of Israel’s defeat," and she rejects those who believe that Syria actually wants to become a "normal" state, asserting that it wishes to remain a pariah. For Pletka, it’s all about Israel, but not surprisingly she provides no evidence to support her claims about Damascus. Nor does she appear to have an answer to the challenge posed by Syria apart from unrelenting hostility, a simplistic solution to a complex problem that is completely divorced from reality. Her viewpoint would appear to be undermined by the Israelis themselves, who are talking to the Syrians in Turkey.

Gerecht is a more interesting character altogether. A student of Bernard Lewis, he believes that the only thing that Muslims truly understand is the mailed fist. He has said that Iranians have "terrorism in their DNA," and he advocates negotiating with Iran only as a prelude to bombing. He currently resides in Prague, where his wife, Diane Zeleny, is director of communications for Radio Free Europe, a position she was given after being on the receiving end of a grievance filed by the American Foreign Service Association in 2006 when she broke every rule in State Department assignments to obtain a godfathered appointment to head a media response center in Brussels. Zeleny was allegedly a favorite of the redoubtable Karen Hughes, the self-styled soccer mom turned public diplomacy czarina whose gaffe-filled "listening tours" to the Muslim world were amusingly described in the world media. Gerecht has been involved in trying to establish a neocon beachhead in Europe based in Prague, an effort that has produced several security conferences featuring celebrities such as Richard Perle.

Pletka approves of the torture of terrorist suspects, but Gerecht, as a former intelligence officer, has made a study of the practice and is heavily into its benefits. Like many neocons, he is fond of the therapeutic effects of institutionalized violence but has never served in the military, preferring to leave the dirty work to others. Unlike many of his neocon colleagues, Gerecht does speak Farsi and has some actual understanding of what is going on in the Middle East, though with the usual Likudist lean in terms of how he interprets developments.

It is astonishing that the New York Times would even print a piece advocating torture, but the article is just one more indication of the access that the neocons have to the nation’s editorial pages. Gerecht’s "Out of Sight" argues that Barack Obama will undoubtedly recognize the utility of rendition, in which terrorism suspects are sent to their home countries to be interrogated, i.e., tortured. He sets his stage carefully, raising the specter of "the slaughter of civilians by Islamic holy warriors" and then posing a choice "between non-deniable aggressive questioning conducted by Americans and deniable torturous interrogations by foreigners acting on behalf of the United States." He dismisses the third option of non-coercive questioning of suspects, citing the imaginary, Jack Bauer-esque "ticking time bomb" scenario in which a terrorist has information that can stop an attack and "save thousands of civilians." Gerecht concludes by rejecting calls to close Guantanamo, because it would release an apparent horde of "enemy combatants" prepared to wreak havoc worldwide.

Curiously enough, in 2005 Gerecht was opposed to rendition. He claimed in the Weekly Standard that torture is a useful interrogation tool, similar to his current position, and he also cited the ticking-bomb fantasy, but he insisted that the abuse be carried out by American interrogators rather than foreigners. His preference was partly derived from his view that foreigners are intrinsically unreliable, but it was also shaped by his belief that the CIA should not be relinquishing control over potential sources of intelligence, or as Gerecht puts it, "willfully diminishing the flow of reliable information."

The principal flaw in Gerecht’s argument, if one might dignify it by calling it an argument, is that rendition and torture both are fallible processes that lack any mechanism to protect the innocent. Fear of arbitrary action by government is why America’s founders created a constitution that enshrined individual rights and liberties and why most Americans demand a rule of law with inbuilt safeguards, even for suspected terrorists. That Bush and Cheney have managed to pervert the system and get away with it, a development that both Gerecht and Pletka applaud, does not change the fundamental moral and legal issues.

Nor is there any actual evidence that torture has ever saved anyone’s life, much less "thousands of innocents." And it has not made the United States any safer. Washington’s torture of Muslims has created more enemies than friends around the world. "Enhanced interrogation" can also lead to other abuses, including the mistreatment of American soldiers who are captured by militants who themselves have been tortured. Selective use of torture lowers the bar for everyone. Torture is disgraceful for the government and country that order it, and it dehumanizes the CIA officers called upon to do it.

Professional interrogators know that most people subjected to torture will say anything to stop the pain, meaning that the information obtained under duress just might not be reliable. The process whereby one arrives in the torture chamber is also questionable. It is not known how many of the hundreds of people rendered to other countries for torture were actually terrorists. There are several well-documented cases of errors being made, and it has been suggested that very few renditions were justified, even if one accepts the perverted logic that established the rendition and torture programs in the first place. One might also question Gerecht’s presumption of the guilt of the prisoners at Guantanamo. He assumes they are terrorists to justify keeping the offshore prison, but there is considerable evidence that many of the inmates were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Ethically and legally there is also a long tradition of rejecting torture, which Gerecht and Pletka ignore in spite of the oft-repeated neocon insistence that policy be guided by "moral clarity." German and Japanese officers were executed after the Second World War for torturing prisoners, and the principle was firmly established that torture, including waterboarding, is a war crime. The U.S. is signatory to the UN’s anti-torture convention. But then again, Nuremberg also determined a war of aggression to be the ultimate war crime, and since both Gerecht and Pletka embraced the invasion of Iraq and welcome yet another preemptive war against Iran, one presumes that they consider themselves to be above any conventional moral or legal restraint.

Gerecht and Pletka, both of whom are inordinately fond of Israel, should also note that the Israeli Supreme Court has banned torture, and the Shin Bet security service has discovered that interrogating prisoners without coercion actually produces more and better intelligence. Many American interrogation experts would agree based on their own experience. The most pathetic thing about neocons like Pletka and Gerecht is that they frame imposing arguments to sustain a worldview in which suffering inflicted on innocent people becomes an abstraction, like a model in a political science class, completely respectable and devoid of consequences. One suspects that they can embrace torture because they know it won’t happen to them or to their friends hunkering down at their desks at AEI and FDD. Only some hapless Arab or Afghan will get the chop, and what does it matter if he’s innocent?

Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.