Tuesday, December 07, 2004

The Absence of Opposition 

Via our revered colleagues at Cursor, highlights from a Mother Jones interview with NYRB and New Yorker correspondent Mark Danner, whose new book is Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War On Terror. Danner argues that the "moment of defeat" in that war "could come and go and we would never know it"; if, in other words, the terrorists "cause us to dispense with our values -- our belief in human rights, our adherence to laws we have passed that commit the U.S. not to torture -- if we have abrogated those, doesn’t that constitute the victory of the other side that we talk about? And if it doesn’t, what is the line you have to cross so that it does?"
MJ.com: Could John Kerry have made more of this during the election, and do you think that would have resonated?

MD: I think the Democratic Party was perfectly willing to take the political work that was accomplished by the photographs in the scandal, which in effect reduced President Bush’s approval rating by somewhere between 5 and 10 points last spring; but I don’t think they were willing to run with it. And because [Kerry] was running away from the charges that he had criticized Americans in a time of war for committing atrocities, he was singularly ill equipped to use the Abu Ghraib issue. So I think they stayed away from this and just kept it at arm’s length. It’s a politically defensible position. But I obviously would have strongly preferred that the Democrats and Kerry himself take this as a major issue.

MJ.com: Looking at the reaction in the Middle East and Iraq, do you think the Bush administration has done anything to mitigate the terrible PR it got -- and is getting -- from the prisoner abuse revelations?

MD: No, I don’t. One of the remarkable things about this whole affair is that it’s been spectacular propaganda damage to the United States. It supplied a brand image for American repression: I’m talking about the hooded-man image, which now is recognizable all over the Middle East and the Islamic world as a symbol of the United States and the horrors it inflicts on Muslims. Osama bin Laden, had he gone to Madison Avenue and asked for an advertising image for jihad -- even the best firm couldn’t have come up with anything better than those images. One of the interesting things about the invasion and the occupation -- and indeed, the U.S. efforts in the Middle East since 9/11 -- is the complete incompetence of so-called public diplomacy. The American belief that all you have to do is communicate better is singularly unfounded in this case. It’s not only that people have been incompetent and the efforts have been a disaster; it’s also that the underlying case is difficult to make. The United States is occupying Iraq and waging a fairly brutal occupation . . . .

MJ.com: In the documents, one of the figures that comes up in the debates regarding torture and international law is Alberto Gonzalez. How significant was his role in shaping the administration’s policy?

MD: He was clearly the president’s point man for dealing with the issue of interrogation and torture in the administration. It was his role to guide the decision that eventually resulted in withholding Geneva Convention protection for prisoners in Afghanistan. So far as we know, he drafted the president’s letter determining that such protection would be withheld. He also seems to be the person who elicited from the Department of Justice the so-called torture memo, which attempts to give an extremely narrow definition of torture. The memo also asserted that the president has the power to order anything he wants. It’s a remarkable assertion of executive power in the face of laws which explicitly forbid torture. It essentially asserts a view that it is only illegal if the president says it is, which is kind of a royalist view of power that is dramatically in contrast with the historical view of the U.S. as a republic, frankly. I think there are very few people in the administration who are as important in all of these decisions as Gonzalez. One of the big questions will be when he comes before the Senate, to what degree these matters are raised and whether the Democrats take the opportunity to take these questions before the American people.

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