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September 15, 2006

Tortured Metaphors
Posted by Michael Signer

You know that old PR saw about you're losing when you're repeating your opponent's message?  (e.g. "Congressman X defended himself today against allegations that...")  You'd think Tony Snow would know better, but then, really, what's he supposed to do?  This is what he actually said in a press conference yesterday:

"Somehow I think there's this construct in people's minds that we want to restore the rack and start getting people screaming, having their bones crunching," Snow said. "And that's not at all what this is about."

Yes, that's exactly what was in my mind -- "having their bones crunching."  More likely, it's that the Administration is so haunted by how desperately, crazily wrong their whole approach is on torture and the Geneva Conventions, and how utterly they've lost touch with Congress, not to mention mainstream America, that it feels like torture.  Hence the ready metaphors.

This was a big deal yesterday.  Senator McCain has gone out of his way to cozy up to the President, yet he led a very principled charge, along with Senators Warner and Graham, to buck the Administration on their attempt to eviscerate (sorry, to interpret) Article III of the Geneva Conventions.  Amazing.  Even in an election year -- even from the Party that showed no hestitation about staging the original vote three weeks before the 2002 midterm elections -- the Senate leadership saw certain things as beyond the pale.

There is no issue that better captures the broad appreciation of America's moral stature in the world -- our ability, in the argument I have been making here and elsewhere, for "exemplarism" -- than the conscious decision not to use torture.  The exemplarist argument has always had wide appeal among the broad spectrum of internationalists, whether liberal or conservative.  Basically, if you believe (a) America should lead the world, (b) admiration, in addition to fear, has strategic value, you believe that we should avoid things like (c) scrapping generations' worth of careful international conventions against cruelty.

The Administration is so unbelievably out of touch with so many things -- American history, strategic value, their own leadership in Congress, the American people -- it's hard to explain.  But perhaps we can do it this way.  In 100 years, it will be clear that, in many respects, the Bush Administration was one of the most radical (rather than conservative or realist or idealist) we've seen in a long time.  This decision -- to eviscerate the Geneva Conventions -- can only be explained as the product of an absolute commitment to leveraging the greatest political power to the deepest, darkest principles that only the elect can access. 

The word "radical" comes from the Latin for "root."  This is dark, dank stuff.  And, incredibly, Republican Senators were the first to turn the shovel. 

Bones crunching indeed.


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Anyone who has ever worn a uniform knows Rumsfeld using the word 'quaint' in this context put their lives directly at risk. That was a shot fired at US servicemen as surely as Plame's outing was a direct shot at the CIA front line.

The long process of repairing this kind of damage can't even begin until Bush is retired and his views publicly and officially repudiated.

I'm glad Bush is having trouble pushing this through, but let's not pretend he's a complete break from America's past.

CIA, KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation, July 1963:

This 127-page report, classified Secret, was drafted in July 1963 as a comprehensive guide for training interrogators in the art of obtaining intelligence from "resistant sources." KUBARK--a CIA codename for itself--describes the qualifications of a successful interrogator, and reviews the theory of non-coercive and coercive techniques for breaking a prisoner. Some recommendations are very specific. The report recommends, for example, that in choosing an interrogation site "the electric current should be known in advance, so that transformers and other modifying devices will be on hand if needed."

Of specific relevance to the current scandal in Iraq is section nine, "The Coercive Counterintelligence Interrogation of Resistant Sources," (pp 82-104). ....

Under the subheading "Pain," the guidelines discuss the theories behind various thresholds of pain, and recommend that a subject's "resistance is likelier to be sapped by pain which he seems to inflict upon himself" such rather than by direct torture. The report suggests forcing the detainee to stand at attention for long periods of time. A section on sensory deprivations suggests imprisoning detainees in rooms without sensory stimuli of any kind, "in a cell which has no light," for example. "An environment still more subject to control, such as water-tank or iron lung, is even more effective," the KUBARK manual concludes.

That famous picture of the prisoner at Abu Ghraib -- standing on a box with a hood over his face and told that he would be electrocuted if he ever fell off -- shows the practical effect of generations of American research into torture. He was hooded for sensory deprivation, and he was made to think that any pain he felt "he seems to inflict upon himself."

This wasn't just dreamed up by the amateur sadists at Abu Ghraib.

Well, given that the new field manual has removed most coercive techniques from military interrogators, the question remains, what sort of questioning is to be left to non-military agencies. One presumes that we still intend for the FBI and CIA to perform interrogations in some fashion.

Two possibilities arise concerning Common Article III. Either a detainee is among the protected persons as described in the Geneva Conventions or he is not. If not, then shouldn't Congress provide guidance to the non-military agencies about what interrogation techniques are allowed?

Of course, it is quite natural that Congress doesn't want to get involved. No matter where they draw the line, somebody, somewhere is likely to call the allowable techniques torture. That's what happened to the Administration's attempt to provide guidance and Congress would just as soon pass.

That rather leaves the typical CIA interrogator out in the cold, doesn't it? But, so long as we can remain "exemplary," that's probably all that's important.


First, I want to thank you for your excellent article calling for a foreign policy of exemplarism. In it you contrasted the conservative notion of American exceptionalism – that America’s moral and military strength exempt us from the constraints of international law or multilateral legitimacy – with a progressive exemplarism: a call to action and leadership rooted in the best virtues of our national history.

Democrats are unlikely to win the support of Americans unless we can complement our critiques of the application of American power with an historical take on what is great about America and a vision for what we can be. Moreover, we do have many historic moments, national virtues, and foreign policy traditions that merit celebration and emulation. By studying our full history we can draw proper lessons from mistakes of the past while proudly calling our nation to live up to the best in our historic ideals and character.

My criticism, however, is that you offer little in the way of substantial progressive policies that might give some meat to the moral international leadership inherent to exemplarism. Rather than offering any new initiatives appropriate to this new era - in which democratization, globalized communications, and international interdependence require us to more carefully guard our prestige and moral authority - you frame your exemplarism in the negative and the notion of return: We should not torture. We should not lead illegitimate, ill-planned, and undermanned invasions of nations based on false premises. We should return from neoconservatism to a proper respect for multilateralism. We should return to our traditional promotion of the growth of international rule of law.

Exemplarism works as a liberal framework for celebrating American virtue in a way that is practical and satisfying to the moral left. It goes a long way toward building a foundation for a foreign policy of liberal greatness. But without a positive set of policies, appropriate to both our longing for a return to better days and the forward march of historical circumstance, exemplarism is incapable of providing the separation from rival approaches that progressives need.

On the one hand, it too easily allows any potential Republican candidate to shrug the critique off to President Bush. His administration was a radical departure; realists on both sides of the aisle desire a return to normalcy, a dismissal of ideology. The distinction you highlighted between the position taken by John McCain and that called for by exemplarism could probably be more accurately described as the difference between the diplomatic, deal-making language of a sitting Senator and the visionary rhetoric expected of a presidential candidate. John McCain will sound like quite the exemplarist on the stump.

On the other hand, it fails to win over the pessimists of the left. By criticizing present uses of American power without providing examples of how power could be more appropriately applied – more soft power and less hard, better congressional oversight mechanisms, more doubt sown into the use of intelligence and preemptive attacks, new multilateral institutions, etc. – you only raise eyebrows among those who doubt it can be done.

While valuable, this is an –ism more than a strategy. To become a strategy it would need something more: progressive initiatives with which to complement the overarching themes and moral aspirations. One possible complement to this approach can be found in Shadi Hamid’s recent argument in favor of democracy promotion as the centerpiece of US foreign policy. Such a policy is uniquely progressive in that its action is compelled by both moral and strategic imperatives. In a democratizing and interconnected world in which prestige counts, American policies that promote self-determination and liberalization in the Middle East, from educational exchange programs to diplomatic pressure to aid conditionality, would be welcomed by the people of the region. It would be received by the world as a sign that America the state is back in synch with America the ideal, and therefore worthy of the global role it takes. And over the long term America’s interests would be better served by a stable and democratic Middle East.

Another possible complement to exemplarism might lie in the broader program of strengthening weak states (see here or here). Because of the growing interdependence of nations, those states that are incapable of meeting their basic obligations to their citizens often spawn transnational threats like contagious disease, radical ideology, small weapons traffic, and conflict. These threats have become increasingly dangerous for American national interests. To meet the various challenges of states a variety of tools would be used, whether that means military cooperation to improve maritime security, USAID grants to improve primary healthcare systems, or diplomatic support for democratizing reform. Since American intervention is impracticable in many states, we need to invest in new multilateral institutions to add to our foreign policy tools. By taking the lead on these global developmentalist efforts, America would earn international support for its leadership while simultaneously investing in our long-term interests.

So there’s my two cents. I only want to engage your approach because I find so much in it to like. Upon a foundation of exemplarism and its thoughtful answer to the exceptionalism of conservatives, I am hopeful Democrats can find a new foreign policy that avoids both amoral realism and irresponsible isolationism, wins the support of a broad constituency within our party, and puts a true progressive in the White House in 2008.

The Koran expressly Commands World Jihad and World Domination for Islam. Here are the verses:

The senators have caved--let the bone crunching continue

WaPo Editorial: The Abuse Can Continue
Senators won't authorize torture, but they won't prevent it, either. Friday, September 22, 2006

THE GOOD NEWS about the agreement reached yesterday between the Bush administration and Republican senators on the detention, interrogation and trial of accused terrorists is that Congress will not -- as President Bush had demanded -- pass legislation that formally reinterprets U.S. compliance with the Geneva Conventions. Nor will the Senate explicitly endorse the administration's use of interrogation techniques that most of the world regards as cruel and inhumane, if not as outright torture. Trials of accused terrorists will be fairer than the commission system outlawed in June by the Supreme Court.

The bad news is that Mr. Bush, as he made clear yesterday, intends to continue using the CIA to secretly detain and abuse certain terrorist suspects. He will do so by issuing his own interpretation of the Geneva Conventions in an executive order and by relying on questionable Justice Department opinions that authorize such practices as exposing prisoners to hypothermia and prolonged sleep deprivation. Under the compromise agreed to yesterday, Congress would recognize his authority to take these steps and prevent prisoners from appealing them to U.S. courts. The bill would also immunize CIA personnel from prosecution for all but the most serious abuses and protect those who in the past violated U.S. law against war crimes.

In short, it's hard to credit the statement by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) yesterday that "there's no doubt that the integrity and letter and spirit of the Geneva Conventions have been preserved." In effect, the agreement means that U.S. violations of international human rights law can continue as long as Mr. Bush is president, with Congress's tacit assent. If they do, America's standing in the world will continue to suffer, as will the fight against terrorism.

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