As the final week of the campaign season expires (this column goes to press on October 27), George W. Bush has boiled his one-theme campaign message down to a few phrases: He is “strong” and will “stay the course,” but Senator John Kerry has a “record of weakness” and will “cut and run” in the face of terrorism. In these same days, a remarkable series by Tim Golden in the New York Times has given us one more look into what Bush’s policy has meant in practice. Golden’s subject is the creation of the military commissions to try the prisoners being held in Guantánamo. A small, tightly knit cabal of right-wing lawyers led by Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld conspired in secret (even the President’s National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and Secretary of State Colin Powell were kept in the dark) to rewrite the laws of the United States (the Constitution) and the world (mainly the Geneva Conventions) to license a free hand in interrogating the Guantánamo prisoners.
After the President had made the innovation public, Cheney stated, “We think it guarantees that we’ll have the kind of treatment of these individuals that we believe they deserve.” What they deserved, as it has turned out, was to be tortured: stripped naked, beaten, kept sleepless, threatened with dogs. Those practices–all but the beatings secretly licensed by Rumsfeld–were aimed at acquiring information needed to prosecute the “war on terror.”
But no proceedings were brought. An unexpected problem arose. The prisoners neither possessed the desired information nor had committed the offenses for which the system of drumhead justice had been instituted. One commander of Guantánamo, Maj. Gen. Michael Dunlavey, even went to Afghanistan to complain that he was being provided with the wrong prisoners. “General, please shut up and go home,” he was told, according to an officer familiar with the mission.
Resolve had been shown, the Constitution had been circumnavigated, international law had been set aside, the prisoners had been abused, the course had been stayed, but the results were nil. So far, not a single inmate of Guantánamo has been brought before a commission, much less convicted.
Golden’s story in fact fits into a pattern. Here at home, Attorney General Ashcroft has overseen the detention of some 5,000 people on suspicion of terrorism. But, as David Cole has reminded us in this magazine, not one has been successfully convicted of terrorism–the only conviction obtained having been thrown out by a federal judge in Detroit.
At Abu Ghraib, the story was the same. The torture there included the scenes of degradation and depravity made known in the infamous photographs taken by the torturers, but so far no one has suggested that information of value was thereby obtained. According to military estimates, up to 80 percent of the inmates were innocent even of involvement with the resistance movement.
The case of Yaser Hamdi, one of the few American citizens labeled an “enemy combatant” and locked away incommunicado in a Navy brig and stripped of all rights, produced the same result. As soon as the Supreme Court ordered that he had to be given judicial recourse, the Administration released him and packed him off to Saudi Arabia. No charges were brought, and none, of course, proven. Pushed to show its cards, the Administration folded. Hamdi is merely barred by agreement with Saudi Arabia from leaving that country for five years. This is what “staying the course” has come down to in his case. (In Saudi Arabia, he is as invisible as he was in the American brig.)
The point is not–heaven forbid!–that if actual terrorists had been present among the Guantánamo population, or the Ashcroft 5,000, or the prisoners of Abu Ghraib, or the “enemy combatants,” then torture would be justified. It is that the endeavor cited by the President as the raison d’être of his Administration, and therefore of his claim to a second term–protecting the United States against terrorists–is hollow in its own terms. Even Bush’s abuses are frauds–not the abuses themselves, of course, which are all too revoltingly real, but the ends in whose name they are carried out.
The generalization seems to apply not just to the judicial abuses but to the entire “war on terror.” We now know–in another recent discovery by the Times–that the Bush Administration permitted 380 tons of high explosives to be looted from a bunker in Iraq. Last year, we learned that Iraq’s nuclear repositories had been likewise left unguarded and likewise looted. But it’s too late in the day to be surprised by any of these discoveries. For what was the Iraq war itself but a gigantic diversion from the threat of Al Qaeda–a pursuit of the double mirage of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi collaboration with Al Qaeda? In Iraq as in Guantánamo, the Administration took extreme measures to meet nonexistent threats. Even the war in Afghanistan, though now approved on all sides, missed its designated target. It’s true that overthrowing the Taliban government there was a serious blow to its partner, Osama bin Laden. Yet it is a fact not to be forgotten that the Taliban was not the prime objective of the military campaign; bin Laden was, and bin Laden got away.
Across the board, from Guantánamo to Baghdad, it turns out that this Administration has done things (lock up and torment thousands, overthrow states) not because doing them advanced the cause but because it could do them.
But then why do them? A clue is offered in a comment by Timothy Flanigan, former deputy White House counsel, who commented that the establishment of the useless military commissions “communicated the message that we were at war, that this was not going to be business as usual.” As I write, the President is communicating that message with a vengeance. He hopes thereby to win a second term. But he lies. For “communicating,” not accomplishing, seems to have been the aim all along.
We arrive at a radical but inescapable conclusion. The Administration has wanted above all not to be strong but to look strong. The actuality of strength has been sacrificed to the appearance. Sometimes, these procedures have been called “incompetent,” but this misses the point. For as appearances, the actions have been brilliant. They may win George W. Bush a second term. Unless, reader, by the time you read this, you have voted him out of office.