Categories
Morality National Security The War on Terrorism

Does Torture Work?

Lt-Col Vandeveld, a former military prosecutor at Guantanamo:

Torture may result in reliable information — no question about that. But is torture reconcilable with our basic humanity or with America’s desire to be an example to the rest of the world? The answer is no. Torture, however you define it, is wrong, appalling, immoral.

While the overall point Vandeveld is making – that America should not torture – is one I would expect, his initial hedging – “Torture may result in reliable information” surprised me. Aside from top-level political appointees, I’m not sure that I’ve seen anyone in the military in fields related to interrogation acknowledge that torture might work. And many spoke out against it.

What I’ve seen more of are comments like that of “Matthew Alexander” – a pseudonym used to protect the interrogator’s identity. He was one of the interrogators whose information led to the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He wrote:

I should have felt triumphant when I returned from Iraq in August 2006. Instead, I was worried and exhausted. My team of interrogators had successfully hunted down one of the most notorious mass murderers of our generation, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the mastermind of the campaign of suicide bombings that had helped plunge Iraq into civil war. But instead of celebrating our success, my mind was consumed with the unfinished business of our mission: fixing the deeply flawed, ineffective and un-American way the U.S. military conducts interrogations in Iraq. I’m still alarmed about that today.

I’m not some ivory-tower type; I served for 14 years in the U.S. Air Force, began my career as a Special Operations pilot flying helicopters, saw combat in Bosnia and Kosovo, became an Air Force counterintelligence agent, then volunteered to go to Iraq to work as a senior interrogator. What I saw in Iraq still rattles me – both because it betrays our traditions and because it just doesn’t work. [my emphasis]

This refrain comes up again and again among interrogators. Most of the public debate though has been driven by people like Senator John McCain and Captain Ian Fishback opposed torture for moral reasons.

McCain:

The enemy we fight has no respect for human life or human rights. They don’t deserve our sympathy. But this isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies, and we can never, never allow our enemies to take those values away.

Fishback:

…the most important question that this generation will answer [is] Do we sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security? Terrorism inspires fear and suppresses ideals like freedom and individual rights. Overcoming the fear posed by terrorist threats is a tremendous test of our courage. Will we confront danger and adversity in order to preserve our ideals, or will our courage and commitment to individual rights wither at the prospect of sacrifice? My response is simple. If we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession. I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is ‘America.

This should be our primary reason for opposing torture. But a secondary reason is that most interrogators have stated that it simply doesn’t work if your goal is to get quality information from detainees. Most torture techniques were designed as punishment or to elicit confessions – not to get information. For example, the techniques we use were used by the Soviets to get confessions for show trials and the North Vietnamese for propaganda videos.

Most experts seem to acknowledge that torture is good for one thing – breaking down a person’s will, perhaps driving them insane, and forcing them to agree with the torturer. This is what has happened in America’s torture program – as detainees confessed to things they did not do and gave information about connections between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda that Americans wanted to know about but did not exist.

Whether or not torture works is a secondary question – but an important one nevertheless.

Categories
Election 2008 McCain Obama Politics

McCain Bipartisanship vs. Obama Bipartisanship

[digg-reddit-me]McCain has branded himself “The Original Maverick”. He bases this assertion of his brand on the numerous times he has gone against his party and, in another branding phrase, “Put Country First.” He and his surrogates have asked constantly – and some more independent-minded writers have also asked – “When has Obama challenged his party in a way similar to McCain?” The implication, and sometimes the outright attack, is that Obama is unable or unwilling to challenge the Democratic party in the same way McCain is willing to challenge the Republican party. A good example of this is in Rick Warren’s questions to McCain and Obama at the Saddleback forum. Warren asked McCain:

John, you know that a lot of good legislation dies because of partisan politics, and party loyalty keeps people from really getting forward on putting America’s best first. Can you give me an example of where you led against your party’s interests — oh, this is hard — (LAUGHTER) — and really, maybe against your own best interests for the good of America?

For John McCain, the answers to this question are clear – he stood against his party on the issue of torture (although he later qualified his initial opposition to torturing); he stood against his party on the issue of global warming; he challenged the Bush administration on how they were handling the Iraq war; he stood against his party on Bush’s tax cuts (although he again completely reversed positions on this issue); he stood against the base of his party on the issue of immigration; and he stood against his party on the issue of campaign finance reform.1

In all of these cases, McCain stood against his party and with the Democrats. His positions were not “bi-partisan” – they were examples of a Republican acknowledging his party had the wrong position.

He went against his party’s interests because he clearly believed his party had the wrong position for America. It is also worth noting that the Republican party on all of these issues had blatantly wrong and unserious positions. Defending torture? Denying global warming despite the widespread consensus of scientists? Rick Warren’s question presumes that Republicans and Democrats are both equally wrong about the issues – and that we can get past this impasse by compromising. But that is not, in fact, the situation. He didn’t compromise and wasn’t bipartisan – he took the side of his political opponents because his party had taken an untenable position. That takes a measure of courage, but to demand Obama take stands against his party, you first have to identify similar no-brainer issues on which the Democratic party has taken a side. Obama instead is faulted for partisanship, in part, for having the same position on these issues as McCain. McCain, for coming to the same conclusions, is a maverick. What few acknowledge is that on the issues on which McCain has stood against his party, they have clearly been in the wrong.

The wedge issues of the 1990s divided the country between conservatives and liberals who competing ideologies – abortion, gun rights, affirmative action, welfare, homosexuality2 – these were issues in which both sides had entrenched positions – and on which the country was in broad and deep disagreement. These are issues on which bipartisanship and moderation and federalism are the only solutions – because to legislate either side would leave half of the population in extremely strong disagreement. And it is worth noting that on these issues Obama has embraced bipartisanship – which he understands to mean finding goals both sides agree on related to these issues (from his speech in Denver):

We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country.

(APPLAUSE)

The — the reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gang violence in Cleveland, but don’t tell me we can’t uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals.

(APPLAUSE)

I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in a hospital and to live lives free of discrimination.

(APPLAUSE)

You know, passions may fly on immigration, but I don’t know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers.

McCain has rejected bipartisanship on these issues in his presidential campaign – embracing a hard right position on abortion and an enforcement first approach to immigration. His examples of embracing “bipartisanship” are really just examples of him taking the Democratic position.

It’s worth noting in the days ahead how differently these two men define bipartisanship. Obama defines it as working with people you disagree with to find common goals; McCain defines it as standing with the Democrats when he can they are clearly in the right.

  1. I have left out McCain’s Gang of Fourteen compromise which secured the appointments of Roberts and Alito – which is a rare case of McCain’s actual bipartisanship. However, it is worth noting that McCain’s bipartisanship in this instance did not actually result in a compromise for the Republicans – but in a total victory for them. []
  2. And government spending fits in here too, but not as neatly, so I will reserve this issue. []
Categories
Election 2008 Law McCain Morality National Security Politics The War on Terrorism

Grandstanding McCain: Despite Fine Words, He Refused to Act on Torture

[digg-reddit-me]
[Image by SoggyDan licensed under Creative Commons.]

On September 16, 2005 a captain in the army wrote a letter to Senator John McCain. The captain had commanded troops in Iraq and witnessed what he described as “a wide range of abuses [of American-held prisoners] including death threats, beatings, broken bones, murder, exposure to elements, extreme forced physical exertion, hostage-taking, stripping, sleep deprivation and degrading treatment.” He attempted to determine what standards governed the treatment of detainees as he reported these abuses up the chain of command – but was given no guidance. He had written to many military and political officials, informing them of what was going on and asking for guidance, despite being told by the military brass that he was committing career suicide. He wrote letters to anyone he thought might be able to help him – but no one responded.

Finally, on Finally, on September 16, 2006, this captain wrote a letter to Senator John McCain. The letter concluded:

…the most important question that this generation will answer [is] Do we sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security? Terrorism inspires fear and suppresses ideals like freedom and individual rights. Overcoming the fear posed by terrorist threats is a tremendous test of our courage. Will we confront danger and adversity in order to preserve our ideals, or will our courage and commitment to individual rights wither at the prospect of sacrifice? My response is simple. If we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession. I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is “America.” [My emphasis.]

John McCain was so moved by this letter that he pushed for it to be published in the Washington Post, began drafting legislation to stop America from torturing it’s prisoners, and began publicly pushing the Bush administration on the issue in the press. On November 4, 2005, in the middle of this fight Senator John McCain issued a sober call for to reform our intelligence-gathering and

What should also be obvious is that the intelligence we collect must be reliable and acquired humanely, under clear standards understood by all our fighting men and women. To do differently not only offends our values as Americans, but undermines our war effort, because abuse of prisoners harms – not helps – us in the war on terror. First, subjecting prisoners to abuse leads to bad intelligence, because under torture a detainee will tell his interrogator anything to make the pain stop. Second, mistreatment of our prisoners endangers U.S. troops who might be captured by the enemy – if not in this war, then in the next. And third, prisoner abuses exact on us a terrible toll in the war of ideas, because inevitably these abuses become public. When they do, the cruel actions of a few darken the reputation of our country in the eyes of millions. American values should win against all others in any war of ideas, and we can’t let prisoner abuse tarnish our image.

Senator McCain concluded his remarks by echoing the army captain:

We should do it not because we wish to coddle terrorists. We should do it not because we view them as anything but evil and terrible. We should do it, Mr. President, because we are Americans, and because we hold ourselves to humane standards of treatment of people no matter how evil or terrible they may be. America stands for a moral mission, one of freedom and democracy and human rights at home and abroad. We are better than these terrorists, and we will we win. I have said it before but it bears repeating: The enemy we fight has no respect for human life or human rights. They don’t deserve our sympathy. But this isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies, and we can never, never allow our enemies to take those values away. [My emphasis.]

Responding to criticisms that he was being overly moralistic in attempting to prohibit Americans from torturing, McCain told George Stephanopoulos said:

In that million-to-one situation, then the President of the United States would authorize and then take responsibility for it

Despite heavy criticism from the right-wing, McCain had proposed what became known as the McCain Anti-Torture Amendment (and later the Detainee Treatment Act.)1 The right-wing excoriated McCain for leaving America defenseless and the Bush administration pleaded with McCain to amend the language of his amendment, threatening to veto any measure that impinged on the president’s authority to torture people. Under great pressure, McCain limited the bill’s specific language to only cover the military, leaving out the CIA. Although the bill called for an end to all torture of prisoners by Americans, it only gave specific and binding direction to the military. Further undermining the anti-torture provisions, President Bush issued a signing statement that suggested the law violated the Constitution and that it should not be considered binding.

In 2006, the Bush administration began to push for a bill that concerned the issue of torture. McCain initially requested that the bill include the explicit protections of the Geneva Conventions. The Bush administration conceded to McCain’s requests and included these protections, but undermined this passage with a provision that gave the president authority to determine what acts were consistent with and inconsistent with the Geneva Conventions. Again, McCain’s stand against torture won him plaudits, but only served to authorize the president’s power to use whatever methods he personally deemed “not torture”.

In February 2008, a number of top Democrats on the Intelligence Committee became concerned that the CIA was continuing to torture prisoners despite assurances by the administration to McCain that they had stopped those practices due to McCain’s public pressure. The Democrats sought to close the loophole left by the McCain Anti-Torture Amendment, and reaching out to McCain for support, they were surprised to be rebuffed.

McCain explained his opposition to what became known as the Feinstein Amendment, saying that the current law was sufficiently clear and that:

We always supported allowing the CIA to use extra measures…

He continued to repeat his claim that:

I obviously don’t want to torture any prisoners.

Yet, despite reports of ongoing torture, he refused to back a law with teeth that would actually prevent torture. His first two attempts had been considered noble failures by human rights activists who worked with Senator McCain. They admired him for standing up to the Bush administration and calling on America to be better – and even if he hadn’t actually accomplished what he had set out to do. Now – with a Democratic Congress ready to push the issue and actually pass an enforceable law ending official American torture, McCain balked. He even suggested the president veto the bill if it was passed. Such was the moral authority he had built up on the issue that his standing against the amendment effectively quashed it.

What does it say about a man’s character that he hears the call of injustice and composes a powerful defense of American values and becomes the public face of opposition to torture – and then he accepts a compromise that gives him only a symbolic victory? And then, given another chance to put an end to this practice he has condemned in no uncertain terms, he again mounts a public defense and accepts a symbolic victory that reinforces the position he has condemend? And then, given a chance to support a bill that would truly end torture, he opposes it and encourages the president to veto it? His words promise so much more than his deeds deliver.2

While Senator John McCain was the only official Captain Ian Fishback reached out to that responded to his call for leadership, McCain failed the test Captain Fishback put to him. McCain chose to “sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security” and  give up some part “of the idea that is America.” He accepted plaudits and symbolic victories, but when given the chance to act on his fine words and professed ideals, he declined.

I admired the McCain who fought against torture when no other Republican would. I admired him despite the compromises he made. I could not admire the way he declined to back up his words once the opportunity was given to him.

Both the liberal law professor Glenn Greenwald and the conservative columnist Andrew C. McCarthy use the same word to describe McCain’s opposition to torture: “grandstanding.”

N.B. This post was written in the midst of an obviously contentious election campaign – one in which I had strongly considered supporting John McCain but after careful evaluation, had come to the conclusion that Barack Obama was the only candidate suited to our current challenges. While I stand by the content of the post, in retrospect, the tone is a bit overheated. That said – the fact that McCain would backtrack on this issue that was at the core of his reputation for moral authority is a testament to how this issue has become one of the issues in the new “culture war” – this one over national security. 

  1. All told, the position outlined and taken by McCain to this point is a serious one – and one which I mainly agree with. []
  2. As with Georgia. []
Categories
Election 2008 Foreign Policy Humor Iraq McCain Politics The War on Terrorism

Evaluating McCain’s ‘realistic idealism’


[Photo courtesy of christhedunn.]

[digg-reddit-me]In an article in the New York Times evaluating John McCain’s foreign policy vision, Lawrence Eagleburger, secretary of state under the first President George Bush, described a fight currently being waged within the Republican party over the potential direction of McCain’s foreign policy: “It may be too strong a term to say a fight is going on over John McCain’s soul. But … there is at least going to be an attempt.” Eagleburger was referring to was the foreign policy chasm between the Republican party of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan1 , and George H. W. Bush and the Republican party of George W. Bush; between the realists and the idealists; between the paleo-cons and the neo-cons.

John McCain been playing both sides of this intra-Republican war since George W. Bush took office. In his most prominent speech on foreign policy, he described himself as a “realistic idealist.” He explained that his particular approach to the world came from his idealistic core being tempered by “hard experience.” He claims to bridge the chasm between these two approaches, and through his career he has mainly managed to assuage both sides. On the most prominent issue in recent years, Iraq, most of the pragmatists questioned, and often publicly opposed, the decision to launch a preemptive war in the Middle East; the neo-cons were the main proponents of the war. McCain managed to placate both sides by criticizing the execution of the war and the tactical decisions of the Bush administration while defending the overall strategy strongly. In this, McCain was essentially taking the neo-con side in the long-term, but allying himself for the short-term with the realists.

Though this approach has worked well for McCain as a senator, it would be impossible to continue as president because McCain would then have responsibility for both the overall strategy of the War on Terrorism and the tactics used.

For the moment, both the realist camps and the neo-conservative camps believe McCain is on their side at heart. But he can’t be on both sides. If we are to try to figure out what a McCain foreign policy would look like, it is unhelpful to list the specific policies and attitudes he has stated he will adopt towards particular nations. Foreign policy is a constantly shifting, adjusting use of power – and the single area of policy most directly and completely within the control of the executive. What is useful in trying to figure out what a McCain foreign policy would look like is an understanding of the basic assumptions McCain has about foreign policy.

  1. A focus, first and foremost, on the overriding and existential threat of “radical Islamist extremism.”
    McCain considers problems such as China’s rise, Russia’s increasing belligerence, and global climate change as far less important than the defining “national security challenge of our time.” I posited in an earlier post that it is because of the importance of the fight against Islamist extremism that McCain has flip-flopped on so many other domestic and national security issues: “After September 11, McCain had found a new enemy that was greater than the corruption of the political process and he was willing to put aside all of his domestic agenda to focus on the new enemy.”
  2. A demand for moral clarity.
    McCain has, throughout his career, sought enemies to fight. His personal sense of his self seems to demand that he be the white knight and those opposing him be the forces of evil itself. This is an exaggeration certainly2 , but this demand for absolute clarity leads to a poor understanding of the world, especially of our enemies. For example, McCain does not merely lack an understanding of the Muslim world; his positions indicate he has imposed a particular ideological framework on his understanding – a framework which does not allow for distinctions among radical groups.3 While many on the right praise McCain’s moral clarity for condemning radical Islamist extremists as the evil-doers they are, it seems an unquestionably poor strategy in a War on Terrorism to unite our enemies instead of attempting to divide them. It is notable that McCain does not mention the clear and tactically vital divisions among our enemies and among our allies in the Middle East. The words “Sunni” or “Shia” are not mentioned in either of McCain’s two attempts to lay out his entire foreign policy. In this way, McCain is continuing the tradition of George W. Bush.
  3. Iraq as the central front in the War on Terrorism.
    McCain cites Al Qaeda as proof that Iraq is a central front in the War on Terrorism. But Sun Tzu, ancient and wise author of The Art of War, has said that one of the first steps to winning a war is to choose the battlefield that gives you the most advantages. Al Qaeda apparently feels that Iraq plays to their advantages. In many ways, they are right. In an extraordinary article in The New Republic, Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank write of the “jihadist revolt against Bin Laden.” They cite a range of Muslim religious leaders, former and current terrorists, and a man described the “the ideological father of Al Qaeda” who were sympathetic to Bin Laden, even after September 11, who have all publicly broken from Al Qaeda in the past several years4 . Bergen and Cruickshank caution that:

    Most of these clerics and former militants, of course, have not suddenly switched to particularly progressive forms of Islam or fallen in love with the United States (all those we talked to saw the Iraqi insurgency as a defensive jihad)

    But Bergen and Cruickshank still believe that the anti-Al Qaeda positions of these radicals are making Americans safer. John McCain refuses to differentiate between the insurgency and the forces of Al Qaeda in Iraq – an enormous tactical blunder. And it is mainly because of this confusion that he has declared that Iraq is the central front of the War on Terrorism, when in fact, it is one of the few areas that unite jihadists opposed to Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda itself. 5

  4. Premised on the exclusive power of nation-states.
    In contrast to Richard Haas, editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, who believes we are in an age of non-polarity with non-state forces multiplying and state power dispersing, McCain premises his foreign policy on the power of nation-states – both America’s power and that of other nations – to affect virtually every area of policy. As McCain sets forth his foreign policy vision, he describes his policy country by country; for those issues he considered global, he describes how he will get other countries to act with us. While his aims here are clearly worthy, he seems to misunderstand how the world has been developing since the end of the Cold War. This assumption also underlies his focus on Iraq in the War on Terrorism. Even as Al Qaeda did much of the planning for it’s attacks in the lawless areas of Pakistan and within the free societies of Berlin, London, and New York City, McCain, like Bush, has focused on the role of states in assisting terrorism. Although this is certainly one component of any War Against Terrorism, it clearly should not be the main focus. One of the achievements of four years of a McCain presidency would be, according to a speech given by the candidate two weeks ago, that “There is no longer any place in the world al Qaeda can consider a safe haven.” Certainly a worthy goal – but it is belied by the fact that Al Qaeda can function within the freedoms offered by a Western democracy. The theory underpinning this claim, this hope, of McCain’s is that Al Qaeda can only function with some form of state sponsorship – which does not seem to be a supportable assumption.
  5. Demonstrations of toughness.
    Since John F. Kennedy suffered through his meeting with Kruschev in Vienna6 , presidents have been trying to prove their toughness to the world. The Cuban Missile Crisis was mainly a demonstration of toughness on the part of Kennedy; Lyndon Johnson pushed the line in Vietnam to show he was tough; Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada to demonstrate his toughness after retreating when attacked by Muslim extremists in Lebanon; Bill Clinton bombed countries to show his toughness; George W. Bush invaded Iraq and authorized torture. In the current campaign, each of the remaining candidates has tried to demonstrate their toughness in revealing ways. Hillary Clinton threatened to obliterate Iran; Barack Obama vowed to take out Bin Laden or a top Al Qaeda operative with or without Pakistan’s permission; John McCain has promised to continue the War in Iraq. The lesson I take from the historical examples is that “demonstrations of toughness” provide a boost domestically for a short time but rarely make the desired impression internationally, and are an exceptionally bad basis for a policy. McCain, by promising not to back down from Al Qaeda in Iraq, is buying into the Bush doctrine of replacing a genuine strategy to combat terrorism with “demonstrations of toughness”.
  6. Acting as “good global citizens.”
    This is the central difference between John McCain’s foreign policy vision and George W. Bush’s. He believes it is important that America act as a “good global citizen” and a good ally. For McCain, this means working internationally to combat global climate change, being open to persuasion by our allies, ending the policy of military torture of detainees7 , and numerous goodwill gestures. The Bush administration has begun to move in this direction in his second term already. McCain would be able to move further along, and could make genuine progress on global climate change.
  7. Inherent American exceptionalism.
    This idea is directly related to McCain’s demand for moral clarity. Just as he sees himself as essentially incorruptible, so he sees America. This idealization of America is what made his opposition to torture so inspiring. He was calling on the ideal conception of America to combat a corrupting evil which had been introduced into our system. In a similar way, he used his ideal conception of America to argue for the reform of our political process in his 2000 campaign. His foreign policy though demonstrates how this can be a very bad assumption to make. It is one thing to point to American history and to say that we have been an exceptional nation – as Obama regularly does. McCain implies an inherence to America’s goodness, one that exists irrespective of our actions. This assumption underlies McCain’s insistence that the decision to invade Iraq was right8 ; that the Bush administration’s strategy in the War on Terrorism is essentially sound; that a change in tone is what is mainly needed to rally our allies; that we remain the world’s “only monument of human rights” in spite of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, secret prisons, torture, and Iraq; that we must still “protect and promote” democracy to the Middle East; and that America offers a “unique form of leadership – the antithesis of empire – [which] gives us moral credibility, which is more powerful than any show of arms9 .” This is a dangerous idea in a large part because it is not shared by most of the world. For example, although we can declare we are the “antithesis of empire”, we will still be treated as one as long as we are projecting our military, economic, and political power around the world and occupying a sovereign nation.

Some questions remain about McCain’s basic views on foreign policy – many stemming from his triangulation between the neo-cons and realists for the past decade. I’ll be posting some of them later.

  1. One could argue that Ronald Reagan was not a pragmatist, but many of his administration were, and his foreign policy was essentially pragmatism wedded to extreme rhetoric. []
  2. Hopefully. []
  3. As his comments in Iraq made clear. Those who would defend McCain as having “mis-spoke” can look to at least three instances when he expressed the same idea. []
  4. Most since 2005. []
  5. The distinction here should be a bit more subtle as the jihadists referenced by Bergen and Cruickshank oppose Al Qaeda’s tactics in Iraq, so they are not totally united on that issue. []
  6. And probably before. []
  7. Torture by the CIA is apparently still a deliberately gray area. []
  8. For if America is inherently good, it cannot be ill-motivated. []
  9. One of McCain’s top foreign policy advisors, Niall Ferguson, wrote a book explaining that by virtually any definition, America is an empire. []
Categories
Domestic issues Election 2008 Foreign Policy Iraq McCain Politics The War on Terrorism

A Moderate Reputation: Explaining McCain’s Changes of Heart

McCain
Image by Wigwam Jones.

[digg-reddit-me]The purest treasure mortal times afford
Is spotless reputation.
That away,
Man are but gilded loam or painted clay.
-William Shakespeare

John McCain has a reputation as an independent, a moderate and a maverick. This reputation is his greatest asset – far more important than his speaking ability or war record or anything else. It is the reason he was the Republican best positioned to keep the White House with the political tide clearly favoring the Democrats.

He built this reputation over many years by repeatedly taking stands against his party in the 1990s – on campaign finance reform, on tobacco legislation, and on pork spending – and in the early years of the Bush administration – on torture, on tax cuts, and on immigration reform – and by then staking his presidential campaign on the issue of Iraq against the political zeitgeist. But since his political near-death experience this past summer, McCain has either softened his opposition to the Republican Party line or embraced it, potentially destroying this reputation. The famous aphorism states: “Good will, like a good name, is got by many actions, and lost by one.”

So, there is a great deal at stake when the question is asked: Why did he change his positions?

For those who do not wish to give McCain the benefit of the doubt, the answer is obvious: he is pandering to win an election. For those who do wish to give McCain that benefit, the answer is less clear. Generally, the defenses of these changes in position range from denying there has been a change to explaining in various ways how the change shows consistency to a whole hodge-podge of other excuses.

As someone who was an admirer of Mr. McCain’s in 2000 and through the early years of the Bush administration; as someone who talked to and emailed all of my friends asking them to support McCain in his primary fight in 20001 ; as someone who believes that politicians are politicians even if their reputations are golden2 – I see three plausible and non-exclusive explanations for McCain’s change that are consistent with his appeal, his reputation, and his career.

1. McCain’s Last Chance for Glory

Coming into the 2008 race as the establishment candidate, McCain saw his last chance to become president slipping through his fingers, because of his unorthodoxy.  He who had once described himself as the unrepentant champion of lost causes, decided to reconcile himself to the Republican base and reject these initial stands, these bases on which his reputation was built. This is the explanation that both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have offered up:

“There was a time when some Republicans like John McCain agreed with me,” Obama said, of his calls to roll back Bush’s temporary tax cuts for the richest Americans instead of making those tax cuts permanent.

“There was a time when Senator McCain courageously defied the fiscal madness of massive tax cuts for the wealthy in the midst of a costly war,” Obama said.  “That was before he started running for the Republican nomination and fell in line.”

2. Unprincipled Moderation

McCain was never truly a conservative in the Burkean sense or a man of strong principles, but merely a political moderate who has been constantly seeking the center ground, no matter how far the center shifts. During the Reagan years, McCain comfortably held the right-center. After Bill Clinton’s election, McCain operated in the left center. In 2000, with a mainly pragmatic liberal consensus, McCain campaigned as a moderate liberal. As Bush pulled the country right, so McCain went – but this time with a bit of a lag. McCain’s response to Bush’s radicalism is to accommodate it. Now, running in a Republican primary, McCain has adapted – and running for president in the general, he will again. His “principled stands” were merely accidents of history, or perhaps occasionally orchestrated stands to enhance his reputation.

3. Manichaeism

McCain has always sought enemies in his career – and has organized all of his political positions by who he saw as the most serious enemy. The Soviet Union provided the first threat which ordered all of his political priorities, and so he entered Congress as a self-confessed ideologue, a “foot soldier” in the Reagan Revolution. He was a conservative Republican. With the fall of the U.S.S.R., he needed to find a new enemy. By the mid-1990s he settled on corruption in Washington. He backed campaign finance legislation to limit the influence of the lobbyists and big money contributors; he championed the Line Item Veto Act of 1996 to eliminate pork spending3 . Identifying another enemy he pushed to increase cigarette taxes to fund anti-smoking campaigns with the backing of the Clinton administration. When he launched his 2000 presidential campaign he said his goal was to “take our government back from the power brokers and special interests and return it to the people and the noble cause of freedom it was created to serve.” In a perfect encapsulation of his fervent yet ironic crusade, he compared his campaign to Luke Skywalker attacking the Death Star of special interests (including the Religious Right and the Republican establishment.)

After September 11, McCain had found a new enemy that was greater than the corruption of the political process and he was willing to put aside all of his domestic agenda to focus on the new enemy. So, McCain’s changes in position reflect his changing ranking of enemies.  He is willing to compromise all of his past positions because they are insignificant in the face of islamist extremism.

Concluding Thoughts

These are the three explanations that I have come up with consistent with McCain’s career, his character, and his politics. In the end, I think each explanation plays a role – but the dominant explanation seems to be the final one. It most fully explains McCain’s appeal, his reputation, and the timing of his changes. And frankly, it is the reason why I would be most wary of a McCain presidency now, at this moment in history.

  1. I also was a fan of Bill Bradley. []
  2. This includes Barack Obama – my favored candidate this go-round. []
  3. A victory which was overturned by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional in 1998. []
Categories
Election 2008 Foreign Policy McCain Political Philosophy Politics The War on Terrorism

Killing the United Nations

[digg-reddit-me]Comments like these by Charles Krauthammer on McCain’s plan to create a League of Democracies1 make you realize what is at stake in the coming election:

“What I like about it, it’s got a hidden agenda,” Krauthammer said March 27 on Fox News. “It looks as if it’s all about listening and joining with allies, all the kind of stuff you’d hear a John Kerry say, except the idea here, which McCain can’t say but I can, is to essentially kill the U.N.”

It’s clear that McCain’s primary foreign policy instincts are Manichean, and that it seems likely that he would continue the worst of Bush’s policies, rather than following in the tradition of Dwight Eisenhower, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.

It is only because of the contrast between the radical, ideological “conservatism” of the Bush administration that McCain’s policy positions appear reasonable today.

This “reality-based conservatism” of McCain’s led him to question the initial push to go into Iraq for a while; to stand against torture for a while; to reject Bush’s tax cuts in a time of war at first; to champion immigration reform for quite a while. But as he saw his last chance to become president slipping through his fingers, John McCain, who had once described himself as the unrepentant champion of lost causes, decided to reconcile himself to the Republican base and reject many of the principles he stood for.

Since his political near-death experience this summer, McCain has moderated his opposition to torture (refusing to extend its prohibition to the CIA), given up on immigration reform (focusing instead on cracking down on undocumented immigrants), stopped hinting to the press that he would withdraw from Iraq if there wasn’t sufficient progress (as was widely reported in the summer of 2007), embraced Bush’s tax cuts (after calling them irresponsible and regressive). Some have called this shifts part an indication of his conservatism in the tradition of Edmund Burke. But what these observers fail to understand is the radical nature of the Bush presidency.

Edmund Burke believed that we must balance accommodation to the reality of our times with our core values. He believed in gradual change and opposed sudden changes in policy – but he also stridently opposed the radicalism of the French Revolution which had a similar foreign policy to the Bush administration, seeking to export the values of liberty, fraternity, and equality through the force of arms2

The irony is that McCain’s defenders, including Jonathan Rauch, defend his accommodations to radicalism by invoking the immutable opponent of radicalism, Edmund Burke himself.

  1. An idea which I believe could make a positive impact under certain circumstances. []
  2. As pseudoconservativewatch (an excellent Google find) explained:

    Edmund Burke invented the articulate philosophy of modern conservatism on the very basis of his critique of the French Revolution (see his Reflections on the Revolution in France). And yet in twenty-first century America, many who call themselves “conservative” are advocating a foreign policy of spreading principles of liberty and freedom to foreign countries in a manner hardly distinguishable from radical French revolutionaries. []

Categories
Morality The War on Terrorism

The Renaissance and the efficacy of torture

As an historian specializing in the Renaissance, Anthony Grafton muses in The New Republic about the efficacy of torture:

Torture does not obtain truth. Applied with leading questions, it can make most ordinary people–as it would certainly make me–say anything their examiners want, if they can only work out what that is. Applied to the extraordinarily defiant, it may not work at all.

Categories
Foreign Policy Morality The War on Terrorism

Two Methods of Interrogation

The Interrogation of Abu JandelGoofus and Gallant on Torture

In October 2000, Abu Jandal was arrested by the Yemeni authorities in connection with the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. He was a member of Al Qaeda and had served as Osama Bin Laden’s chief bodyguard. After the attacks on September 11, the Yemeni authorities allowed Ali Soufan, one of eight FBI agents who spoke Arabic, to interrogate Abu Jandal.

The attack was fresh in Soufan’s memory. His friend and mentor, John O’Neil, who had dedicated much of his life to fighting Al Qaeda, had been killed in the attacks. Soufan was justifiably, righteously angry. The Yemeni authorities, not known for their squeamishness, gave Soufan wide latitude in the interrogation. The FBI gave Soufan the directive to identify the hijackers “by any means necessary”.

Despite the fact that Abu Jandel refused to cooperate with Soufan at first, Soufan remained respectful. Abu Jandel would rant about the evils of America–the single country, he believed, that was most responsible for the evils of the world. As an additional complicating factor, like many Al Qaeda members, Abu Jandel had been trained in counter-interrogation techniques. He agreed to those facts which Soufan knew and denied everything else. He tried to portray himself as a good Muslim who had at one time flirted with Al Qaeda.

This stonewalling lasted for several days. Soufan was patient, picking up small details he might be able to use. For example, he found that Abu Jandel was diabetic and the next day brought sugarless wafers and a history of America in Arabic. Abu Jandel read the book quickly and was astonished at America’s history. The very fact of Soufan’s existence–as a knowledgeable Muslim who loved America and was in the FBI–was a challenge to Abu Jandel’s conception of America.

Soufan also found that Abu Jandel was troubled that Osama Bin Laden had sworn fealty to Mullah Omar, the messianic leader of the Taliban.

For five days, Soufan and Abu Jandel debated the theology behind suicide bombing, America’s place in the world, and discussed Abu Jandel’s life. He refused to reveal that he had any significant knowledge of Al Qaeda.

On the fifth night, Soufan brought him a news magazine with graphic photos of the twin towers on fire, photos that brought home the scale of the death and destruction. Abu Jandel had heard that something had happened in New York, but was shocked by the events, and insisted that Bin Laden could never do that–he said it must have been the Israelis, or someone else. Soufan showed Abu Jandel a local Yemeni newspaper with the headline: “200 Yemeni Souls Perish in New York Attack.” “The Sheikh is not that crazy,” he insisted, referring to Bin Laden. Soufan asked him to identify a series of mug shots. Still disturbed by the images of the attack, Abu Jandel was able to identify seven men as members of Al Qaeda, but he still insisted that Bin Laden could not have ordered the attack.[digg-reddit-me]

Soufan responded that he knew for sure that the people who did this were Al Qaeda. “How? Who told you?” Abu Jandel asked.

“You did. You just identified the hijackers,” Soufan said.

Abu Jandel asked for a few moments alone. When Soufan came back, he offered to help, to reveal what he knew about the structure of Al Qaeda, the locations of hideouts, and plans for escape. “I think the Sheikh went crazy,”Abu Jandel said.

Abu Jandel’s information proved significant in the Afghanistan campaign.

The Interrogation of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi

In late 2001 or early 2002, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was captured by Pakistani forces while trying to escape Afghanistan . By the middle of January 2002, he was in US custody. He was one of several high value detainees whose interrogation and detention challenged the limits of what the CIA was willing to do. The Bush administration had just recently authorized “enhanced” interrogation techniques, includes, as revealed by the New York Times in a recent expose, “slaps to the head; hours held naked in a frigid cell; days and nights without sleep while battered by thundering rock music; long periods manacled in stress positions” and waterboarding. According to the New York Times:

With virtually no experience in interrogations, the C.I.A. had constructed its program in a few harried months by consulting Egyptian and Saudi intelligence officials and copying Soviet interrogation methods long used in training American servicemen to withstand capture.

Relatively little is known about the specific techniques used on al-Libi or about his interrogation. It seems certain however that al-Libi was subject to these “enhanced techniques” such as simulated drowning and the rest. Additionally, al-Libi was also transferred for a time to a foreign intelligence service in the rendition program, that began under President Clinton, where he was also physically abused and threatened with torture.

Under pressure and feeling threatened, Al-Libi provided the CIA and other officials questioning him with a wealth of information about planned attacks in Yemen and around the world. Most significant however, al-Libi was the primary source for the faulty pre-war intelligence about Al Qaeda-Iraq links. Al-Libi specifically said that Iraq had been training members of Al Qaeda in the use of chemical and biological weapons, a claim cited by President Bush, Colin Powell, and many others as a justification for the war.

This bit of intelligence, gained by torture and used to justify a war, was found to be false after the invasion.

Torture as a Symbol

These are just two of the most prominent examples of the interrogations of detainees after 9/11. Two examples cannot prove a point. They do illustrate an opinion that is held by many if not most interrogators: torture and other extreme techniques are useful in getting people to talk, but not necessarily to tell the truth. The harder and less television-friendly approach is often the best.

Torture, as a symbol, represents the bankruptcy of the Bush’s administration’s approach to the War on Terror. The decision to begin to torture prisoners was made without public debate of any sort, by distorting current law and common sense, by abandoning America’s long-held positions and values, and without any attempt at resolving questions of tactics or strategy.

The CIA thus began to develop a program that mimicked Soviet techniques America had long condemned–techniques that were not designed to elicit information, but confessions for show trials. While Guiliani, Bush, Cheney, Gonzalez, Addington, Scalia, and others have denied that they endorse torture, they have endorsed “enhanced interrogation techniques” inflicting physical and psychological pain short of death or major organ failure. To embrace torture (which is what these men have done) reveals a tactical and strategic deficiency. The focus is on looking tough and on taking postures of violent masculinity even if they are counter-productive.

E. B. White wrote an essay on New York City at the dawn of the nuclear age, saying:

“The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions…In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.”

We cannot accept such blunders, such a short-sighted strategy with so much at stake.