I hate Dick Cheney. I cannot imagine a more disgusting combination of power and venality in American politics. We have more than our share of scum over the years, but whether by luck or by horse sense we have managed to keep the worst of them out of high office. Sarah Palin lost. Ronald Reagan blew up the budget, but at least he had the basic sense not to let the Beiruts of the world distract him. Nixon and Kissinger and Johnson had plenty of flaws, but amazingly managed rise above the shenenigans that got them to high office by doing some good when they got there. And Dubya…well, seems hard to blame anyone who was this unable to comprehend his job:
Dick Cheney was in his own league, a man who combined the corruption of Harding, the intellectual curiosity of Coolidge, and the sense of social justice of James Buchanan. It would be a cruel insult to Hoover to put them in the same category. Cheney managed to be wrong about virtually everything, which is difficult to do in a world where blind chance generally favors people with multiple opportunities. It was not a good idea to abdicate responsibility for capturing Osama bin Laden to the Northern Alliance, an ill-equipped group bereft of its leader and celebrating the improbable reconquest of their nation, especially while the Tenth Mountain Division stood idly by in the wrong country. It was not a good idea to invade Iraq when the intelligence in fact argued against their having weapons of mass destruction, and a downright horrible idea not to leave after killing Saddam. And how do you fail to capture Osama in eight years?
Not satisfied with global incompetence, it was not a good idea for his energy task force to allow the continued manipulation of the California electric market (unfortunately begun in the dying months of the Clinton Administration), it was not a good idea to spend eight years lampooning conservation as no basis for a government energy policy, and it was downright negligent to show no regard for government deficits. Which, I suppose, is better than the corruption that saw no-bid contract regularly awarded to Halliburton and friends and the rampant fleecing of the Pentagon. Or his treatment of his personal friend, who he managed to mistake for a bird:
I therefore find it more than a little uncomfortable to have to agree with Cheney on something: the torture investigations are a bad idea.
The torture investigations are tactically flawed. The government wants to avoid prosecuting Dubya and Cheney, for the obvious reasons that it does not want this to look like a political witch hunt and really doesn’t want to set precedent for the next guy. It doesn’t want to prosecute interrogators who played by the rules, even if the rules were flawed, because it doesn’t want to seem to pick on soldiers who were doing their best. So it is limited to cases of interrogators who overstepped the rules they were given, in a peculiar reversal of authority: only those without the power to define the rules will be deemed to have done something wrong, while those who put them in the situation from a comfortable distance will be allowed to wash their hands of the matter. It’s one thing to argue that “following orders” is not an affirmative defense, quite a different one to say that only “following orders” is a crime.
But that’s not my main objection. My main objection is deeper: I don’t want to prosecute people for torture because I accept that our armed forces will torture.
The laws of war – the nice rules drawn up for a more traditional case of state conflict, when the front line soldiers of the Kaiser and the patrie could hardly be said to have a personal grievance with each other – hardly envision the non-state conflict we face with Al Qaeda. Mohammed Atta and his fellow terrorists wore no uniform and represented no state. They flew civilian aircraft and killed non-belligerents in the Trade Centers. Their allies killed non-belligerents in the Tube and the Madrid railroad.
As irregular soldiers, they are liable for summary death by hanging. If they are useful in some other fashion, I’d just as soon hear about it before they meet the end of the rope.
It has often been stated that torture doesn’t work. It yields useless information, it provides too many false positives, it causes the tortured to forget the truth. Perhaps that’s right. In the Korean War, the Chinese achieved much better results using some force (principally starvation) and compliance techniques than the North Koreans who simply beat prisoners to the edge of death. Some tactics work well in limited circumstances; Allied air power was absurdly ineffective against German industry, but it did a reasonable job against Romanian oil production. Some people might hold up to torture, and some might not. Some people might not care if their family members are killed, and some might. Not every interrogation has to be the same.
But why, when faced with an ever-changing enemy, would we want to give up the possibility that we might get serious? As Richard Cohen puts it:
[The terrorist] knows the new restrictions. He knows the new limits. He may even suggest to his interrogators that their jobs are on the line — that the Justice Department is looking over their shoulders. The tape is running. Everything is being recorded. He is willing to give up his life. Are his interrogators willing to give up their careers? He laughs.
That is absurd. The goal is to win. If it is possible to win elegantly, to win while respecting the decency of man, then by all means. If it is possible to win only by burning your way across the enemy’s home front, or by sinking his merchant shipping, or gassing him or using atomic bombs, then that’s what has to happen. Indeed, the very disgusting nature of war is what should make us draw back from the Grenadas and Kosovos, the wars of choice where we don’t feel scared enough to punch at full force. When something is worth fighting for – as our freedom from Al Qaeda surely is – it should be worth total war.
It seems the DNC agrees with me about the quality of Dick Cheney’s advice, and has the advantage of a considerably more talented production squad: