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Home > Opinion
 
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No one loves a torturer

BY FAREED ZAKARIA / 9 November 2005

As President Bush's approval ratings sink at home, the glee across the globe rises. He remains the most unpopular political figure in the world, and newspapers from Europe to Asia are delighting in his troubles. Last week's protests in Mar del Plata were happily replayed on televisions everywhere.

So what is the leader of the free world to do? Well, I have a suggestion that might improve Bush's image abroad -- and it doesn't require that Karen Hughes go anywhere. It would actually help Bush at home as well, and it has the additional virtue of being the right thing to do. It's simple: end the administration's disastrous experiment with officially sanctioned torture.

We now have plenty of documents and testimonials that make plain that the administration created an atmosphere in which the interrogation of prisoners could lapse into torture. After 9/11, high up in the administration -- at the White House and the Pentagon -- officials and lawyers were asked to find ways to bend and stretch the traditional rules of war. Donald Rumsfeld publicly declared that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to the war against Al Qaeda. Whether or not these legalisms were correct, their most important effect was the message they sent down the chain of command: "Push the envelope."

For example, when Rumsfeld read a report documenting some of the new interrogation procedures at Guantanamo in November 2002, including having detainees stand for four hours, he scribbled a note in the margin, "Why is standing limited to 4 hours? I stand for 8 hours a day." (Rumsfeld probably does not stand for eight hours, scarcely clad and barely fed, with bright lights, prison guards and attack dogs trained on him.) The signal Rumsfeld was sending was clear: "Get tougher." No one at the top was outlining what soldiers should not do, which lines they should not cross, which laws they should remember to adhere to strictly. The Pentagon's own report after investigating Abu Ghraib, by Gen. George Fay, speaks of "doctrinal confusion... a lack of doctrine... [and] systemic failures" as the causes for the incidents of torture. In a 2 million-person bureaucracy, such calculated ambiguities will inevitably lead to something like Abu Ghraib.

And the incidents clearly go well beyond Abu Ghraib. During the past few months, declassified documents and testimony from Army officers make abundantly clear that torture and abuse of prisoners is something that has become quite widespread since 9/11. The most recent evidence comes from autopsies of 44 prisoners who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan in US custody. Most died under circumstances that suggest torture. The reports use words like "strangulation," "asphyxiation" and "blunt force injuries." Even the "natural" deaths were caused by "Arteriosclerotic Cardiovascular disease" -- in other words, sudden heart attacks.

Sen. John McCain has proposed making absolutely clear in law that the US does not permit the torture of prisoners returning America to the position it had taken for five decades. McCain's amendment, endorsed by Colin Powell, passed the Senate last month by 90 to 9 in a stunning rebuke of administration policy. But Republicans in the House are trying to kill it. Vice President Cheney is making great exertions to gut it with loopholes. The White House has threatened to veto the entire defence budget, to which McCain's proposal was originally attached, unless his ban is removed. White House spokesmen don't answer questions about the bill plainly, and Cheney simply refuses to explain his views at all. (As the writer Andrew Sullivan has noted, someone needs to remind the vice president that he is an elected and accountable public servant, not a monarch.)

This is a case of more than just bad public relations. Ask any soldier in Iraq when the general population really turned against the US and he will say, "Abu Ghraib." A few months before the scandal broke, Coalition Provisional Authority polls showed Iraqi support for the occupation at 63 per cent. A month after Abu Ghraib, the number was 9 percent. Polls showed that 71 per cent of Iraqis were surprised by the revelations. Most telling, 61 per cent of Iraqis polled believed that no one would be punished for the torture at Abu Ghraib. Of the 29 per cent who said they believed someone would be punished, 52 per cent said that such punishment would extend only to "the little people."

America washes its dirty linen in public. When scandals such as this one hit, they do sully America's image in the world. But what usually also gets broadcast around the world is the vivid reality that the US forces accountability and punishes wrongdoing, even at the highest levels. Initially, people the world over thought Americans were crazy during Watergate, but they came to respect a rule of law so strong that even a president could not break it. But today, what angers friends of America abroad is not that abuses like those at Abu Ghraib happened. Some lapses are probably an inevitable consequence of war, terrorism and insurgencies. What angers them is that no one beyond a few "little people" have been punished, the system has not been overhauled, and even now, after all that has happened, the White House is spending time, effort and precious political capital in a strange, stubborn and surely futile quest to preserve the option to torture.

Fareed Zakaria is Editor of Newsweek International. He can be reached at comments@fareedzakaria.com.

 

 

 

 
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