Victory After the War Is Hardly Moral

In his fourth and final speech out of a series of addresses aimed at boosting support for his policy in Iraq, President George W. Bush addressed an audience at the Woodrow Wilson Center yesterday in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Mandel Ngan / AFP-Getty Images)

It is hardly possible that recent revelations highlighting grave errors in the handling of the Iraq war are not going to have an impact on the future plans of U.S. policymakers. Analysts worldwide are looking out for signs of change indicating that a more moral approach toward international law has been adopted. Just how feasible such change is will likely become clear over the next few months.

It did not take the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice long after her landing in Europe to admit that “mistakes have been made” in handling the war and that they will be rectified. But she failed to inform Europeans during her press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel what exactly the upshot is going to be. No hinting at imminent departures. No word of an inquiry even. That’s a bit puzzling to say the least. Europe’s outrage over some 300 C.I.A. rendition flights landing here and there, carrying terror suspects to a number of highly unspecified resorts for “questioning,” is accompanied by relentless criticism within the United States itself as talk of the war’s legality reaches unprecedented levels.

Even politicians formerly firmly entrenched in the pro-war camp are admitting publicly to a change of mind. Among the more damaging sea changes occurred in Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff at the State Department, who in an interview recently on the BBC program Newshour accused the Bush administration of mishandling the war in Iraq. He revealed details of the “alternative decision making process” controlled by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Richard Cheney that endorsed an anything goes approach in the interrogation of terror suspects. It is a known fact that this has lead to the “questionable deaths” of at least 90 suspects.

Europe’s amazement over the torture issue is likely to result in many countries having an even bigger problem with the war than they had hitherto. The outrage in Europe is expected to last for some time to come, likely until well after Condoleezza Rice has returned home.

European governments are still waiting for the clarification they have been promised by the U.S. government, but so far have exhibited varying degrees of unhappiness with the situation.

Central in the current transatlantic discussions Rice is conducting will be the role of intelligence in combating terrorism on an international scale. Time Magazine reports that whatever the European countries are stating publicly, the ministries of interiors often have totally different views regarding their intelligence agencies’ operations.

The Dutch, traditionally among the more staunch allies, are likely the most miffed. Foreign Minister Bernard Bot threatened to cancel Dutch participation in military operations in Afghanistan if the allegations that C.I.A. flights stopped in Europe proved true and reiterated soon after that the U.S. had failed to give a satisfactory explanation. Dutch papers reported that top diplomats from Washington had been conducting high-level talks with the Dutch to prevent them from bailing out. Bot expects a “lively discussion with Rice and foreign ministers of NATO member states … in Brussels,” according to Dutch news sources.

The French, who have been most fiercely opposed to the war since the outset are known to be rather pally with the C.I.A. in Paris, where they even run mutual operations from time to time. According to Time Magazine, the joint Paris base is called Alliance Base. In Germany, the power is now concentrated in the hands of Angela Merkel, who is way more inclined to be amenable to the United States than her predecessor Gerhardt Schröder. Ahead of the meeting between Rice and Merkel, one German newspaper speculated that Merkel will likely have to do her best not to come across as too accommodating to the United States, for the home front, but that she’s definitely inclined to endorse better transatlantic relations even in the wake of the kidnapping of a German archeologist in Iraq by terrorist recently.

However, the opinion weekly Der Spiegel hinted that the German leadership was also likely going to take the rendition flights issue quite seriously and that it could even have an impact on U.S. troops stationed in the country as well as U.S. use of German airspace to facilitate its operations in Iraq.

Romania, on the other hand might sign an agreement on establishing U.S. bases in the country. Foreign Minister Mihai Razvan Ungureanu reiterated that the country had not harbored any secret detention camps.

The Polish foreign minister indicated pretty much the same.

Despite tempered European reaction, the seriousness of the Bush administration’s troubles is not negligible at all. A memo listing permissible interrogation methods of terror suspects that was kept secret by the White House from the Senate intelligence committee has likely dealt the Bush administration’s credibility the worst blow. The New Yorker recently quoted a source saying that the memo “dismissed virtually all national and international laws regulating the treatment of prisoners, including war crimes and assault statutes.” The magazine reported that the memo was radical in its view that in wartime the president can fight enemies by whatever means he sees fit.

Col. Wilkerson’s interview with the BBC has been published broadly.

He said that the memo contained the president’s phrase that the treatment of terror suspects should be “consistent with military necessity,” which means that it provided all the flexibility that the likes of the vice president had been lobbying Congress for but for which they did not get approval. “Under theV.P.’s protection the secretary of defense moved out to do what they wanted to do in the first place, even though the president had made a decision that was clearly a compromise,” Wilkerson said.

What’s more, the colonel asserted that the Cheney-Rumsfeld relationship produced failures for which the president in turn fails to hold the two accountable. Wilkerson’s view that this means that the president himself is partially to blame too is shared by many in Europe. Wilkerson said in another interview, with Associated Press, that the vice president must have sincerely believed Iraq could be fertile ground for terrorism or that otherwise “I have to declare him a moron, an idiot or a nefarious bastard.”

The comments, also on the BBC, of a former C.I.A. agent, Robert Baer, were no less incriminating. He provided insider knowledge revealing that the reason C.I.A. officials carried out the interrogations abroad was so there would be no records of suspicious deaths in the U.S. system, simply because this would cause legal problems under the U.S. constitution. He dubbed the foreign-based interrogation practices the C.I.A.’s “outsourcing of torture.”

“This system is going against the Geneva Conventions, it is a flagrant violation,” said Baer.

Military autopsy reports underline the severity of the situation, because they are detailed proof that torture has led to the deaths of at least 90 people. Published by the American Civil Liberties Union, they provide information about excruciatingly painful ordeals.

The accusations are among the more biting criticisms made over the last months and they have an impact. As Secretary of State Rice landed in Germany, President George W. Bush picked up on his critics’ jargon, referring to the extraordinary rendition flights as “outsourcing torture,” an allegation he denied of course. Nevertheless, it shows that the comments did hit home. It is the second time within one month that the president lashed out directly at his opponents. Last month, the president called critics who had burst out in a cacophony of allegations following the trial of Lewis Libby, the top aide in the vice president’s office, “deeply irresponsible.” Events like these but also dissent like the call by Representative Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania, to end the war right now because a victory is not in the cards are also contributing in finally waking up the U.S. population to some extent.

The vendetta that the president and his close aides are fighting with increasing numbers of highly influential (former) policymakers is despite the drama not all that indicative of any life threatening troubles in the short term however. It is difficult to gauge just how much impact the public accusations have, because it’s simply impossible to get a precise picture of the American political landscape. Democrats themselves are highly divided on the issues surrounding the war and their pro-military stance even now is worrisome to say the least. All in all the number of democratic representatives to Congress advocating an immediate withdrawal from Iraq totals a measly three, which is somewhat indicative of the complexity of the issues involved of course, but also of a certain lameness in this camp which is not representational of the American people. The Democrats often shy away from speaking out what the common view is in their constituency because of prevailing party lines, which are in favor of backing the president in order not to hurt the country even more.

There is as yet no talk in Europe of boycotting the United States, unlike in the Middle East, where boycotts of U.S. goods are more common.

The E.U. assembly’s civil liberties committee has criticized the general lackluster response to the allegations by European policymakers, which will decide only in mid December in a plenary session whether to launch a formal probe into the allegations. Another investigation would add weight to a probe already being conducted by the Council of Europe. The latter organization has no real legal power, yet several policymakers are calling for more investigations because they say it affects the confidence of our people. “E.U. governments have little interest and will to sort this out,” according to German Green deputy Johannes Vogenhuber. That does not bode much good for international efforts to pressure the United States into exhibiting more lawful conduct.

Online Journal writer Nicholas Davies has studied patterns in the last few decades’ invasions by the United States into foreign countries and asserts that the alternative decision making process adopted by Cheney and his consorts isn’t all that different from the past even though the Cold War no longer is the excuse. He links the U.S. invasion into Panama directly to the coming down of the Berlin wall some 40 days earlier by saying that the rationale behind the U.S.’s breach of the U.N. charter was very similar to the more recent deliberations by policymakers. Davies says that the U.S. government simply has been able to “get away” with illegitimate moves both at home and abroad because it invaded other countries just as the public’s perception of those moves was that they were made out of strength rather than out of an insecure position. In reality, the invasions were however made out of insecurity, and the war against Iraq proves this, he says.

Davies believes it is crucial to see what is going to be driving change in the U.S. leadership’s handling of the war the next few months. He has a point; the public perception is undergoing vast change. Waning support among American’s for the war has eroded even more recently.

Polling agency Zogby reported last month that 76 percent of Democrats want Bush impeached if it appears he deceived the public about the war. For Independents, it was 50 percent, and 29 percent of Republicans want Congress to impeach the President if he lied.

Davies asks, “Will [the U.S. government] focus only on the practical flaws of the U.S. invasion and occupation, or will they be willing to acknowledge that it is actually wrong in the moral and legal sense? Will the ‘lesson of Iraq’ be only that you need more troops to launch a successful invasion or will it be that international law must protect all countries and peoples, most of all those facing powerful adversaries amid serious tensions? And will they be ready to consign the ‘doctrine of preemption’ to the garbage can of history where it belongs?”

Perhaps the pragmatic approach will allow only for decisions based on improved morals however. It appears that this notion is also beginning to sink in at the top in Washington. Observers are keenly noting progress by new personalities on the frontlines. One new name in the power circuit that’s overseeing the third phase and likely the end of the war is Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon R. England. He’s already won a reputation as “Mr. Fix It,” and is a pragmatist who’s believed to be among the first of a new batch of leaders, the post-neocons.

Newsweek for instance reports that even though “Rumsfeld and Cheney remain, their sway in White House deliberations is not what it once was.” Reporters however appear astonished that this is even happening. “Pragmatism at high levels? State and Defense working hand in hand? This doesn’t sound like the Bush administration of popular imagination. In fact, the ascent of England as Donald Rumsfeld’s deputy Defense secretary is the best evidence yet that a new array of career professionals — the post-neocons, if you will — has emerged as a powerful force in Bush’s second term. They have, for the most part, displaced the first-term ‘cabal’ of political true believers, as Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, called the group around Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney.”

In the next months, it will become clear whether the illegal and unconstitutional policies are going to set the tone for what’s to come.

If the handful of policymakers currently linked to the secret memos are removed from office and replaced by new, decent officials, there’s some hope. But if the policies manage to continue to be broadly supported — by both the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy and Congress — the American role in the world is likely to descend into a more threatening one. Despite what Condi says.

Angelique van Engelen is a freelance writer based in Amsterdam. She worked as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East during the 1990’s.

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