Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce. Karl Marx used it to describe Napoleon’s cataclysmic reign followed by the far less momentous and far more ignominious reign of his nephew, Napoleon III.
Marx’s saying applies well to two momentous events in recent U.S. history: the 9/11 attacks of 2001 and the current coronavirus pandemic. The American response to the first was tragic; to the second, farcical.
Let me explain. I vividly recall the aftermath to the 9/11 attacks. The world was largely supportive of the United States. “We are all Americans now” was a sentiment aired in many a country that didn’t necessarily love America. And the Bush/Cheney administration proceeded to throw all that good will away in a disastrous war on terror that only made terror into a pandemic of sorts, with American troops spreading it during calamitous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, among other military interventions around the globe.
Again, it was tragic for America to have thrown away all that good will in the pursuit of dominance through endless military action. A great opportunity was missed for true American leadership achieved via a more patient, far less bellicose, approach to suppressing terrorism.
In this tragedy, the Bush/Cheney administration avoided all responsibility, first for not preventing the attacks, and second for bungling the response so terribly. Indeed, George W. Bush was reelected in 2004 and has now been rehabilitated as a decent man and a friend by popular Democrats like Michelle Obama, who see him in a new light when compared to America’s current president.
Speaking of Donald Trump, consider his response to America’s second defining moment of the 21st century: the coronavirus pandemic. It’s been farcical. The one great theme that’s emerged from Trump’s 260,000 words about the pandemic is self-congratulation, notes the New York Times. Even as America’s death toll climbs above 50,000, Trump congratulates himself on limiting the number of deaths, even as he takes pride in television ratings related to his appearances. The farce was complete when the president unwisely decided to pose as a health authority, telling Americans to ingest or inject poisonous household disinfectants to kill the virus.
Tragedy, then farce. But with the same repetition of a total failure to take responsibility. As Trump infamously said, “I don’t take responsibility at all” for the botched response to the pandemic.
9/11 and Covid-19 may well be the defining events of the last 20 years. After 9/11, Bush/Cheney tragically squandered the good will of the world in rampant militarism and ceaseless wars. Then came Covid, an even bigger calamity, and now we have our farcical president, talking about the health benefits of injecting or ingesting bleach and similar poisons. At a time when the U.S. should lead the world in medical expertise to confront this virus, we’ve become a laughingstock instead.
What comes after farce, one wonders? For too many Americans, the answer may well be further death and loss.
Weekends are a good time to sit back, reflect, and think. Here are a few ideas I’ve been thinking about:
1. Remember 9/11/2001? Of course you do. Almost everyone back then seemed to compare it to Pearl Harbor, another date that would live in infamy — and that was a big mistake. In 1941, the USA was attacked by another sovereign nation. In 2001, we were attacked by a small group of terrorists. But international terrorism was nothing new, and indeed the U.S. was already actively combating Al Qaeda. The only new thing was the shock and awe of the 9/11 attacks — especially the images of the Twin Towers collapsing.
By adopting the Pearl Harbor image, our response was predetermined, i.e. the deployment of the U.S. military to wage war. Even that wasn’t necessarily a fatal mistake, if we’d stopped with Afghanistan and overthrowing the Taliban. But, as Henry Kissinger said, Afghanistan wasn’t enough. Someone else had to pay, in this case the unlucky Iraqis. And then the U.S. military was stuck with two occupations that it was fated to lose. And millions of Afghan and Iraqi people suffered for our leaders’ mistakes.
But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of 9/11 was how no one in Washington took the blame for it. I don’t recall any high-level firings. The buck stopped nowhere. Same with torture. The buck stopped nowhere. Officialdom looked the other way, including the next administration under the “change” candidate, Barack Obama. He changed nothing in this area. His mantra about “looking forward” meant learning nothing from history.
It’s this lack of accountability, perhaps, that made Trump possible. He lies constantly and blunders and blusters, yet (so far) there’s no accountability for that either. People just expect our government to be composed of con men and serial liars, so why not just elect one as president?
No accountability after 9/11 and torture led to “no accountability” Trump.
2. Another thought on 9/11: The 9/11 war-driven response was part of American exceptionalism. What I mean is this: America is not supposed to be on the receiving end of “shock and awe.” We are supposed to be the givers of it. As Americans, we were totally unprepared, psychologically, for such a blow. (A Soviet nuclear attack, a million times more devastating, would have made more “sense” in that the danger was drummed into us.) An attack by hijacked airliners, a mutant form of airpower? Well, America is supposed to rule the skies. We bomb others; they don’t bomb us. Right?
It was all so shocking and destabilizing, hence the “rally around the flag” effect and the blank check issued by Congress to Bush/Cheney for what has proved to be a forever war on terror — or something. And now, with Trump and crew, is the new “something” Iran?
3. In our military-first culture, projects like the B-21 stealth bomber are just accepted as business as usual — the cost of keeping America “safe.” We had more debate about weapons systems during the Cold War, when we truly faced an existential threat. Now, weapons ‘r’ us. It’s a peculiar moment in American history, a sort of cult of the gun, whether that “gun” is a bomber, missile, aircraft carrier, etc.
Put differently, our personal insecurities (due to debt, health care, jobs, weather catastrophes, fear of immigrants, etc.) have driven a cult of security in which guns and related military technologies have been offered as a palliative or even a panacea. Feel secure — buy a gun. Feel secure — build a new stealth bomber. Stand your ground — global strike. The personal is the political is the military.
4. If Reagan’s motto was “trust — but verify” with the Soviet Union, Trump’s motto with North Korea is simply “trust.” Yes — it’s a good thing that Trump is no longer threatening to bring nuclear fire and fury to the North Koreans, but his recent meeting with Kim Jong-un, large in image, was short on substance. Will those verification details be worked out in the future? Do the North Koreans have any intent to give up their nuclear weapons? Both are doubtful. So, does Trump deserve a Nobel peace prize? About as much as Obama did.
5. I’ve never witnessed a man destroy a political party like Trump has taken apart the Republicans. It’s a remarkable achievement, actually. And I don’t mean that as a compliment. I was once a Gerald Ford supporter in the 1976 election, and I voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984. (We make mistakes when we’re young; that said, Walter Mondale was an uninspiring Democratic candidate.) I thought the Republican Party had principles; I think it did in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, the only “principles” are money and power, as in getting more of both. If that means kowtowing to Trump, so be it. Kneel before Zod, Republicans!
That’s enough for my Saturday afternoon. Fire away in the comments section, readers!
Back in 2009, I wrote a few articles on torture during the Bush/Cheney administration. With Barack Obama elected on a vague platform of hope, change, and transparency, there was a sense torture would be outlawed and torturers would be called to account. Obama did sign an executive order to outlaw torture — which really meant nothing more than that the U.S. would abide by international treaties and follow international law with respect to torture — but torturers were never called to account. The failure to do so has left us with a new president, Donald Trump, who says he supports torture (though his Defense Secretary, James Mattis, does not), and a person nominated to head the CIA who enabled torture and helped to cover it up.
Here are a few points I made back in 2009. We should consider these as Congress debates whether to place the CIA in the hands of a torturer.
Recently  in the New York Times, Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti showed that the Bush administration, the CIA, and the Senate and House Intelligence Committees failed to ask for any historical context before approving so-called “harsh interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding, in 2002. No one apparently knew, or wanted to know, that the U.S. had defined waterboarding as torture and prosecuted it as a war crime after World War II. Did our leaders think the events of 9-11 constituted an entirely new reality, one in which historical precedent was rendered nugatory?
Perhaps so, but their failure to ask historically-based questions also highlights the narrowness of their intellectual training. Like the accused Nazi judges before the bar in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), they asked themselves only what the law is (or what it became under John Ashcroft and John Yoo), not whether it is just. If a legal brief authorized brutal methods such as waterboarding, who were they to question, let alone challenge, the (freshly minted) legal opinion?
Clearly, the leaders making and implementing decisions on torture constituted a single, self-referencing, self-identified Washington elite almost entirely divorced from thinking historically, let alone tragically. And because they could think neither historically nor tragically, they found false comfort in picturing themselves as stalwart defenders of the nation, not recognizing the mesmerizing power of vengeance and hate.
Our elected officials who find history books too onerous would do well to invest three hours of their time to watch Judgment at Nuremberg. They might learn that a compromised judiciary will uphold any action — discriminatory race laws, involuntary sterilization, even mass murder — all in the name of defending the people from supposedly apocalyptic threats.
Indeed, defending the country from apocalyptic threats is a popular line for those wishing to uphold the Bush Administration’s policy on torture. After the tragedy of 9/11, and subsequent panic in the wake of Anthrax attacks, our leaders were compelled to “take the gloves off” in our defense, even compelled to exact vengeance as a way of deterring future attacks — or so these torture apologists claim.
In their haste to make America safe, Bush and Company effectively declared vengeance was theirs and not the Lord’s. But the human lust for vengeance is blinding, even more so when it’s perceived as righteous. Here our wrathful lawyers/politicians might consider the lessons of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Rigoletto. The hunchbacked court jester, Rigoletto, delights in other people’s misfortune, and for this he is cursed by a cuckolded husband. Soon, his own daughter, Gilda, the joy of his life, is kidnapped and despoiled, the first bitter fruits of the curse. Despite Gilda’s pleas to forgive the transgressor, Rigoletto, blinded by his own murderous desire for vengeance, sets in motion a chain of events that ends with the sacrificial death of his beloved Gilda and the annihilation of any vestige of goodness in his tortured soul.
In Rigoletto, the desire for total vengeance produces total tragedy. In Judgment at Nuremberg, man’s ability to justify the worst crimes in the name of “safeguarding the people” is memorably exposed and justly condemned.
What we need today in Washington are fewer leaders who base their decisions on vengeance empowered by legal briefs and more who are willing to embrace the toughest lessons to be gleaned from history and tragedy. What we need today as well is our own version of Judgment at Nuremberg — our own special prosecutorial court — one that is unafraid to elevate justice, truth, and the value of a single human being above all other concerns — especially political ones.
A full accounting of the torture decisions made by the Bush Administration would serve powerfully to reassure Americans that their government is, in fact, transparent and accountable to the law. Such a result would be more than advantageous: It would indirectly strengthen our national defense as well as people’s patriotism. Far easier it is to trust a government that owns up to its mistakes than one that cloaks them in bombast and bromides.
Self-serving bromides that excuse torture as the price of keeping America safe from evil-doers must be dismissed. Self-preservation is no excuse for torture or similar war crimes. It’s easier to see the truth of this when you look at the abuses committed by countries other than one’s own.
Think, for example, of Germany in the opening weeks of World War I. As John Horne and Alan Kramer have shown in German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (2001), German soldiers clearly committed atrocities against Belgian civilians. But the Germans themselves refused to admit culpability. As Germany’s Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, explained: “We are in a position of necessity and necessity knows no law.” The court of history, however, has rendered a far different judgment.
When the argument from necessity failed to convince, the Bush administration disputed whether waterboarding actually was torture, even though American soldiers had been punished for it during the Philippine-American War. Indeed, even in Nazi Germany, government functionaries tried to fight a rear-guard action against the Gestapo and its use of waterboarding. In a 1979 article on “The Nazi Concentration Camps,” Henry Friedlander cites a complaint made by the Reich Minister of Justice in regards to a murder in 1934 at a concentration camp in Saxony: “The nature of the assault, especially the use of water torture,” the Reich Minister noted, “reveals a brutality and cruelty on the part of the perpetrator that is alien to German sensibilities and feelings. These cruelties, reminiscent of oriental sadism, can neither be explained nor excused by even the most extreme form of hatred in battle.”
If “water torture” was so clearly illegal and so utterly reprehensible to German legal authorities in 1934, even as they battled the baneful influence of Nazism, how can its true nature remain a matter of dispute among some former Bush administration functionaries?
We fancy ourselves to be a nation of laws that apply equally to all. If our new president truly stands for hope and change, he needs to act appropriately. “Hope” in this case means full exposure of torture and appropriate punishment for those who authorized and conducted it. “Change” means accountability for all, even for (especially for) the highest ranking officials in government.
We need a “Truth Commission” to investigate torture. Efforts to suppress the truth, even seemingly innocuous ones, like looking ahead instead of back, will only make the eventual revelations that much worse. Delays in holding people accountable may even empower others to commit new war crimes in our name. Such are the perils of refusing to confront the truth.
Here, the lessons of the French in Algiers continue to resonate. Think back to the revelations of General Paul Aussaresses in 2001, which scandalized France. Aussaresses unrepentantly confessed that, in attempting to suppress terrorism in Algeria in the 1950s, detainee abuse, torture, even murder became routine, first-choice, approaches. The resort to torture simply begat more torture.
Investigators should look at whether this dynamic also applied to America in Afghanistan and Iraq. How many of our counterterrorist experts became like General Aussaresses: Self-perceived “patriots” who believed torture and even murder were justified in the name of protecting the state? After all, if the state’s essential purpose is to protect its citizens, and you’re dealing with an enemy that’s malevolently contumacious, as Al Qaeda appeared to be, what’s to stop avowed “patriots” from torturing suspects, especially when the state’s leaders have authorized harsh techniques and are pressing you for results?
In the case of the Bush administration, not only did torture apparently provide unreliable intelligence: It also abrogated America’s fidelity to international treaties that forbade torture, and compromised our own ethos of truth, justice, and the American way.
And in the case of the Obama administration, its failure to confront the legacy of torture and to prosecute those responsible helped to facilitate the rise of Trump, a man who boasts of favoring torture while nominating for high office officials who served as torture enablers and supporters.
The words “American” and “torture” are linked together. Isn’t it time we separated them?
Donald Trump is waging a global war on truth. He is the anti-truth president. From Trump steaks to his “university” to his support of the “birther” movement against Barack Obama, he’s perpetually selling lies. Now he’s selling lies on a global stage. By making everything potentially a lie, e.g. climate change as a “Chinese hoax,” Trump is doing his best to demolish facts, paving the way to do whatever he pleases.
Trump believes he can have his own facts and tweet them too. We can blame Trump for being the vain, venal, and vile man that he is, but America elected him (yes, not all Americans, but enough to carry the Electoral College). He’s a con man, a crafty one, and the media can’t look away, nor can the rest of us.
How did we end up with Trump and his assault on truth? I’d like to focus on two reasons. The first was noted by Bernie Sanders back in September of 1998. Then a congressman, Sanders noted how the Democratic Party under the Clinton regime, with its corporate-friendly pursuit of “free” trade and feel-good globalization, was screwing the working classes. Sanders then issued the following warning (in an editorial in The Nation entitled, “Globalization’s the Issue”):
Right-wing populists like Pat Buchanan are lining up to ride to power on public fear and anger about globalization. If corporate globalism continues to result in deteriorating conditions of life for ordinary Americans, we’re likely to see a rise of scapegoating demagogy and virulent right-wing economic nationalism.
Scapegoating demagogy? Trump and Mexicans, Trump and Muslims, Trump and immigrants in general. Right-wing economic nationalism? Trump and “making America great again” through massive military spending and weapons exports combined with tax cuts that are sold as helping the poor even as they reward the rich.
By betraying the working classes and becoming yet another business party, the Clinton Democrats helped pave the way for right-wing populists and unprincipled opportunists like Trump. Indeed, by running the corporate-friendly Hillary Clinton against Trump in 2016, the Democratic Party turned its back on their own populist, Bernie Sanders, who genuinely was (and is) concerned with helping the working classes.
The second reason for Trump’s assault on truth has been all around us for decades, but it was exacerbated by the 9/11 attacks. Think back to the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate. If there’s one thing we learned from these debacles, it’s how much our government lies to us. Now fast-forward to 9/11. In the aftermath of those attacks, the Bush/Cheney administration did its level best to deflect all responsibility, and especially their responsibility, for the attack. Al Qaeda inflicted a major defeat on the U.S., yet no one took the blame. The buck stopped nowhere. Instead, Bush/Cheney drove a climate of fear and revenge, attacking Afghanistan followed by a disastrous war in Iraq.
By turning so quickly to war on a massive scale, Bush/Cheney knew that most Americans would rally around the flag. They further cynically used the moment to pass the PATRIOT Act to extend their power and that of the government. Choosing not to rally Americans, they instead made them fearful, obedient, and passive (Go to Disney! Go shopping!).
The leaders and the government that so badly let us down on 9/11 worked to convince us that only those same leaders and government could keep us safe after 9/11. Bush/Cheney and Crew, in essence, told a Big Lie that led, I think directly, to a Big Liar being elected as president in 2016. But I don’t just blame Bush/Cheney. The Obama administration refused to call these men to account, e.g. no prosecution for torture and other war crimes. Furthermore, Obama expanded the legacy of illegal surveillance, excessive secrecy, and incessant warfare that has characterized the manic opportunism of a government that refuses accountability, whether for the defeat of 9/11 or for the ongoing disasters of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, et al.
Long in the making, Trump’s victory march of 2016 quickened its pace in the aftermath of 9/11 and all the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-anything-I-don’t-like, hysteria stirred up by Bush/Cheney and Crew. But its impetus goes back further: to the lies and deceptions revealed by the Pentagon Papers, to the sordid lies and cover-ups of Watergate, and to the abandonment of the working classes by Democrats, the latter of which provided fertile soil for right-wing populist demagogy to take root and grow.
Whether led by democrats or republicans, our government has been telling us so many lies for so long that it’s not surprising we now have a president whose chief skill is as a con man and a liar. His global war on truth is the culmination of too much governmental lying and too little attention paid to the real needs of ordinary Americans.
On this 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, we should ask ourselves what those attacks inaugurated. In a word, calamity. The wildly successful actions of Al Qaeda, combined with the wild overreactions of the Bush/Cheney administration, marked the 21st century as one that will likely become known to future historians as calamitous.
In thinking about the 9/11 attacks, as an Air Force officer, what struck me then, and still does now, is the psychological blow. We Americans like to think we invented flight (not just that the Wright Brothers succeeded in the first powered flight that was both sustained and controlled). We like to think that airpower is uniquely American. We take great pride that many airliners are still “Made in the USA,” unlike most other manufactured goods nowadays.
To see our airliners turned into precision missiles against our skyscrapers, another potent image of American power, by a terrorist foe (that was once an ally against Soviet forces in Afghanistan) staggered our collective psyche. That’s what I mean when I say Al Qaeda’s attacks were “successful.” They created an enormous shock from which our nation has yet to recover.
This shock produced, as Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest article at TomDispatch.com, a form of government psychosis for vengeance via airpower. The problem, of course, is that the terrorist enemy (first Al Qaeda, then the Taliban, now ISIS) simply doesn’t offer big targets like skyscrapers or the Pentagon. The best the U.S. can do via airpower is to strike at training camps or small teams or even individuals, all of which matter little in the big scheme of things. Meanwhile, U.S. air strikes (and subsequent land invasions by ground troops) arguably strengthen the enemy strategically. Why? Because they lend credence to the enemy’s propaganda that the USA is launching jihad against the Muslim world.
The wild overreactions of the Bush/Cheney administration, essentially continued by Obama and the present national security state, have played into the hands of those seeking a crusade/jihad in the Greater Middle East. What we have now, so the experts say, is a generational or long war, with no foreseeable end point. Its product, however, is obvious: chaos, whether in Iraq or Libya or Yemen or Syria. And this chaos is likely to be aggravated by critical resource shortages (oil, water, food) as global warming accelerates in the next few decades.
We are in the early throes of the calamitous 21st century, and it all began fifteen years ago on 9/11/2001.
The language of war fascinates me. I was reading President Obama’s response to Donald Trump on whether Obama “gets it” when it comes to the threat of terrorism and came across this passage:
“Someone [Donald Trump] seriously thinks that we don’t know who we are fighting? If there is anyone out there who thinks we are confused about who our enemies are — that would come as a surprise to the thousands of terrorists who we have taken off the battlefield.”
That’s such a curious phrase: “terrorists who we have taken off the battlefield.” As if the United States has simply evacuated them or relocated them instead of killing them.
I think the distancing effect of air power has something to do with this euphemistic language. The U.S. military “takes people off the battlefield” rather than killing them, blowing them up, and so on. Obama’s personality may also play a role: a rational person, he’s been compared to the Vulcan Mr. Spock from “Star Trek” in his coolly logical approach to war.
Perhaps that coolly rational side, and not his preference to avoid terms like “radical Islamic terrorism,” is what gets Obama into trouble. Many Americans would prefer more directness, more passion, even though such directness and passion is often the approach of posturing chickenhawks. Consider the language of Bush/Cheney and all their blustering about “wanted, dead or alive” and “the axis of evil“ and “you’re either for us or against us.” Bush/Cheney talked as if they had just walked off a Western movie set after a gunfight, but both avoided the Vietnam War when they were young men, with Cheney famously saying he had other, more important things to do with his life. (Bush flew in the Texas Air National Guard, apparently gaining a slot after his father pulled some political strings.)
So, what should Obama have said in place of “we’ve taken them off the battlefield”?
Why not be honest and say something like this? “I’m well into the eighth and final year of my administration, during which I’ve approved drone strikes and air raids that have killed thousands of suspected and confirmed terrorists. Sure, we’ve often missed some targets, killing innocent people instead, but hey — war is hell. I’ve approved Pentagon budgets that each year approach $750 billion, I’ve overseen the U.S. dominance of the international trade in weapons, I continue to oversee an empire of roughly 700 overseas U.S. bases. Some have even called me the assassin in chief, and they’re right about that, because under my command deadly drone strikes have increased dramatically. Meanwhile, we’ve already made some 12,000 air strikes against ISIS/ISIL. So don’t tell me, Mr. Trump, that I don’t know who the enemy is. Don’t tell me I’m not willing to murder terrorists whenever and wherever we find them, even when they’re U.S. citizens and teenagers. Don’t tell me I don’t get it.”
Those words would be honest – though they’d really just scratch the surface of the Obama-led efforts to secure the “Homeland.” But instead Obama speaks of “taking” terrorists “off the battlefield,” cloaking his administration’s violent actions in a euphemistic phrase that would be consistent with angels from on high coming down to lift terrorists off the battlefield to some idyllic oasis.
Odd, isn’t it, that so few Americans criticize Obama for his murderous actions in overseas wars, but so many will criticize him for not bragging and boasting about it.
Well, if America is looking for a braggart, someone willing to boast about himself, they have their man in Donald Trump. If they’re looking for a new assassin in chief, they have their woman in Hillary Clinton. And if they’re looking for fresh ideas, a new strategy, a way to end our seemingly endless wars, they’re simply out of luck this election season, unless you go to a third-party candidate like Jill Stein.
In these over-heated times, the chances of a third-party challenge with substance are somewhere between nada and nil. In the United States in 2016, war and weapons sales and imperial expansion will continue to find a way, even as our leaders cloak their violent actions using the most anodyne phrases.
(This is part 2 of 2 of an essay dealing with lying, politics, and war, inspired by Hannah Arendt’s writings on The Pentagon Papers. For part 1, click here.)
After the Vietnam War, the U.S. government oversaw the creation of a post-democratic military, one that was less tied to the people, meaning that the government had even less cause to tell the truth about war. Unsurprisingly, then, the hubris witnessed in Vietnam was repeated with Iraq, together with an even more sweeping ability to deny or disregard facts, as showcased best in a statement by Karl Rove in 2004. The actions of the Bush/Cheney Administration, Rove suggested, bypassed the fact- or “reality-based” community of lesser humans precisely because their premises (the need to revolutionize the Middle East and to win the War on Terror through violence) were irrefutable and their motives unimpeachable. In Rove’s words:
We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
So it was that the Bush/Cheney administration manufactured its own “facts” to create its own “reality,” as the Downing Street Memo revealed (according to a senior British official, U.S. intelligence was “fixed” in 2002 to justify a predetermined decision to invade Iraq in 2003). Dubious intelligence about yellowcake uranium from Africa and mobile biological weapons production facilities in Iraq (both later proved false) became “slam dunk” proof that Iraq had active programs of WMD development. These lies were then cited to justify a rapid invasion. That there were no active WMD programs in Iraq meant there could be no true “mission accomplished” moment to the war – a fact George W. Bush lampooned by pretending to “search” for WMD at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2004. In this case, lies and self-deception coalesced in a wincing performance before chuckling Washington insiders that recalled the worst of vaudeville, except that Americans and Iraqis were dying for these lies.
Subsequent policy decisions in post-invasion Iraq didn’t fit the facts on the ground because those facts were simply denied. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in July 2003 he didn’t do quagmires even as Iraq was becoming one for U.S. forces. Two years later, then-Vice President Cheney claimed the Iraq insurgency was “in the last throes” even as insurgent attacks began to accelerate. Lies and deception, to include self-deception, doomed the U.S. government to quagmire in Iraq, just as it had in Vietnam forty years earlier. Similar lies continue to bedevil U.S. efforts in Iraq today, as well as in Afghanistan and many other places.
Even as official lies and deception spread, whistleblowers who stepped forward were gagged and squashed. Chelsea Manning, Stephen Kim, and John Kiriakou were imprisoned; Edward Snowden was forced into permanent exile in Russia. Meanwhile, officials who toed the government line, who agreed to dissemble, were rewarded. Whether under Bush or Obama, government officials quickly learned that supporting the party line, no matter how fanciful, was and is rewarded – but that truth-telling would be punished severely.
Lying and Self-Deception Today
How are U.S. officials doing at truth-telling today? Consider the war in Afghanistan. Now in its 15th year, regress, not progress, is the reality on the ground. The Taliban controls more territory than ever, the drug trade is exploding, and Afghan forces remain unreliable. Yet the U.S. government continues to present the Afghan war as winnable and the situation as steadily improving.
Similarly, consider the war on terror, nowadays prosecuted mainly by drones and special ops. Even as the U.S. government boasts of terrorists killed and plots prevented, radical Islam as represented by ISIS and the like continues to spread. Indeed, as terrorism expert David Kilcullen recently admitted, ISIS didn’t exist until U.S. actions destabilized and radicalized Iraq after 2003. More than anything, U.S. intervention and blundering in Iraq created ISIS, just as ongoing drone strikes and special ops raids contribute to radicalization in the Islamic world.
Today’s generation of “best and brightest” problem-solvers believes U.S. forces cannot withdraw from Afghanistan without the Afghan government collapsing, hence the misleading statements about progress being made in that war. Radical Islamic terrorists, they believe, must be utterly destroyed by military means, hence deceptive statements about drone strikes and special ops raids as eliminating terrorism.
Accompanying lies and deception about progress being made in wars is image manipulation. Military action inoculates the Washington establishment, from President Obama on down, from (most) charges of being soft on terror (just as military action against North Vietnam inoculated John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson against charges of being soft on communism). It also stokes the insatiable hunger of the military-industrial complex for bottomless resources and incessant action, a complex that the current crop of Republican and Democratic candidates for president (Bernie Sanders excepted) have vowed to feed and expand.
Whether in Vietnam, Iraq, or in the war on terror today, lying and self-deception have led to wrongheaded action and wrongful lessons. So, for example, rather than facing the quagmire of Afghanistan and extricating itself from it, Washington speaks of a generational war and staying the course until ultimate victory. Instead of seeing the often counterproductive nature of violent military strikes against radical Islam, Washington calls for more U.S. troops, more bombing, more “shock and awe,” the approach that bred the Islamic State in the first place.
One thing is certain: The U.S. desperately needs leaders whose judgment is informed by uncomfortable truths. Comfortable lies have been tried before, and look what they produced: lots of dead people, lost wars, and a crippling of America’s ability to govern itself as a democracy.
More than ever, hard facts are at a premium in U.S. politics. But the higher premium is the exorbitant costs we pay as a people, and the pain we inflict on others, when we allow leaders to make lies and deception the foundation of U.S. foreign policy.
The so-called Senate CIA Torture Report is supposed to be released today. Five years ago, I wrote an article for Nieman Watchdog on the Bush Administration’s decision to resort to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or torture in plain speak. Torture, I wrote back then, was the refuge of the impatient and incompetent, an approach that abrogated America’s fidelity to international treaties even as it became habit-forming. In other words, the resort to torture simply begat more torture, irrespective of results. As President Obama said, “We tortured some folks.” And so on. W.J. Astore
COMMENTARY | May 18, 2009
Did a lack of trained interrogators with appropriate language proficiency lead Bush administration officials to embrace torture as a ‘short cut’? A former dean at the Defense Language Institute writes that America was unprepared to wage a patient and savvy war of counterintelligence against Al Qaeda – which may have made less humane and less effective methods seem like an attractive option. Seventh in a series of articles calling attention to the things we still need to know about torture and other abuses committed by the Bush administration after 9/11.
By William J. Astore
In a letter dated May 10, 2007, General David H. Petraeus wrote to American troops serving in the Multi-National Force in Iraq:
Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy. They would be wrong. Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful nor necessary. Certainly, extreme physical action can make someone “talk;” however, what the individual says may be of questionable value.
Petraeus’s directive to the troops was unequivocal: Besides being illegal, torture is counterproductive, unnecessary, and generates “intelligence” of dubious reliability.
Evidence suggests the U.S. military was telling the Bush Administration these cold, hard facts all along. Why then did George Bush and Dick Cheney approve torture under the guise of “enhanced interrogation techniques”?
To answer this question, I think we need to remember not only the immense pressure the Bush Administration was under in 2002 (the events of 9/11, after all, occurred on their watch), not only their idée fixe for a settling of accounts with Saddam Hussein and Iraq, but also America’s lack of preparedness to wage a patient and savvy war of counterintelligence against Al Qaeda.
I witnessed this indirectly at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC), where I served as the Associate Provost/Dean of Students from 2002 to 2005. Clearly, the U.S. lacked translators, interpreters, and especially trained military interrogators. I recall interrogators being pulled from assignments at DLIFLC and reassigned to operational tours in the Middle East and Central Asia; the problem was that their language proficiency was often in Chinese or Korean or a Romance language – not, as one might expect, in Arabic, Pashto or Dari.
Few people understand how long it takes to produce a skilled military interrogator. Attaining basic language proficiency in Arabic takes nearly 18 months of constant training at DLIFLC. But attaining mastery of the language and the culture – the acuity and sensitivity to interrogate a suspect who’s deliberately trying to mislead you – takes years and even decades of study and practice. From 2002 to 2005, it may be that our country simply didn’t have enough skilled and disciplined interrogators to take the indirect approach.
Torture, I’m suggesting, wasn’t used because of a simple Machiavellian calculus of “the ends justify the means.” Rather, we lacked the most humane and most effective means to attain the ends that the Bush Administration so desperately wanted – “actionable intelligence” that could prevent yet another 9/11 from occurring on their watch. So they deployed “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which carried with them not merely the risk but the certainty of excesses and mistakes.
As investigators look more closely at America’s resort to torture, they should ask if we decided to go rough because we couldn’t go smooth. Because we lacked the language and cultural skills to play good cop, we played bad cop as a short cut. The problem, of course, is that short cuts are habit-forming. And in the name of results, they often sacrifice the essential for the expedient. In the case of the Bush Administration, not only did torture apparently provide unreliable intelligence: It also abrogated America’s fidelity to international treaties that forbade torture, and compromised our own ethos of truth, justice, and the American way.
Here, the lessons of the French in Algiers continue to resonate. Think back to the revelations of General Paul Aussaresses in 2001, which scandalized France. Aussaresses unrepentantly confessed that, in attempting to suppress terrorism in Algeria in the 1950s, detainee abuse, torture, even murder became routine, first-choice, approaches. The resort to torture simply begat more torture.
Investigators should look at whether this dynamic also applied to America in Afghanistan and Iraq. How many of our counterterrorist experts became like General Aussaresses: Self-perceived patriots who believed torture and even murder were justified in the name of protecting the state? After all, if the state’s essential purpose is to protect its citizens, and you’re dealing with an enemy that’s malevolently contumacious, as Al Qaeda appeared to be, what’s to stop avowed “patriots” from torturing suspects, especially when the state’s leaders have authorized harsh techniques and are pressing you for results?
Patriotism, it’s been said, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Is torture the last refuge of the impatient and the incompetent? If so, how do we instill patience and competence? Of the hundreds of billions we spend on national defense each year, surely we should dedicate more funding to training and retaining skilled and disciplined military interrogators. Counterterrorism succeeds or fails based on human intelligence (HUMINT). But to get the most reliable HUMINT, we have to be able to outsmart our foes. And the best way to do this is to treat them as humans, not as vessels to be beaten until they voice the echoes of our worst fears.
Updated (12/9/2014, 11:50AM EST): The Executive Summary to the “Torture Report” has been released. I’ve scanned the first 40 pages. One remarkable data point is that supposedly the CIA did not brief the President on the full extent of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” until April 8, 2006. In short, the CIA and its hired contractors used certain torture techniques on their own authority for four years. Here’s an excerpt from the report:
On August 1, 2002, based on comments from White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, the talking points were revised to eliminate references to the waterboard. CIA records indicate, however, that the talking points were not used to brief the president. On August 2, 2002, the National Security Council legal advisor informed the DCI’s chief of staff that “Dr. Rice had been informed that there would be no briefing of the President on this matter, but that the DCI had policy approval to employ the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.”
Records state that prior to the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah in 2002, the CIA did not brief Secretary of State Colin Powell or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, two members of the National Security Council, on the techniques. The Committee, including the chairman and vice chairman, was also not briefed on the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques prior to their use.
It seems like the CIA is shouldering all of the blame here. The failure (if it was that) to brief the president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, as well as the Senate Intelligence Committee, constitutes a fundamental breakdown in Constitutional safeguards. (Unless, of course, the “failure” to brief senior civilian leaders was all about protecting them and maintaining “plausible deniability.”)
Whatever else the report reveals, this violation of the Constitution is especially egregious. If true, it would suggest that the CIA should be severely disciplined or even disbanded.
But I truly doubt whether the buck stops with rogue elements in the CIA …
Update (12/10/14): Eric Fair was a contract interrogator for the Army in 2004. In an Op-Ed for the New York Times today, he writes:
I was an interrogator at Abu Ghraib. I tortured.
Today, the Senate released its torture report. Many people were surprised by what it contained: accounts of waterboardings far more frequent than what had previously been reported, weeklong sleep deprivation, a horrific and humiliating procedure called “rectal rehydration.” I’m not surprised. I assure you there is more; much remains redacted.
Most Americans haven’t read the report. Most never will. But it stands as a permanent reminder of the country we once were.
President Obama’s speech tonight on the Islamic State (or ISIS) promises more military action. More airstrikes, more boots on the ground (mainly Special Forces), more training for the Iraqi military (who have endured more than a decade’s worth of U.S. military training, with indifferent results), and more weapons sales (which often end up in the hands of ISIS, thereby necessitating more U.S. airstrikes to destroy them).
All of this is sadly predictable. Call it the TINA militarized strategy, as in “There is no alternative” (TINA) but to call in the military.
There are three reasons for the TINA strategy. One is domestic politics. Facing elections in November, the Obama Administration and the Democrats must appear to be strong. They must take military action, at least in their eyes, else risk being painted by Republicans as terrorist-appeasers.
The second reason is also obvious: The military option is the only one the U.S. is heavily invested in; the only option we’re prepared, mentally as well as physically, to embrace. The U.S. is militarized; we see the military as offering quick results; indeed, the military promises such results; we’re impatient people; so we embrace the military.
Never mind the talk of another long war, perhaps of three years or longer. When they bother to pay attention, what most Americans see on their TV and computer screens is quick results, like the video released by Central Command showing the U.S. military blowing up ISIS equipment (often, U.S. military equipment provided to Iraq but appropriated by ISIS). And unlike those ISIS “medieval” beheadings, decapitation by laser-guided bomb is both unoffensive and justified.
And if we’re blowing things up with our 21st-century decapitation bombs, we must be winning — or, at least we’re doing something to avenge ISIS barbarism. Better to do something than nothing. Right?
The third reason is more subtle and it comes down to our embrace of “dominance” as our de facto military strategy. Allow me to explain. After World War II, the U.S. military embraced “containment” as the approach to the Soviet Union. “Parity” was the buzzword, at least in the nuclear realm, and “deterrence” was the goal. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. did not become “a normal country in normal times,” nor did we cash in our peace dividends. Instead, the U.S. military saw a chance for “global reach, global power,” global dominance in other words. And that’s precisely the word the U.S. military uses: dominance (expanded sometimes to full spectrum dominance, as in land, sea, air, space, cyberspace, and who knows what else).
You can explain a lot of what’s happened since 9/11 with that single word: dominance. The attacks of 9/11 put the lie to U.S. efforts to dominate global security, which drove the Bush/Cheney Administration to double down on the military option as the one and only way of showing the world who’s boss. Clear failures of the military option in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere did not encourage soul-searching; rather, it simply drove Obama and his generals to promise that “this time, we’ll do it (bombing and raids and interventions) better and smarter” than the previous administration.
There’s simply no learning curve when your overall goal is to exercise dominance each and every time you’re challenged. Ask John McCain.
So as you listen to the president’s speech tonight, keep those three elements in mind: domestic politics, our enormous investment (cultural as well as financial) in the military and our preference for quick results at any price, and finally our desire to exercise dominance across the globe. It may help you to parse the president’s words more effectively. Perhaps it will also explain why our leaders never seem to learn. It’s not because they’re stupid: it’s because their careers and commitments require them not to learn.
Update: There’s another aspect of our dominance that is fascinating to consider. The US sees its dominance as benevolent or benign, never as bellicose or baneful. This is reflected brilliantly in the US Navy’s current motto, “A global force for good.” Not to deny that the Navy does good work, but I’m not sure we’d applaud if F-18s were dropping laser-guided bombs on our troops. The point is that as a society we have a willed blindness to how our “dominance” plays out in the rest of the world. We only seem to care when that “dominance” comes to Main Street USA, as it did recently in Ferguson, Mo. (The ongoing militarization of police forces, and their aggressiveness toward ordinary people, are surely signs of “dominance,” but who wants to argue this is benevolent or benign in intent?)
If another country sought global reach/global power through military dominance, that country would be instantly denounced by US leaders as inherently hostile and treated as a major threat to world peace.
Update 2 (9/12/14): Dan Froomkin at The Intercepthas a stimulating round-up of criticism about Obama’s latest plans for war (courtesy of Tom Engelhardt at TomDispatch.com). A summary:
Yesterday, Dan Froomkin of the Intercept offered a fairly devastating round-up of news reports from the mainstream (finally coming in, after much deferential and semi-hysterical reportage!) suggesting just what a fool’s errand the latest expansion of the U.S. intervention in Iraq/Syria could be. (And today’s NY Times has more of the same.) Here are just some selections from his post. Tom Engelhardt
“President Obama’s plan to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State counts on pretty much everything going right in a region of the world where pretty much anything the U.S. does always goes wrong. Our newspapers of record today finally remembered it’s their job to point stuff like that out.
“The New York Times, in particular, calls bullshit this morning — albeit without breaking from the classic detached Timesian tonelessness. Mark Mazzetti, Eric Schmitt and Mark Landler (with contributions from Matt Apuzzo and James Risen) start by pointing out the essential but often overlooked fact that ‘American intelligence agencies have concluded that [the Islamic State] poses no immediate threat to the United States.’
“And then, with the cover of ‘some officials and terrorism experts,’ they share a devastating analysis of all the coverage that has come before: ‘Some officials and terrorism experts believe that the actual danger posed by ISIS has been distorted in hours of television punditry and alarmist statements by politicians, and that there has been little substantive public debate about the unintended consequences of expanding American military action in the Middle East….’
“In the Washington Post this morning, Rajiv Chandrasekaran focuses on all the implausible things that have to go right beyond ‘U.S. bombs and missiles hitting their intended targets’: ‘In Iraq, dissolved elements of the army will have to regroup and fight with conviction. Political leaders will have to reach compromises on the allocation of power and money in ways that have eluded them for years. Disenfranchised Sunni tribesmen will have to muster the will to join the government’s battle. European and Arab allies will have to hang together, Washington will have to tolerate the resurgence of Iranian-backed Shiite militias it once fought, and U.S. commanders will have to orchestrate an air war without ground-level guidance from American combat forces…’
“The McClatchy Newspapers Washington bureau , finally no longer alone in expressing skepticism about Obama’s plans, goes all Buzzfeed with a Hannah Allam story: ‘5 potential pitfalls in Obama’s plan to combat the Islamic State’. Allam notes that Yemen and Somalia are hardly examples of success; that the new Iraqi government is hardly “inclusive”; that training of Iraqi soldiers hasn’t worked in the past; that in Syria it’s unclear which “opposition” Obama intends to support; and that it may be too late to cut off the flow of fighters and funds.”
Update 3 (9/12/14): US Army Colonel (ret.) Andrew Bacevich has a sound critique of the bankruptcy of Obama’s strategy. Here’s an excerpt:
Destroying what Obama calls the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant won’t create an effective and legitimate Iraqi state. It won’t restore the possibility of a democratic Egypt. It won’t dissuade Saudi Arabia from funding jihadists. It won’t pull Libya back from the brink of anarchy. It won’t end the Syrian civil war. It won’t bring peace and harmony to Somalia and Yemen. It won’t persuade the Taliban to lay down their arms in Afghanistan. It won’t end the perpetual crisis of Pakistan. It certainly won’t resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
All the military power in the world won’t solve those problems. Obama knows that. Yet he is allowing himself to be drawn back into the very war that he once correctly denounced as stupid and unnecessary — mostly because he and his advisers don’t know what else to do. Bombing has become his administration’s default option.
Rudderless and without a compass, the American ship of state continues to drift, guns blazing.