Friday, August 27, 2004

How We Got Here

Jackson Diehl gives us an excellent summary of how the actions of Bush and Rumsfeld to set aside the Geneva Convention's on the treatment of prisoners of war led to the abuses at Abu Ghraib.

The causal chain is all there: from Bush's February 2002 decision to Rumsfeld's December 2002 authorization of nudity, stress positions and dogs; to the adoption of those methods in Afghanistan and their sanction in Iraq by a commander looking back to Bush's decision; and finally, to their use on detainees by soldiers who reasonably believed they were executing official policy.

So why do the reports' authors deny the role of policy, or its makers? Partly because of the Army's inbred inability to indict its own; partly because of the desire of Rumsfeld's old colleagues, such as Schlesinger, to protect him. But there's another motive, too: a lingering will to defend and preserve the groundbreaking decisions -- those that set aside the Geneva Conventions and allowed harsh interrogation techniques. Schlesinger argues they are needed for the war on terrorism; he and senior Army commanders say they are worried about a "chilling effect" on interrogations and a slackening in intelligence collection.

The buried message of their reports, though, is that the new system is unworkable. Once the rules are bent for one class of prisoner, or one detention facility, or one agency, exceptional practices cannot be easily returned to their bottle -- and the chaos of Abu Ghraib is a predictable result. Just as the Army professionals foresaw, Bush's 2002 decision undermined "U.S. military culture" and its "strict adherence to the law of war." That is the headline the investigators ducked.

The treatment of the prisoner's at Guantanamo is the elephant in the living room of this whole scandal. It is where the problems all began, but no one wants to confront it. The Republicans won't because it would cast them in a bad light. The Democrats won't because they don't want to be accused of being "soft" on terrorism. The establishment media won't because, in their "objective" approach to news coverage, since no one else is talking about it there isn't any "hook" upon which to hang the discussion.

And, since any serious discussion of Abu Ghraib leads inevitably back to the treatment at Guantanamo, and no one wants to talk about the latter, then that creates a strong incentive not to talk about the former.

And thus do we slide down that slippery razor blade to hell.

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