Friday, May 22, 2009

The Deep Depths of Dick

Prolegomena. I'm all in favor of Dick Cheney speaking out and there's good reasons why that is the case. People like Martin Luther King and Betty Friedan fought their whole lives for the right of everybody to speak their mind on politics, including failed former vice-presidents. The tradition of former leaders pledging omerta was always a bad thing for American politics. The European system of former leaders becoming opposition leaders works because it makes the opposition more effective. Some of the reason why the Democrats were so incoherent in the run-up to the Iraq War is that people like Bill Clinton were observing a polite and misguided silence. In fact, Cheney is the most effective spokesperson for the conservative view on terrorism policy and he is serving a useful function in giving the Republican Party more coherence as an opposition force.

Certainly, the Republicans need the help.

My interest as a person of the left also makes me glad to see Cheney speak. Keeping the leading figures of the Bush administration before the public eye is a great way to remind people of the maliciousness and venality of the American right. Given that Dick Cheney embodies the worst of the Bush administration, seeing him on television is a continual reminder of why the American public repudiated the Bush presidency and everything it stood for.

As far as I'm concerned, America can't get enough of Dick Cheney.

Dick Cheney is Shocked! Shocked! Actually, Dick Cheney is shocked that President Obama is doing exactly what he said he would do during the campaign. It's important to remember the conservative commitment to delusion. Just as shock jock Mancow was surprised to find that waterboarding is torture, many people on the right have been shocked, shocked that Barack Obama is withdrawing from Iraq, closing down Guantanamo, and ending the torture of terrorist suspects. To be sure, Cheney's more genuine than Claude Rains in Casablanca. The Bush people thought they had rigged the system so Obama couldn't change their policies on terror. They also couldn't believe Obama was serious about his campaign claims that the Bush administration didn't live up to American values or that the Bush administration's approach to terror made the country less safe. For Dick Cheney in particular, all of that was just "campaign rhetoric." As a result, Cheney was genuinely shocked to find out that Barack Obama wasn't Joe Lieberman and it's out of his wounded pride and outrage that Dick Cheney launched his little public relations war against the Obama administration.

It's About Values. Cheney is also shocked by the realization that his side is losing all the on-going cultural wars. Conservatives are losing all sorts of little cultural wars. They're losing their wars for small government and Victorian sexual values and against feminism, gay rights, drugs, and multi-culturalism. Even worse, they're losing the "war on socialism" even though no one's fighting them. Finally, conservatives are losing the "war over the war" to liberal politicians, civil libertarians, and anti-war activists. Conservatives experience their losses on all these fronts as devastating because of their disgust for everybody on the other side. Gay people have been the particular target of conservative disgust since gay marriage emerged as an issue. But right-wing bigotry toward African-Americans, working women, and popular culture still emerges on a regular basis.

It's the same with Cheney and his enemies. Cheney is a member of the right-wing of the conservative defense establishment that's shaped by two ideas--that this country should always be at war or pointed toward war (or both) and that the president should have absolute power when America is at war. Keeping America at war keeps the right in power and gives practically unlimited resources to conservative constituencies in the military and defense industry. For Cheney, keeping America at war means that the "right people"--people he respects--will always be in charge instead of the liberals, civil libertarians, minority activists, and union leaders he views as the "wrong sort of people." From Cheney's point of view, the absolute power of the president (supposedly justified by Article II of the Constitution) makes it possible for the right people to conduct their wars without interference from their opponents and the constitutional guarantees, domestic law, and international law that were created by liberals. In other words, the underlying foreign policy "value" for Dick Cheney is the "freedom" of the right people to start wars and conduct as they see fit according to the "natural order."

A lot of Cheney's anger toward Barack Obama lies in his shock over the thought that Barack Obama is one of the "wrong people" and that the "wrong people" seem close to being totally in charge. Maybe Cheney thinks Obama is close to giving Glenn Greenwald a job as a Pentagon watchdog (a good idea by the way). This righteous conservative anger informs a great deal of the sneering rhetoric of Cheney's AEI speech. Cheney sneeringly refers to the release of the torture memos as intended to be "a bold exercise in open government, honoring the public's right to know. We're informed, as well, that there was much agonizing over this decision." "Open government" and "the public's right to know" are both anathema to Cheney's own values of reserving real power for people like him and Cheney's sneering at the Obama administration for advertising those values is a most sincere moment of disgust.

Cheney expresses a more general disgust toward liberalism in discussing the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed:

Maybe you've heard that when we captured KSM, he said he would talk as soon as he got to New York City and saw his lawyer. But like many critics of interrogations, he clearly misunderstood the business at hand. American personnel were not there to commence an elaborate legal proceeding, but to extract information from him before al-Qaeda could strike again and kill more of our people.
Obviously, Cheney's trick here is to associate liberal "critics of interrogations" with vicious terrorists like KSM. But underlying the rhetorical linkage is a very real disgust with the U. S. legal system and the protections that it has provided for accused criminals since the Warren Court. For American conservatives, the natural order is for the dominant white and wealthy groups to be free--that's what conservatives mean by "our values"--and for the dominant groups to have a "free hand" to act violently toward "outsider" groups like African-Americans, immigrants, and gay people. The natural order was upset by the campaigns of liberal jurists, Democratic politicians, and minority group leaders to recognize what conservatives think of as "marginal" groups as having the same rights as "real Americans." In this light, the big Warren Court decisions shackled the ability of the "right people" to "do what needs to be done" and let the riff-raff bring chaos into society.

Informed by their antipathy toward the American legal system and its "misguided" stress on rights, procedures, and "elaborate legal proceedings," the Bush people created an "extra-judicial" system of prisons, interrogration units, and extraordinary rendition to other countries in the name of unlimited presidential power. That system was designed not only to "extract information" in Cheney's phrase, it was designed to give terrorist suspects "what they deserved" in a way that couldn't be achieved by the "permissive" American legal system.

As he defends torture, Cheney also manages to express his loathing toward liberal critics:

Yet for all these exacting efforts to do a hard and necessary job and to do it right, we hear from some quarters nothing but feigned outrage based on a false narrative. In my long experience in Washington, few matters have inspired so much contrived indignation and phony moralizing as the interrogation methods applied to a few captured terrorists. I might add that people who consistently distort the truth in this way are in no position to lecture anyone about "values." (my emphasis)
Cheney's critique of liberal criticism of torture is the same criticism conservatives have been making of liberal activists and minority leaders since at least the sixties. They always saw people like Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy as motivated by feigned outrage, contrived indignation, phony moralizing and other dishonest motivations. By the fact of their being leaders (let alone being born into the elite), people like King and Kennedy either participated in the privileges of the elite or wanted to participate in the privileges of the elite. From the conservative point of view, that gives an inherent phoniness to minority and liberal criticism of American society for not extending constitutional rights to all groups. The other element of conservative revulsion toward white liberals in particular is that white liberals identify with the politics of "outsider" groups like poor people and minorities. From the conservative point of view, white liberals are either "feigning outrage" as they pursue power for themselves or, even worse, traitorously identifying with marginal populations over the dominant groups. Whichever motivation they attribute to liberals and minority leaders, conservatives like Dick Cheney have never acknowledged that their critics are honest.

Disappointment to the Point of Treason. The disappointment of Dick Cheney and other Bush enthusiasts has a particularly sharp edge because they thought the moment of permanent conservative ascendancy had arrived. With the 9-11 attacks, the conservative defense and political establishment thought they had an opportunity to do exactly what they wanted. In relation to foreign policy, conservatives talked a great deal about U. S. military omnipotence, compared America to the Roman Empire, and projected an easy conquest and restructuring of Iraq. Far from feeling weak and vulnerable as Cheney claimed in his AEI speech, conservatives thought they had no limits. They didn't have to worry about human rights because international law was for tin pot guys like Charles Taylor and Slobodan Milosevic. They didn't have to worry about the reactions of other countries because the U. S. was so much more powerful than anyone else. They didn't have to worry about American interests in the manner of Brent Scowcroft and other timic "realists" because the U. S. was finally in a position to enforce its will. Conservatives ultimately thought they could leverage fear of another 9-11 attack into permanent support for the American power agenda laid out by the Project for a New American Century. From Sept. 12, 2001 to the end of 2004, conservatives thought their moment in the sun would go on forever.

But the whole post 9-11 conservative project was a village of sand castles that has been swept away and Dick Cheney's whole world is in danger of being swept away with it. The occupation of Iraq has been costly, the lies have been exposed, the edifice for evading legal structures has crumbled, the war crimes revealed, and the whole conservative establishment is tainted with incompetence and criminality. Where the conservative establishment once expected to enjoy a permanent majority, they now have to worry about the very real prospect of the Republican Party never returning to power. Where the conservative establishment once contemplated global domination, they now have to worry about being hauled before a truth commission or prosecuted for war crimes. For Dick Cheney, these prospects are so palpable that he has to introduce himself even to am elite conservative audience as "a-political" and actually address himself to the arguments for war crimes trials from the Democratic left. For Dick Cheney, having to acknowledge the influence of minority politicians, liberal bloggers, anti-war activists, and media powerhouses like Arianna Huffington, Josh Marshall, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart is almost as humiliating as being put on trial. Having assumed for his whole career that people like himself would naturally dominate, Dick Cheney is now finding that his enemies are in charge and that he and his colleagues are the ones who are reviled, marginalized, and convicted of crimes in the case of Scooter Libby.

And it's driving him to treason.

At least in Cheney's own terms.

According to Dick Cheney, the whole debate over torture serves to weaken America and encourage our enemies. In other words, it's a form of "aiding and abetting our enemies" in the way that the right thinks the Constitution defined treason.
If fine speech-making, appeals to reason, or pleas for compassion had the power to move them, the terrorists would long ago have abandoned the field. And when they see the American government caught up in arguments about interrogations, or whether foreign terrorists have constitutional rights, they don't stand back in awe of our legal system and wonder whether they had misjudged us all along. Instead the terrorists see just what they were hoping for - our unity gone, our resolve shaken, our leaders distracted. In short, they see weakness and opportunity.
But Dick Cheney is the guy driving the debate on interrogation, torture, and terror policy not Obama's critics on the left. Cheney is the guy who is using his access to the media to push claims that the Obama administration is making our country "less safe." If al-Qaeda looks at the United States and decides that "our unity [is] gone, our resolve shaken, our leaders distracted," it's because Dick Cheney is doing his best to undercut the national unity that has coalesced around Barack Obama, shake Obama's resolve concerning his policies, and distract Obama's leadership. Dick Cheney might as well be hanging out a sign saying "We're weak. Please attack us." As everybody in the anti-war movement knows from painful experience, that's the kind of thing the right calls treason because they view it as encouraging the enemy.

But for Dick Cheney, vindicating himself, the conservative establishment, and the "natural order" seems to be more important than American security. In fact, one wonders if Cheney's well of bitterness doesn't run so deep that he wouldn't welcome a major terrorist attack as sweet vindication.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bush's Team of Super Assholes

The buzz about Robert Draper's GQ article on Donald Rumsfeld has been that Draper found material indicating that Rumsfeld viewed the Iraq War through Old Testament references.
Draper's biggest find is a collection of daily cover sheets that Rumsfeld approved for the Secretary of Defense Worldwide Intelligence Update, a highly classified digest prepared for a tiny audience, including the president, and often delivered by hand to the White House by the defense secretary himself. These cover sheets greeted Bush each day with triumphal color photos of the war headlined by biblical quotations. GQ is posting 11 of them, and they are seriously creepy.

But that's not the way the articles poses the Bible porn on the Worldwide Intelligence Update. But Maj. Gen. Glenn Schaffer was the one who took the initiative to include the Biblical imagery packaging. He was the religious zealot not Rumsfeld. According to Draper, Rumsfeld allowed Schaffer to go ahead because he thought of the Bible packaging as a good way to suck up to President Bush who seemed to appreciate any manifestation of religious zealotry.
" . . . publicly flaunting his own religious views was not at all the SecDef’s style—“Rumsfeld was old-fashioned that way,” Shaffer acknowledged when I contacted him about the briefings—but it was decidedly Bush’s style, and Rumsfeld likely saw the Scriptures as a way of making a personal connection with a president who frequently quoted the Bible.

And Bush liked the idea.
But the Pentagon’s top officials were apparently unconcerned about the effect such a disclosure might have on the conduct of the war or on Bush’s public standing. When colleagues complained to Shaffer that including a religious message with an intelligence briefing seemed inappropriate, Shaffer politely informed them that the practice would continue, because “my seniors”—JCS chairman Richard Myers, Rumsfeld, and the commander in chief himself—appreciated the cover pages.

Bush also liked the way that Rumsfeld obstructed, delayed, undercut, and otherwise threw sand into the operation of the Bush administration on defense issues. For Draper, Bush appreciated Rumsfeld's orneriness.
Bush also enjoyed Rumsfeld’s cussedness, his alpha-dog behavior toward the media. That same behavior toward his colleagues did not seem to bother the president. To Bush, rivalry was healthy, and the full extent of Rumsfeld’s conduct was not known to him for the simple reason, say aides, that they did not wish to trouble the leader of the Free World every time Rumsfeld jerked them around.

In other words, what Bush liked was that Rumsfeld was a super-asshole, that Rummy's self-centeredness, aggression, pettiness, and other negative qualities went so far beyond the normal definition of an asshole. Other Bush favorites like Dick Cheney, David Addington, and John Bolton were super-assholes as well. One has to wonder if Bush appreciated any other kinds of qualities in his subordinates.

Where Obama created what historical plagiarizer Doris Kearns Goodwin calls a "Team of Rivals," George Bush recruited America's first team of Super-Assholes.

It would have made a great comic book.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Talking Corpse and a Man of No Known Color

Letter to John Yoo

Here's a letter I sent to John Yoo concerning the use of torture to elicit (false) information on the purported Saddam/al-Qaeda link.

Dear Professor Yoo,

I am a government professor at Morehead State University in Kentucky and a blogger at Open Salon and my own blog Red State Impressions.

I have several questions for you.

In April, McClatchy newspapers reported that Bush administration officials pressed the CIA and American military as early as 2002 to engage in torture (or "enhanced interrogations" if you will) for the purpose of establishing a connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein and thus justifying the upcoming invasion of Iraq.

Other reports on this topic--specifically by Lawrence Wilkerson--have emerged this week.

My first question is whether you knew that interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, confinement in coffins, sensory deprivation, or stress positions would be used to coerce prisoners into making the Saddam/al-Qaeda connection. Alllied to that first question is the question of whether you, or those with whom you worked, knew that were no major connections between Saddam and al-Qaeda and knowingly viewed the interrogations as seeking to elicit falsehoods.

My second question is how you would evaluate using torture/enhanced interrogations to provide justifications for a projected invasion of another country fits as an exercise of presidential power. Is this a legitimate exercise of presidential power? Is it a betrayal of the oath of office, the interest of the nation, or some other fundamental responsibility of the president? Is it a form of treason? Or do you see some other significance to these practices? My own opinion is that the Bush administration use of torture to elicit coerce prisoners into making the Saddam/al-Qaeda connection constitutes a betrayal of the Constitution that is unprecedented in American history.

But, I'm also interested in your opinion on these matters as a former Bush administration official and defender of Bush administration policies on these matters. If you choose to respond, I would publish your response on my quite modest little outlets and do my best to ensure wider coverage.

Ric Caric