George W Bush, as any American president, has contributed to the language and shape of international affairs. In some way good. In some way very,very bad. The good is the idealized system of democracy and freedom that he projects. Nice thought. The very, very bad is that he has justified torture, preemptive war, and abrogation of international pacts in order to reach those ends – which he still cannot reach. So, he has destroyed international systems of order in a quixotic tilt at utopia, and delivered nothing. Worse than nothing, he has taken America far down from the moral high ground and the country has lost support globally, from allies as well as enemy nations. He has also changed the language of security in a bad way, and that effects peace-building efforts everywhere. The ideals may be good, but the results are very, very bad.
What I’ll focus on here are some words and phrases that Bush has contributed to the international lexicon, and how they have proved to be toxic and ultimately destructive.
From the Get Your War On Comic
War on Terror
I, for one, would like a moratorium on war against intangible concepts. Frankly, they’re kicking our ass. IMHO, war should be reserved for proper nouns, like people and places. There have been a couple of wars against common nouns (ideas, inanimate objects and demographic categories) and they have been resounding losses. The War On Drugs and War on Poverty are examples. If your enemy doesn’t exist in physical form then War is perhaps not the best idea. It’s like declaring a war on fucking ghosts.
Not to say that Terrorism, Drugs and Poverty aren’t bad, just that War is not the appropriate language to apply to them. They are all very complex and amorphous words that require complex solutions. What Bush has done, however, is create this blanket category called ‘Terror’ that patriots and despots alike are free to use. For example, Putin or Kazakhstan can do whatever they want and issue a press release about joining the War on Terror. Also, by declaring war on a tactic, you end up committing yourself to thousands of unrelated conflicts across the globe.
The word ‘terrorism‘ alone is corrosive in that it has no accepted definition, even by the UN. There are panels and nations with different definitions, but nothing clear-cut and legal. Most people use it within accepted parameters, but the word is so powerful that it’s like giving a razor blade to a monkey. You get Saddam Hussein calling Americans terrorists and Sri Lankan bloggers calling other bloggers terrorists and after a while it has no meaning. Worst of all, it becomes demeaning.
Suddenly someone with the label terrorist becomes subhuman and you’re able to torture or detain them or do whatever, based not on their crimes (and trial) but that label. I read Rush Limbaugh and some conservatives and they frame the torture debate as ‘but they’re terrorists, they deserve it’, to which I say wtf.
From Keith Olbermann. Takes a while to download, but good. I hit pause and do something else
Torture and Habeas Corpus
When I was growing up there was still a lot of anti-Americanism around. I could always defend the place by saying ‘In America they don’t torture you and lock you away for no reason’. I can no longer say that. That, to me, is the saddest loss of all. America has begun torturing people. From Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo, there are numerous examples. That, unfortunately, does happen in war. What is most sickening is that the highest levels of American government have supported torture and signed off on it. The above link goes to public memos, and as quoted in the New Yorker,
This shift in perspective, labeled the New Paradigm in a memo written by Alberto Gonzales, then the White House counsel, â€œplaces a high premium on… the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians,â€ giving less weight to the rights of suspects. It also questions many international laws of war. Five days after Al Qaedaâ€™s attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Vice-President Dick Cheney, reflecting the new outlook, argued, on â€œMeet the Press,â€ that the government needed to â€œwork through, sort of, the dark side.â€ Cheney went on, â€œA lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if weâ€™re going to be successful. Thatâ€™s the world these folks operate in. And so itâ€™s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.â€
Basically, the Geneva Conventions say that a nation won’t treat its captives like barbarians, torturing them and depriving them of basic human rights. The US is a signatory to this policy and it protects American soldiers abroad. And it protects American dignity. However the recently drafted Military Commissions act specifically null and voids them. It basically says that the American government can arrest anyone, deny them access to a lawyer, and treat them in any way the government pleases, Geneva Conventions be damned.
â€˜(b) NOTICE TO ACCUSED.â€”Upon the swearing of the charges and specifications in accordance with subsection (a), the accused shall be informed of the charges against him as soon as practicable.
* A civilian defense attorney may not be used unless the attorney has been determined to be eligible for access to classified information that is classified at the level Secret or higher. [10 U.S.C. sec. 949c(b)(3)(D)]…
* In General- No person may invoke the Geneva Conventions or any protocols thereto in any habeas corpus or other civil action or proceeding to which the United States, or a current or former officer, employee, member of the Armed Forces, or other agent of the United States is a party as a source of rights in any court of the United States or its States or territories. [Act sec. 5(a)]
* As provided by the Constitution and by this section, the President has the authority for the United States to interpret the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions and to promulgate higher standards and administrative regulations for violations of treaty obligations which are not grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. [Act sec. 6(a)(3)(A)]
Habeas Corpus is basically the right to a trial, and the Bush Administration has revoke it at will. It has been around since 1305 and the US Constitution protects it, saying “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” Note that the US is not undergoing a rebellion or invasion. Suspending Habeas Corpus means that the United States detains people for no reason and feels free to either tortures them here or sends them abroad to be tortured by someone else. As Edward Gomez says in SFGate,
The provisions of Bush’s new torture law mean that Americans have lost the key, constitutional right on which Anglo-American criminal law (and criminal-law procedures in true democracies in general) is founded; that’s the basic right of an individual to know why he or she is being apprehended and detained. Now, technically, as in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Germany, Mao’s China or Pol Pot’s Cambodia, anyone labeled an “enemy combatant” – again, by whom; by Bush? – can be whisked away and never heard from again.
It is disgusting and it is wrong. What’s worse is that now torturers and tyrants all over the world are emboldened and even justified. Beyond breaking bodies, Bush has broken the words and treaties that hold civilized people together. As an example of how close it gets,
On January 27th, President Bush, in an interview with the Times, assured the world that â€œtorture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture.â€ Maher Arar, a Canadian engineer who was born in Syria, was surprised to learn of Bushâ€™s statement. Two and a half years ago, American officials, suspecting Arar of being a terrorist, apprehended him in New York and sent him back to Syria, where he endured months of brutal interrogation, including torture. When Arar described his experience in a phone interview recently, he invoked an Arabic expression. The pain was so unbearable, he said, that â€œyou forget the milk that you have been fed from the breast of your mother.â€
Arar, a thirty-four-year-old graduate of McGill University whose family emigrated to Canada when he was a teen-ager, was arrested on September 26, 2002, at John F. Kennedy Airport. He was changing planes; he had been on vacation with his family in Tunisia, and was returning to Canada (New Yorker)
I graduated from McGill and I have traveled in the same way. He knew the brother of a suspected terrorist. He was beaten and held underground without charges for one year. That’s not the America I grew up in, and it’s not an America that leads the world in any meaningful way.
When it comes to the goal that supposedly justifies torture, Bush has failed. First off, he’s created more chaos in the Middle East than there ever was before. The National Intelligence Estimate published reports from numerous spy agencies agencies saying that the US is less safe and that terrorism has been embolden by the chaos in Iraq. Furthermore, by replacing Iran’s greatest enemy with chaos and ignoring the Israeli conflict, Bush has made Iran the most powerful player in the Middle East. Through Shiite militias and clerics Iran greatly influences Iraq and indirectly attacks the States there, and through Hezbollah they can take (successful) potshots at Israel.
I’ve already gotten into how the term has gotten bastardized, I won’t get into it again, but here’s a quote from Christopher Buckley (speechwriter for Bush the Elder and son of William F. Buckley).
There were some of us who scratched our heads in 2000 when we first heard the phrase â€œcompassionate conservative.â€ It had a cobbled-together, tautological, dare I say, Rovian aroma to it…
Six years later, the White House uses the phrase about as much as it does â€œMission Accomplished.â€ Six years of record deficits and profligate expansion of entitlement programs. Incompetent expansion, at that: The actual cost of the Presidentâ€™s Medicare drug benefit turned out, within months of being enacted, to be roughly one-third more than the stated price. Werenâ€™t Republicans supposed to be the ones who were good at accounting? All those years on Wall Street calculating CEO compensation….
Who knew, in 2000, that â€œcompassionate conservatismâ€ meant bigger government, unrestricted government spending, government intrusion in personal matters, government ineptitude, and cronyism in disaster relief? Who knew, in 2000, that the only bill the president would veto, six years later, would be one on funding stem-cell research?
A more accurate term for Mr. Bushâ€™s political philosophy might be incontinent conservatism (Washington Monthly)
And those are just a few examples. There is also ignoring the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by allowing India nuclear arms, ignoring climate change, stem cell research, etc. All these are cases where George W. Bush has not only made bad decisions, he has corrupted and politicized the language around those decisions in ways that make things harder for future generations. That is my main gripe. The doublespeak, hackneyed idealism and outright lies that cloud very cynical and disastrous decisions. Those have an effect beyond the immediate in that that language can pervade and corrupt the body politic across the globe.