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Jesse Larner Headshot

Conservative Values?

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Perhaps starting a blog with a comment about the Iraq war is a bit much. But this is the week after Memorial Day; we are in a war; and we're losing. Surely our soldiers deserve a public discussion of the war and the politics that fuel it that is as broad as possible. Maybe every writer in America should write about the war today. I'd like to focus for a moment on the war's effects on politics, and on the debasement of political positions that it has encouraged.

By "politics" I don't mean the status of war funding bills or the reactions of party leaders to polls about the war. I mean the deeper question of how the people who lead populist politics understand what they are doing and thinking. As little as our political leaders know or care about such important things as the sociology of power in Iraq, they seem to know even less about the political values and traditions that they, and all of us, are supposedly fighting for.

In this regard, it's always instructive to read the comments of those who write for the organs of far-right know-nothingism, the Weekly Standard and the National Review. What's most remarkable about these guys is that they consider themselves hard-headed realists, people who, as George Bush once pathetically said of himself, "just know how this world works." But they seem to have as little grasp of conservative principles as they do of historical reality.

Here's the right-wing pundit Jay Nordlinger, a former unthoughtful leftist who became an unthoughtful rightist and who has no idea how far he has drifted into extremism.

Don't the French make you sick sometimes? The United States, I would wager for good reasons, has declined to sign a treaty that "bans governments from holding people in secret detention." ... And here's what the French foreign minister said, when signing in Paris: "Our American friends were naturally invited to this ceremony; unfortunately, they weren't able to join us." Snigger snigger snigger.

Now the French reaction sounds restrained indeed -- polite, even -- considering the very disturbing phenomenon that Nordlinger is describing. Yet Nordlinger calls himself a conservative -- and completely misses the irony. Aren't conservatives, the idealistic kind anyway, supposed to fear unlimited government power? Aren't they supposed to favor transparency and accountability in government? Yet here's Nordlinger proclaiming that the government must have "good reasons" for keeping prisoners off the books, unnamed and unregistered -- an invitation to lawlessness and impunity about which he is utterly complacent.

What would John Stuart Mill say about this casual endorsement of the ability of government to act in an unfettered, unmonitored, unaccountable manner against the person of anyone it deems a threat? What would Friedrich Hayek say? Barry Goldwater?

Actually, I spend a good deal of time reading the conservatives, and I'm convinced that lawlessness is what Nordlinger and his pals at National Review actually favor. They have consistently downplayed American involvement in torture, for example. Here's Nordlinger's colleague Douglas Kmiec, writing in 2005 that then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales never condoned torture: "Under law, torture is independently prohibited and the president has denounced it from the beginning. Judge Gonzales has never written anything to the contrary."

Oh, didn't he? Well, he didn't call it torture, and technically he didn't write the words himself. But one of the many things Gonzales did on behalf of an eccentric doctrine that holds that the American president is above the law (the radical "unitary executive" theory) was to approve a memo written by John Yoo of the Office of Legal Counsel in 2002, signed by Yoo's supervisor Jay Bybee. This extraordinary document asserts that most of what we would intuitively call torture really is not: "The victim must experience intense pain or suffering, of the kind that is equivalent to the pain that would be associated with serious physical injury so severe that death, organ failure, or permanent damage resulting in a loss of significant body function will likely result." (p. 13.) Everything short of that, a vast field of endeavor for the demented, is fair game.

Yoo, a foremost proponent of the "unitary executive," also argues that for an act to be considered torture, there must be a specific intent on the part of the accused to inflict pain; "...even if the defendant knows that severe pain will result from his actions, if causing such harm is not his objective, he lacks the requisite specific intent even though the defendant did not act in good faith." (p. 4) What, exactly, does that mean in legal terms? It means that interrogators can't ever be punished for being torturers unless "specific intent" can be proved -- a virtual impossibility.

The views expressed in this memo, it should come as no surprise, are in no way in accordance with the Geneva Conventions or with the international Convention Against Torture, to which the United States is a signatory and in concrete ways it laid the groundwork for the use of torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. For an idea of the role of this memo in the larger scheme of things, check out Mark Danner's book Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror (New York Review of Books). No matter how much this administration tries to blame a few ordinary soldiers for Abu Ghraib, as Seymour Hersh has shown, responsibility goes right to the top.

So why are conservatives defending the government's right to break the law and to inflict punishment unaccountably, even on individuals who may not have been charged with any crime, much less found guilty of one, as was the case with many of the detainees at Abu Ghraib? Of course they justify their means by ends: the necessity of winning the war on terror. But this doesn't make any sense, and if people like Nordlinger and Kmiec and Charles Krauthammer and James Robbins and Victor Davis Hanson (not to mention, in a somewhat different class, professional provocateuses Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin) all of whom have minimized acts of torture when the United States engages in it, had actually done their homework, they would see why. Never mind that torture is illegal and wrong. Never mind that it degrades us as a society, that it is a slippery slope to anti-democratic government impunity (which doesn't seem to bother Nordlinger at all.) Never mind, even, that it galvanizes many in the Muslim world, handing their demagogues an argument that the U.S. is no better than its enemies, and turning those who have experienced torture into implacable jihadis. Torture does not even work, and often produces bad information that damages the operations of the torturers' side in the field. This is a fact widely recognized by the military and its professional interrogators.

Would the use of torture be a net gain or loss for the forces of democracy in the war on terror? Anyone who understands and believes in classical or modern democratic liberalism, or democratic conservatism, would have to say a loss; so why the defense of torture on the political right? Is it because those on the right who do this don't understand conservative principles, or don't follow them?

National Review columnist James Robbins, a rank ideological fantasist who considers himself a foreign-policy realist, wrote a while back about the arrest of Ramzi Mohammed, whom Robbins described as a "suspect" in the attempted London bombings of July 21, 2005. Robbins pours scorn on Mohammed because, when faced with arrest, he cried out, "I have rights!" Robbins made the correct yet utterly predictable point that it is disgusting and ironic that those who seek to undermine the Western liberal democratic order take refuge in the very protections that that order offers.

But wait a minute. Mohammed may well have been guilty, and I feel no sense of misplaced sympathy for him. Yet he had not been tried; Robbins could not have seen any of the evidence against him. How could Robbins have simply assumed his guilt? And if he had been found guilty, would Robbins think that he had none of the rights that the Western system of liberal democracy in fact does guarantee him? Does Robbins think that the police should be able to search Ramzi Mohammed's home without a warrant, detain him without trial, torture him? Torture his family?

He does not. Robbins explicitly upholds Ramzi Mohammed's legal rights, correctly, as an aspect of the superiority of Western civilization over systems ruled by fundamentalism. So what, then, was the point of bothering to write an article on how obnoxious it was that Mohammed cried out about those rights? Unless Robbins, contrary to his own statement, actually does believe that Mohammed is not entitled to them, his smug outrage is pointless, mere pandering to the emotions of his audience. Yes, it's an infuriating but necessary fact that, in our system, terrorists do have rights. This isn't bleeding-heart, coddle-the-terrorists liberalism (which unfortunately does exist, if the sordid story of Lynn Stewart tells us anything). It is stone-cold-realist, understanding-the-nature-of-democracy liberalism.

Perhaps Robbins' energy would be better spent -- perhaps he would be of more service in the war on terror -- if he were to investigate violations by the representatives of Western Civilization of their own legal and ethical codes, violations that have been well documented in Iraq and Afghanistan, violations that damage our necessary and legitimate struggle against those who want to destroy us. This Robbins steadfastly refuses to recognize, and his denials are a form of complicity. How much do Western values really matter to him, then?

I've always been a bit offended when conservatives proclaim that they believe in "limited government," as if liberals don't. Only totalitarians, after all, believe in unlimited government. Yet from "black" CIA prisons in Central European countries that the press is not supposed to name (Poland, Romania), to torture, to warrantless wiretaps, to extreme rendition, to signing statements that proclaim that the president has no intention of enforcing the will of congress, to the "unitary executive" (doesn't the Constitution rest on a separation of powers? Don't true conservatives insist on that?), this government has aggressively asserted its intent never to be bound by the rule of law. Perhaps it is not surprising that a strutting little narcissist like Bush would take this position in power. What is surprising is that his conservative base is not outraged by it.

* * * * * *

Another observation on the thinness of political debate: Why don't Americans challenge our political leaders when they lie to us, when they fail us, when they are clearly not up to the job? Take, for example, George W. Bush's interview with Charlie Rose a few weeks ago. Bush just lied through his teeth on very important points.

For example, it's now become the administration line that everything was going great in Iraq until the bombing of the Samarra mosque in 2005, and that that was the event that started the sectarian conflict. But, as Frank Rich and others have pointed out, that's total nonsense; there was vicious sectarian conflict at least 15 months before the bombing, something that could have and should have been predicted before the war by an administration that "just know[s] how this world works" (and that was predicted by others, whose advice received nothing but contempt from the war planners). Bush repeated the lie about Samarra and of course Rose didn't challenge him on it at all. And most people watching wouldn't have any idea that it's a lie, or understand why it's a very important and sinister lie. The interview was full of stuff like that, and Rose completely sucked up, as usual.

The difference between the way American and British journalists interview powerful politicians is quite interesting. The Brits always approach the interview adversarially and ask tough, penetrating questions, and follow up, making the subject squirm (and it's not partisan -- they do it for left and right politicians, and indeed for non-politician interviewees.) The salutary effects of this are little appreciated by American politicians. In a joint press conference with Tony Blair, George W. Bush recently had the astonishing gall to be offended when a British journalist actually asked his friend Blair a tough question: as he so often does, Bush childishly expressed personal pique at the unwelcome seriousness, responding sarcastically, "That's a lovely question." He's become accustomed, after all, to the servile American style, in which journalists always handle political interviewees with great deference and the more powerful the interviewee, the more deferential they are. Which is exactly the opposite of how it should work in a democracy.