Friday, November 12, 2004

GONZALES FLAP: Every now and again the assiduous blog reader is reminded that even the best bloggers sometimes succumb to the bad habits that seem to haunt the medium. (Such as portentous, over-generalised and basically meaningless first sentences of posts -- but this isn't supposed to be autobiographical, for a change ...) Thus a somewhat pointless flap has developed between Matt Yglesias and the OxBlog boys, with Matt accusing OxBlog (whom he refers to as a single unit, although he's refering to a post by Patrick Belton) of ethusiastically endorsing torture in hailing the nomination of Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General. (A personal disclaimer is necessary here: I don't know Matt Yglesias, though I generally like his blogging, even if I sometimes think he's a bit lacking in humility or generosity; Patrick Belton, on the other hand, is one of my best friends -- which does not, of course, mean that I'm uncritical towards his views.)
Oh dear.
Now, when I read Patrick's original post (since updated to address the issue of Gonzales's authoring of a memo justifying the use of torture on enemy combatants captured as part of the 'war on terror'), I was also rather troubled, and indeed somewhat flabbergasted, by his hailing of Gonzales without mention of the torture issue. I do think that this was a misjudgment on Patrick's part, and that his emphasis on Gonzales's symbolic status as an inspirational example of a man who rose from being a poor migrant worker to the top of the legal and law-enforcement profession over Gonzales's seeming disregard for basic human rights as Bush's White House Counsel is misguided (and is an unfortunate example of how the Bush administration's slimy and somewhat hypocritical use of identity politics serves to win over well-meaning and generous-minded moderates). So, a slap on the wrist for Patrick. That said, Matt's post of criticism is unfair to the point of intellectual dishonesty. Since when did a failure to explicitly note and condemn a legal opinion which opens the way to the use of torture count as an 'enthusiastic endorsement' of torture? Matt seems to be confusing a sin of omission with a sin of commission, and the failure to dissent with active assent, here. He also has not updated his post to note that Patrick has updated his, or that David Adesnik has explicitly condemned Gonzales's justification of torture on OxBlog (with reference to this piece by Phil Carter, also noted and endorsed by Partick, and now by me, too). So, we have one non-endorsement of torture, and one active condemnation of it -- yet Matt, apparently, stands by, or at any doesn't bother to modify, his accusation, which was over-blown and over-nasty from the start.
However, let's get things into perspective here. I've started off with this utterly trivial little spat, but I do want to address the issue of Gonzales's nomination, which I think full of portent for the imminent second Bush II administration.
Back when Bush was elected (or 'elected', if you prefer) in 2000, a number of people I knew -- generally fairly sound and intelligent people -- predicted that things wouldn't be so bad: that he really would be a 'compassionate conservative', a moderate. I remember arguing that this wasn't the case, that he would appoint extremely conservative people and pursue conservative policies. People scoffed. And then John Ashcroft was named as Bush's designated Attorney General.
(Being inclined to pessimism, I hate being right, even if I love saying I told you so.)
Bush's nominee for Attorney General once again, I think, says a lot about the attitude, the mindset, with which the President is entering upon his (second) administration. The fact that Bush is promoting, and so rewarding and reaffirming his association with and warm approval of a man identified with (and correctly so -- indeed, a man in part responsible for) some of the U.S. government's and military's worst -- and most unpopular and inflaming -- abuses suggests that Bush is a) unrepentant, and not very concerned about, the human rights violations that have been part of his 'war on terror'; this suggests that there's no reason to think that we won't see more such abuses, although Bush and co. may do a better job of hiding them in future; and b) still doesn't care much about what the rest of the world thinks. Nominating Gonzales can be taken as reflecting a lack of respect for the Geneva Convention, and so for the international system more generally, and also for the opinions of all other civilised nations. This suggests that Bush will continue to act in a way that distances and alienates America from our traditional and natural allies. It is also an affront to the Arab world. Given the importance in winning the war on terrorism of winning 'hearts and minds' around the world, but particularly in Arab countries, this can only be considered a monumental folly. I can clearly see in my imagination an image of a poster juxtaposing scenes from Abu Ghraib with a picture of Bush standing beside Gonzales, looking smugly pleased while Gonzales speaks -- the picture that has been on front pages across the world over the last day or so. It is the perfect recruitment poster for Al Quaeda. Osama may be able to recruit his thousands; but Bush may wind up recruiting hundreds of thousands of jihadists with this callous appointment.
This appointment is both a crime, and a blunder; and neither of these aspects of it should be taken lightly. It might be good for the GOP's appeal to Latino/a voters. But it's bad for the U.S., and likely bad for all those who will be the objects of the U.S. government's law-enforcement efforts.
And it suggests that Bush has learnt nothing; that he is unrepentant, insensitive, and committed to going ahead and doing whatever he wants to, whatever he is convinced is right. It further suggests that what Bush thinks right has an awful lot to do with what's good for Bush's cronies, and what's good from the perspective of an arrogant uniltarlism and nationalism with scant regard for human rights, and very little to do with either a pragmatic understanding of the ways people around the world think and feel, and the consequences of these for America, or moral principle (such as that torturing people is wrong). It is a telling portent indeed; and a thoroughly unreassuring one.
[UPDATE: Matt Yglesias has graciously and wittily acknowledged this post, and retracted his charge [sorta]; many thanks to him for being a good sport and saying nice things about the rest of the post. He also links to this piece by Peter Berkowitz. I tend to think Peter's benign view of Bush is inaccurate, but his points are sound ones, however unlikely to be put into practice. [One mildly pissy note -- somewhat biting the hand that feeds me: Matt writes: 'Speaking of concern for minor things like morality and the national interest, if George W. Bush had them, Peter Berkowitz is just the sort of smart, moral, concerned individual he would have working for him' Actually, Peter Berkowitz does sort of work for Bush, as a consultant to the President's Council on Bioethics. I take it Matt means, though, that Bush should have Peter working more closely for him -- say, replacing Karl Rove?]

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