Is Andrew Sullivan King of America?

By David Swanson

Of course, I’m going to argue no, that Andrew Sullivan is no more the king of America than is Barack Obama or George Tenet or Eric Holder or any of hundreds of other people claiming to be. But nobody other than the king or queen of the USA could overrule the Constitution and place particular people and categories of people above the law while keeping everybody else under it. Let’s take a look at Sullivan’s recent Atlantic article:

Americans want, and need, to move on from the debate over torture in Iraq and Afghanistan and close this tragic chapter in our nation’s history. Prosecuting those responsible could tear apart a country at war. Instead, the best way to confront the crimes of the past is for the man who authorized them to take full responsibility. An open letter to President George W. Bush.

By Andrew Sullivan

Dear President Bush,

Now, I, for one don’t want to move on from talking about torture and murder and aggressive war and political prosecutions and illegal propaganda and death squads and stolen elections and warrantless spying, etc., I want to move on from the actual things themselves. Most of them are still around because they are not being prosecuted. Far from tearing apart a country, creating one in which we are all under the same set of laws would bring us together. And how exactly are we a nation at war? There is no war on our soil or threat to it. Most families have no members engaged in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The cost of the wars is being shoved off on our grandchildren. Just about the only sense in which our country is at war, other than the devastation being imposed on other countries and a relatively small number of US familes, is the consistent use of claims of war as a justification for domestic abuses. OK, maybe there’s one other sense in which we are at war: Sullivan is experiencing the sort of delusional thinking that can follow battle. Bush take responsibility? Think about those words for a minute.

We have never met, and so I hope you will forgive the personal nature of this letter. I guess I should start by saying I supported your presidential campaign in 2000, as I did your father’s in 1988, and lauded your first efforts to wage war against jihadist terrorism in the wake of 9/11. Some of my praise of your leadership at the time actually makes me blush in retrospect, but your September 20, 2001, address to Congress really was one of the finest in modern times; your immediate grasp of the import of 9/11—a declaration of war—was correct; and your core judgment—that religious fanaticism allied with weapons of mass destruction represents a unique and new threat to the West—was and is dead-on. I remain proud of my support for you in all this. No one should forget the pure evil of September 11; no one should doubt the continued determination of an enemy prepared to slaughter thousands in cold blood in pursuit of heaven on Earth.

So, as of 2000, Sullivan had zero ability to judge political candidates and/or had never read Molly Ivins. Should this past record of deadly misjudgment commend his opinions to us now? As of 2001, Sullivan believed a crime constituted a war, and as of 2009, following the disaster created by that pretense, he still thinks the same thing. Following the slaughter of 1.3 million Iraqis, Sullivan still holds out as potential justification for abuses, the supposed existence of an enemy prepared to kill “thousands” of Americans. And Sullivan is — through it all — still proud of having supported Bush, or so deep in a deranged fantasy about winning Bush over that he’s willing to tell him flattering lies.

Of course, like most advocates of the Iraq War, I grew dismayed at what I saw as the mistakes that followed: the failure to capture Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora; the intelligence fiasco of Saddam’s nonexistent stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction; the failure to prepare for an insurgency in Iraq; the reckless disbandment of the Iraqi army; the painful slowness in adapting to drastically worsening conditions there in 2004–06; the negligence toward Afghanistan.

A coordinated campaign to deceive a nation about the grounds for war is an “intelligence fiasco”? Preparing for the resistance of the Iraqi people would have improved the supreme crime of aggressive war? Escalation in Afghanistan, too, would have improved that criminal and aggressive war? When Sullivan reads about mass murderers on the domestic scene, does he complain about their mistakes or their crimes? Think about exactly what Sullivan would like Bush to apologize for, and to the people of what country Sullivan wants such an apology addressed. Then ask yourself whether giving up the deterrence of major crimes in the future is a price worth paying for such an apology. Then remember that we are talking about a man who does not apologize and is as likely to apologize as Sullivan is to admit that the peace movement was and is right.

These were all serious errors; but they were of a kind often made in the chaos of war. And even your toughest critics concede that, eventually, you adjusted tactics and strategy. You took your time, but you evaded catastrophe in temporarily stabilizing Iraq. I also agree with the guiding principle of the war you proclaimed from the start: that expanding democracy and human rights is indispensable in the long-term fight against jihadism. And I believe, as you do, that a foreign policy that does not understand the universal yearning for individual freedom and dignity is not a recognizably American foreign policy.

My favorites among Bush’s toughest critics have no use for this slimey defense. If what has been done to Iraq is not a catastrophe, what — other than perhaps an embarassing TV appearance for Sullivan — could be? Bush did not from the start claim to be expanding democracy. He pasted that over the missing WMDs and ties to 9-11. But it was hogwash, and the state of democracy and human rights in Iraq is no more secure than in the United States. Bush believes in basing foreign policy on freedom and dignity? Can Sullivan possibly mean for even Bush himself to believe that line? Should someone throw a shoe at Andrew? I’m not sure what else would snap him out of this.

Yet it is precisely because of that belief that I lost faith in your war. In long wars of ideas, moral integrity is essential to winning, and framing the moral contrast between the West and its enemies as starkly as possible is indispensable to victory, as it was in the Second World War and the Cold War.

What, pray tell, is moral about framing a moral contrast between “the West and its enemies” and who is this pair of clowns (Sullivan and Bush) to tell me who my enemies should be and what’s wrong with their morality, and then to identify them with the peoples of entire continents?

But because of the way you chose to treat prisoners in American custody in wartime—a policy that degraded human beings with techniques typically deployed by brutal dictatorships—we lost this moral distinction early, and we have yet to regain it. That truth hangs over your legacy as a stain that has yet to be removed. As more facts emerge, the stain could darken further. You would like us to move on. So would the current president. But we cannot unless we find a way to address that stain, to confront and remove it.

Nothing could darken this stain further. Torture is a drop in a sea of blood created by aggressive war. But if we can perform the indescribable indecency of accepting that Sullivan simply won’t address the crime of aggressive war (a crime that almost inevitably brings torture with it), then Sullivan is perfectly right in how he addresses torture — or he would be if he were to include the significance of its illegality.

I have come to accept that it would be too damaging and polarizing to the American polity to launch legal prosecutions against you, and deeply unfair to solely prosecute those acting on your orders or in your name.

Damaging to the American polity? Establishing that a president can make laws by signing statements, executive orders, and secret memos strikes me as hugely damaging. Including among those laws the legalization of torture, aggressive war at a president’s whim, and warrantless spying strikes me as devastating and, yes, polarizing. We have divided the nation into those who make the laws and live above them, and the rest of us who have no role in making the laws but live under them. Sullivan would not be the first pundit to take this position if what he means to say is that we should not prosecute high officials because the corporate media would take the opportunity to go completely insane. Frankly, I think that’s a price worth paying, because we are going to pay it either way. If elected officials continue to take their orders from the corporate media, it will go insane just as surely as if its dominance is challenged. The same goes for the gangs of corporate pawns threatening racist violence at astroturfed media events; if they are what worries Sullivan he should stop and read some of his favorite hard-headed authors on the history of appeasement. But Sullivan (and Doug Feith for that matter) is exactly right that it makes no sense to prosecute Bush’s subordinates for crimes he ordered without prosecuting him first.

President Obama’s decision thus far to avoid such prosecutions is a pragmatic and bipartisan one in a time of war, as is your principled refusal to criticize him publicly in his first months. But moving on without actually confronting or addressing the very grave evidence of systematic abuse and torture under your administration poses profound future dangers. It gives the impression that nothing immoral or illegal took place. Indeed, since leaving office, your own vice president has even bragged of these interrogation techniques; and many in your own party threaten to reinstate such policies in the future. Their extreme rhetoric seems likely to shape—to contaminate—history’s view of your presidency, indeed of the Bush name, and the world’s view of America. But my biggest fear is this: in the event of a future attack on the United States, another president will feel tempted, or even politically compelled, to resort to the same brutalizing policy, with the same polarizing, demoralizing, war-crippling results. I am writing you now because it is within your power—and only within your power—to prevent that from happening.

Again with the “time of war” every time a horrendous and unconstitutional abuse of power is justified. The president has no business deciding anything here. The attorney general has a duty to uphold the law. Obama has the same legal duty we all have not to obstruct justice. And such abuses are exactly as unconstitutional even when “bipartisan” and would be even if you could get 18 parties to support them. Sullivan is right to point to Cheney’s bragging. Another word for it is confessing. And Bush has done the same. They have both admitted repeatedly on television to authorizing torture. Bush has signed executive orders and signing statements to the same effect. Cheney and John Yoo have both stated publicly that Bush was responsible. Sullivan’s biggest fear is right on, but too theoretical. The wars and spying and rendition and lawless detention and unjustifiable secrecy and indeed torture are ongoing now. The current White House claims the power to torture if it chooses to now. This hypothetical stuff was OK eight months ago, but not any longer. The danger is more immediate and should be expressed as such. Obama is formalizing a system of indefinite preventive detention in a way that one administration alone could not have done. The same goes for the use of signing statements, orders, decrees, and secret memos.

Don’t misunderstand me. The war was compromised, not by occasional war crimes, or bad snap decisions by soldiers acting under extreme stress, or the usual, ghastly stuff that war is made of. All conflicts generate atrocities. Very few have been without sporadic abuse of prisoners or battlefield errors. As long as these lapses are investigated and punished, the integrity of a just war can be sustained.

But this war is different. It began with a memo from your office stating that—for the first time—American service members and CIA officers need not adhere to the laws of warfare that have governed Western and American war-making since before this country’s founding. The memo declared that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to captured terror suspects but that all prisoners would be treated humanely unless “military necessity” required otherwise. This gaping “military necessity” loophole—formally opposed in a memo by the member of your Cabinet with the most military experience, Secretary of State Colin Powell—was the beginning of America’s descent into the ranks of countries that systematically torture prisoners. You insisted that prisoners be treated humanely whenever possible, but wars with legal loopholes for abuse and torture always quickly degenerate. In its full consequences, that memo, even if issued in good faith, has done more damage to the reputation of the United States than anything since Vietnam. The tolerance of torture and abuse has recruited more terrorists than any al-Qaeda video, and has devastated morale and support at home. Your successor remains profoundly constrained even now by this legacy—compelled to prevent the release of more photographic evidence of war crimes under your command because of the damage it could still do to American soldiers in the field.

This is good as far as it goes, but this war was compromised in the way that a smaller and less horrific mass-murdering rampage could be “compromised” by other lesser crimes. And what compels Obama to withhold numerous photos, videos, memos, orders, reports, testimony, diaries, and other evidence is his willingness to spit on the Constitution, his desire to keep presidents above the rule of law (for obvious reasons), his fear of the corporate media, and his desire to please the permanent bureaucracy in Washington. If he wanted to protect soldiers he would bring them home.

No, terror suspects did not deserve full prisoner-of-war status. That argument was always a red herring. Full POW rights—regular meals, exercise, and the rest—were not applicable to stateless terror suspects who themselves had no uniform or adherence to Geneva. You were right to see that as inappropriate, if not offensive. But what these suspects did deserve—simply because they are human beings—was protection from inhuman, degrading, abusive treatment or the infliction of “severe mental or physical pain or suffering” in order to procure information. This is what Geneva’s Article 3 says: whatever the nature of the combatant, in or out of uniform, and whatever his own moral rules (or lack of them), he deserves basic respect as a human being with human rights. This principle is nonnegotiable. It is the core principle of Western civilization. Resistance to the physical force of government, especially as that force is applied to people in custody, is the core reason America exists as an independent nation.

No king, not King Bush and not King Sullivan, has the power to invent new categories of prisoners. Geneva does not apply only to people who themselves uphold it. And those not accorded the rights of prisoners of war must be accorded the rights of prisoners in peace. A third category of not-quite-as-human-but-still-fairly-human prisoners cannot be invented ad hoc by royalty if we are to operate under the rule of laws. Such a policy could be smart and sensible, but there would be nothing to prevent its mutating into something else. There is a reason we make laws, make those laws public, and hold each other to them. This is clearly lost on Sullivan who, despite now unavoidably knowing that most of the “terror suspects” imprisoned by the United States in these past several years have not been guilty of any terrorism, finds it possibly offensive to suggest that they should have had too many human rights — even though those rights might have prevented years of imprisonment for innocent human beings.

I believe that if you review the facts of your two terms of office, you will be forced to realize that, whatever your intentions, you undermined this fundamental American principle. You may not have intended that to occur. But you were the commander in chief and president, and these were presidential-level decisions. The responsibility for all of this is yours—before the American people and before the court of history. And you need finally to own these decisions, to take full responsibility for them, to account for them, to explain them, and, yes, to apologize for their scope and brutality.

Exactly, and to turn yourself in at the nearest police station. The cops guarding your mansion in Dallas are very decent sorts. I’m sure they would be willing to keep the cuffs loose.

This was never about “bad apples.” It is no longer even faintly plausible to argue that the mounds of identical documented abuses across every theater of combat in the war as it was conducted after January 2002 were a function of a handful of reservists improvising sadism on one night shift in one prison. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the Senate Armed Services Committee, dozens of reputable well-sourced news stories and well-documented books, and the many official reports on the subject have revealed a systematic pattern of prisoner mistreatment in every theater of combat, by almost all branches of the armed services, and in every major detention facility in Iraq where interrogation took place. (Revealingly, there were very few abuses in what the Red Cross calls “regular internment facilities” in Iraq—meaning those where interrogation was not taking place.)

The Senate’s own unanimous bipartisan report, signed by your party’s 2008 nominee, John McCain, proves exhaustively that the abuse and torture documented in U.S. prisons were the results of policies you chose. The International Red Cross found your administration guilty of treating prisoners in a manner that constituted torture, a war crime. Experts in the history of torture, such as the Reed College professor Darius Rejali, make very careful distinctions between the disparate acts of torture or abuse that take place in all wars and a bureaucratized top-down policy, whereby identical techniques are replicated across the globe in different services and under different commands, with some on-the-ground improvisation as well. The history of prisoner mistreatment under your command fits the second pattern, not the first.

The techniques these various sources describe are not comic-book sadism; they are not the gruesome medieval tortures of Saddam. In fact, they are coolly modern tortures, designed to leave no physical marks that could be proffered as evidence against the regimes that use them. They have been used by democracies that want to get what they believe are the fruits of torture while avoiding all physical evidence of it. As the slogan in Iraq’s Camp Nama put it, “No blood, no foul.” But torture is not defined in law or morality by the production of blood or by any specific technique—that would simply invite governments to devise techniques other than those prohibited. Torture is defined by the imposition of “severe mental or physical pain or suffering” to the point when a human being can bear it no longer and tells his interrogators something—true or untrue—to stop what cannot be endured. That’s torture, in plain English. It was the clear goal of the policy you set in motion—and implemented with great determination across the world in ships and secret sites, at Guantánamo Bay and Bagram in Afghanistan, throughout interrogation centers in Iraq.

True enough. No investigation is needed. Sullivan can be spared that “trauma.” The facts are sufficiently public for an easy conviction. What’s needed is a quick prosecution and a lengthy jail sentence.

At the same time, though, you expressed what seemed to me to be genuine public revulsion at the techniques you authorized. On June 26, 2003, the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, you stated:

“I call on all governments to join with the United States and the community of law-abiding nations in prohibiting, investigating, and prosecuting all acts of torture and in undertaking to prevent other cruel and unusual punishment. I call on all nations to speak out against torture in all its forms and to make ending torture an essential part of their diplomacy.”

You did not parse torture narrowly here. You were opposed to it in “all its forms.” You also called for barring “other cruel and unusual punishment.” When four U.S. soldiers were captured early in the Iraq conflict, you stated:

I expect them to be treated, the POWs, I expect to be treated humanely, just like we’re treating the prisoners that we have captured humanely. If not, the people who mistreat the prisoners will be treated as war criminals.

In 2004, after the revelations of Abu Ghraib, you told al-Hurra, the U.S.-sponsored Arabic television station, “This is not America. America is a country of justice and law and freedom and treating people with respect.” You went on to say: “The people of Iraq must understand that I view those practices as abhorrent.”

Oh my goodness, you don’t mean a politician could be . . . gasp . . . hypocritical?

Then how could you have authorized them? Maybe it was unclear to you at the time that most of the gruesome photographs from Abu Ghraib depicted techniques that you and your defense secretary authorized. This is an explanation in some ways, even if it is not an excuse. Photos can jar us into recognition of reality when words fail. Most of us hearing of “stress positions” or “long-time standing” or “harsh techniques” do not visualize what these actually are. They sound mild enough in the absence of further inquiry. Those photographs did us all a terrible favor in that respect: they removed any claim of deniability as to what these techniques mean. And yet you responded to Abu Ghraib by extending the techniques revealed there and codifying them in law, in the Military Commissions Act, for use by the CIA. Your administration ordered up memos in your second term to perpetuate these abuses. It is hard to escape the conclusion that you were dissembling in your initial claim of abhorrence and shock; or were in denial; or were not in control of your own administration.

It is important to note here that Bush had command responsibility and Constitutional responsibility regardless of failures to “control” his subordinates. He did not investigate or punish. He protected, concealed, and lied about what was happening.

I don’t believe you were lying. I believe you were genuinely horrified. But that means you now need to confront the denial that allowed you somehow to ignore what you directly authorized and commanded: using dogs to terrorize prisoners; stripping detainees naked and hooding them; isolating people in windowless cells for weeks and even months on end; freezing prisoners to near-death and reviving them and repeating the hypothermia; contorting prisoners into stress positions that create unbearable pain in the muscles and joints; cramming prisoners into upright coffins in painful positions with minimal air; near-drowning, on a waterboard, of human beings—in one case 183 times—even after they have cooperated with interrogators. Those Abu Ghraib prisoners standing on boxes, bent over with their cuffed hands tied behind them to prison bars? You authorized that. The prisoner being led around by Lynndie England on a leash, like a dog? You authorized that, too, and enforced it in at least one case, that of Mohammed al-Qahtani, in Guantánamo Bay.

Yes, Bush could have been horrified, although I doubt he was. But he most certainly was lying when he said the United States did not torture.

In defending these policies since you left office, you have insisted that all of these techniques were legal. But one of the key lawyers who provided your legal defense, John Yoo, is on record as saying that your inherent executive power allowed you to order the legal crushing of an innocent child’s testicles if you believed that it could get intelligence out of his father. Yoo also favored a definition of torture that allowed literally anything to be done to a helpless prisoner short of causing death or the permanent loss of a major organ. The Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture offer blanket legal bans on anything that even looks like torture. Yoo set up a mirror image: a blanket legal permission to do anything abusive to a prisoner, hedged only by the need not to kill him. If that is your defense of the legality of torture, it is a profoundly weak one.

But leave the question of legality aside. Skilled lawyers can argue anything. Examine the moral and ethical question. Could any moral person who saw the abuse of human beings at Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Camp Cropper, Camp Nama, and uncounted black sites across the globe and at sea believe it was in compliance with America’s “respect” and “law and freedom”? As president, your job was not to delegate moral responsibility for these acts, but to take moral responsibility for them. You said a decade ago: “Once you put your hand on the Bible and swear in [to public office], you must set a high standard and be responsible for your own actions.”

The point of this letter, Mr. President, is to beg you to finally take responsibility for this stain on American honor and this burden on a war we must win. It is to plead with you to own what happened under your command, and to reject categorically the phony legalisms, criminal destruction of crucial evidence, and retrospective rationalizations used to pretend that none of this happened. It happened. You once said, “I’m worried about a culture that says … ‘If you’ve got a problem blame somebody else.’” I am asking you to stop blaming others for the consequences of decisions you made.

In other words, turn yourself in.

What are you responsible for, exactly? Books have been written on this.

Here’s one.

Sullivan goes on to detail at length in passages I’m omitting, some of the torture Bush authorized. This is all very well written and someone should read it to the former president. At some point, however, a member of the Bush family is not going to be willing to trouble his pretty little mind with this. A prison cell would focus Dubya’s concentration. Sullivan then concludes that there is no role in restoring our republic for its citizens or our representatives or our laws. Only the former dictator himself can set things right through his own benevolence:

Only you can do what’s needed. Only you can move this country forward by taking full responsibility for the past and supporting the current president in his abolition of torture and abuse and in his conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The decisions you made were complex; it may well be that you only subsequently grasped the full import of the actions you took in good faith; that you were misled about, or misunderstood, what “harsh interrogation” meant. All presidents are human, and taking responsibility does not mean self-flagellation.

And what happens when the next president disagrees with these two? What deters Sullivan’s greatest fear of repetition of these crimes? The fear of having to say “sorry”? Should we apply that punishment to lesser crimes as well? Sullivan then goes on to suggest falsely, and contradicting his own evidence, that Bush can apologize without actually admitting guilt, since we can all pretend that this president did not know his subordinates were committing crimes.

The model is Ronald Reagan, who denied he had ever traded arms for hostages in Iran but eventually realized that that was indeed the consequence of the actions he took, the men he appointed, and the policy he pursued. Reagan’s speech to the nation on this matter was, in my view, his greatest, because it revealed humility and integrity. “First, let me say,” he told us in 1987,

“I take full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration. As angry as I may be about activities undertaken without my knowledge, I am still accountable for those activities. As disappointed as I may be in some who served me, I’m still the one who must answer to the American people for this behavior … A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.”

If you read the Red Cross report and the Senate Armed Services Committee report, I believe you will reach a similar conclusion about your own record on prisoner treatment. You may not have intended to torture people, but you did; you may have wanted to protect the country within the law, but that admirable desire too easily slid into your approval of actions that are indefensible, illegal, and deeply damaging to America’s reputation and honor. You were let down, as Reagan was. He took responsibility. You need to as well.

Demanding that you alone be held accountable and no one else be scapegoated would itself be an act of honor.

Again, remember whom you are talking to!

It would draw a line between the past and the future in the same way that Lincoln’s defense of his brief suspensions of habeas corpus conceded Congress’s sole right to remove this core constitutional provision, but defended his action as a necessary emergency measure because a mass rebellion “had subverted the whole of the laws.” You do not deserve to go down in history as the president who brought torture into the American system and refused to take responsibility for it. It is also vital that torture not become a partisan issue, that any future terror attack not become an opportunity for your party to reinstitute it or wield it as a political weapon against future presidents who are following the rule of law. After the next attack, America will need unity—not a poisonous division over the issue of torture. You had that unity after 9/11. Your successors deserve the same support.

Sullivan continues in this line, asking someone he clearly considers above the law to apologize for having acted accordingly.

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