In his water boarding admission, Bush seems to be playing for the hearts (and book-buying dollars) of patriotic Americans sickened by loss of life – in 911, then subsequently in Iraq then Afghanistan. There’s a definite right-wing, Tea Party, anti-liberal feel to this, in which the Presidents’ breaking of American and international laws is overlooked.
Bush opponents are characterised as liberals too precious to do what’s nasty-but-necessary to win the war against terrorism. The reality of winning this war is very different. A tactic that seems sensible in the heat of some moment at the tactical level, can ruin the overall strategy. Ill-treatment of suspected terrorists is very much one of those ‘tactics’. For the US President and Commander-in-Chief to admit to ordering such tactics is astonishing.
There is however another dimension – the effect on the individuals carrying out the ill-treatment. Giving in to circumstances and disobeying orders means taking a huge personal risk. The supposed terrible threat might not exist, and ‘chummy’ might be an innocent bystander so of course he’s not going to talk. He doesn’t know what to say to make you stop.
Interrogation is a different process; often very unpleasant, but not what I mean by ‘ill-treatment’. Professional interrogation teams don’t resort to torture because so-doing destroys the effect of the rest of the process. In ordering his people to cross the line, Bush brutalised them, reduced their effectiveness and relinquished his moral authority within the campaign – all in one go. The Bush admission/decision may be playing well in Texas and other parts of the USA, and with some people in the UK, which worries me greatly.
Some say “You can’t make omelettes without breaking eggs…” But if the omelette concerned is a just society; or with terrorism, demonstrating that your political system is fairer than theirs – and strong enough to withstanding terrorism without reverting to undemocratic measures, then you have to find other ways to make the proverbial egg dish, and resist all temptations to take short cuts.
It boils down to this. Terrorists have no regard for the lives and rights of others. We do, and until we can prove a person is a terrorist and has done certain things, his life and rights are as valuable as everyone else’s. In the desperate countries in which we’re currently operating, the value of lives generally is very low, which is an additional problem for us, but not for the terrorist
Asymmetric warfare means fighting with at least one hand tied behind your back. And our new CDS General Richards is right; we can’t beat the Taliban militarily. As with the IRA, we have to bring them to negotiating table, and from there to the ballot box, hopefully via the armoury so we can all hand in our weapons.