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Andrew Sullivan, take a bow

I must admit that at some stages I thought that Andrew Sullivan had slightly lost the plot in his apparent obsession with the torture issue concerning the treatment of detainees in Iraq and elsewhere. At one stage Sullivan seemed to take upon himself the task of scolding other bloggers (notably Glenn Reynolds) for not buying into his argument. Well, this story today suggests that Sullivan has been right to bang on about the issue and to champion the cause of people in the military looking to clean house. I think this also counts as a genuine victory for a blogger and shows the power of this medium. I don’t doubt, for example, that Senator McCain and his allies read blogs like Sullivan’s.

In case anyone thinks this is some sort of anti-American or anti-Iraq war issue, it is not. I want to finish the job properly in Iraq and let it be done with honour as well as competence. The U.S. Senate just took a step in that direction.

27 comments to Andrew Sullivan, take a bow

  • Crow

    For what it’s worth, the little mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq that did occur is a result of on-going pressure from top levels for this sort of thing NOT to happen rather than the “implicit assent” that is so often alleged. If senior U.S. officials and military leaders were to wink at the mistreatment of prisoners, it would be very apparent. Many members of the military have a suppressed feeling of animosity towards Arabs and Muslims, and that sort of encouragement from higher up would multiply the Stanford prison experiment effect when people are placed in the role of prison guards.

    Instead, I put forth that heavy pressure from above is a strong factor in the fact that it has happened as little as it has.

  • J

    I don’t think senior officials wink at it. nor do I think they act strongly to prevent it. I think mostly they really, really, hope it doesn’t happen on their shift so they don’t have to deal with it.

    Large organisations encourage herd mentality. Without very, very clear rules about what to do, no-one is going to break from the herd. That’s how these things get allowed to happen and continue.

  • Crow

    Politicians make grand statements about “humane treatment”, military leaders issue stern policy letters regarding proper conduct, and commanding officers really, really hope it doesn’t happen on their watch. So they do their best to make sure it doesn’t.

    That’s pressure from above. Shit rolls downhill.

  • Eric Anondson

    The commenters over in this Volokh conspiracy thread seem to believe that this legislation doesn’t do a dang thing to make substantive difference.

    No change to the UMCJ.
    No remedies.


  • Midwesterner

    You guys are giving the president a pass on this one.

    He vigorously made every effort to say to the public and convey to the troops that all gloves are off where these guys are concerned. He set up the Guantanamo facility specifically to be outside of supreme court jurisdiction. Didn’t work.

    Throughout the process he and Rumsfeld made clear that they were not subject to civil law and that Geneva didn’t apply to al Qaeda. (See paragraph three.) Possibly true. But certainly they made every effort to convince the public and the troops that the rules don’t apply to soldiers not wearing uniforms.

    Here is the closing tap dance around that particular point.

    Q But the concern, the debate here was about if you don’t do it here, then U.S. soldiers could be mistreated abroad. Isn’t that correct? And so isn’t that a big motivation here, to make sure that U.S. soldiers get this same kind of treatment?

    MR. FLEISCHER: It’s important for all nations, throughout the world, to treat any prisoners well. And that is something the United States always expects, and the United States always does.

    We have time for one more question, and then there’s a pool. David will get one more, and then we’ll —

    Q Can you just be responsive to the specific point? Wasn’t this an important concern? I understand what the expectations are, but it was important for this administration to be able to say, look, we want to be able to protect our soldiers in similar situations down the line. And if we don’t afford privileges under the Geneva Convention, then our soldiers could be in peril?

    MR. FLEISCHER: David, I was not in the NSC deliberations where various issues were raised. And so I really — there’s no way I can accurately answer that question.

    Q What about the U.S. special forces? They don’t — they often do not wear uniforms. They often do not carry their weapons outwardly. If they are captured, they wouldn’t be prisoners of war?

    MR. FLEISCHER: The terms of the Geneva Convention apply to all, and those terms speak for themselves.

    Okay, thank you everybody.

    That sanctioned miss conduct may have been intended to humiliate the prisoners, but we are the ones who are humiliated. This was a disgusting episode in our history and I truly regret that it takes congress to set it right. There are some things a proud and honorable people just don’t do. Thank you, John McCain.

  • Matt O'Halloran

    It’s way too late for the Senate to kvetch and carp. The damage has been done. Pix of Pfc Lynndie England and her comrades in crime are all over the ME like a rash, and America’s ‘Great Satan’ image has been reinforced a thousandfold by images of sexual degradation which count for far more among Muslims than pornography-soaked redneck GIs could begin to understand.

    Wjat a crock. What a mess. What a commentary on the chain of command and the US officer class’s idea of noblesse oblige: a few grunts get canned while the brass heave sighs of relief.

    What a cack-handed concept of neo-imperialism. What a coming humiliation to follow an invasion Gen. Odom, former head of the National Security Agency, calls ‘the greatest strategic disaster in United States history’. When the troops leave the ruined land of Iraq with their hyperpower tails between their legs– routed by a rag-tag bunch of fanatics, brigands, extortionists and camarilla– it will be marked in history as a defeat the like of which no modern power has sustained, not even the Russians in Afghanistan.

    And how the Chinese, America’s real enemy, must be sniggering slyly behind thier bland polite masks.

  • Robert Alderson

    Here! Here! Midwesterner,

    The war against Al Qaeda is a new situation which was not envisaged at the time of the Geneva conventions. Ideally, the US would have sought renegotiation of the Geneva conventions. Failing that the US, with allies, could have simply issued a declaration of how it would proceed in these changed circumstances.

    Instead, the administration simply sought to be free of any and all obligations governing treatment of detainees. This effort from the top to be free of the shckles of law DOES feed down to the troops on the ground.

    I’m just glad the congress has finally done the decent thing and set a clear moral compass.

  • Robert Alderson

    Matt O’Hallaran,

    Good point about the Chinese. In fifty or a hundred years time the Chinese could well be the major global superpower. At that time the US might regret having set the example and expectation that in a changed international situation the biggest power can simply rewrite or ignore the rules as they see fit.

  • In what way would China need an example in brutality?

  • Robert Alderson

    China doesn’t need lessons in brutality. It needs lessons in fair-play and voluntary restraint.

    The West’s long term interest is to create a fair body of international law and precedent that will act as some restraint on the actions of the superpowers of 50 – 100 years in the future. Bowing down now to international law might seem annoying but when you are no longer the most powerful nation in the world and are on the receiving end of some rough treatment it’s that bit harder to change things.

  • Actually, this doesn’t change anything. As near as I can tell the exact same standards apply after the senate acted as before. They just made it explicit that the UCMJ would be enforced.

    Big Whoop.

    I think this is more about public relations than changing policy. The guys down in Gitimo will still get seriously frowned at and they won’t get lawyers. People in Iraq will be treated just as they always have.

  • Midwesterner

    Actually, Shannon, I think it does. It removes discretion from the executive branch. It makes it law, not policy.

    No longer can a president pick and choose as is convenient.

  • Sorry,
    History never sets an example, great powers will do as they have always done, act in their own interest. WWI did not deter WWII, the smashing of the Axis did not deter the invasion of Kuwait, Vietnam did not deter Gulf War II.
    It is also impossible to predict which power will be dominant, but one thing is sure, the world isn’t a playground where good examples are taken into consideration.
    The Chinese leadership, if anything, probably regard US action in Iraq as kid glove. What troops did can be judged by western moral standards, but States like China will only be counting your guns, the moral aspect will be irrelevant.

  • Alasdair

    This amendment risks triggering the more literal following of the Geneva Conventions … actual text … and most of those “abused” at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, who currently end up exiting said institutions in better health than they entered, are now *more* likely to find themselves experiencing Articles 24 and Article 68 – “… of serious acts of sabotage against the military installations of the Occupying Power or of intentional offences which have caused the death of one or more persons …” …

    Remember that the Conventions explicitly limit what the “Occupying Power” can do to what as ‘legal’ “under the law of the occupied territory in force before the occupation began.” – under Saddam Hussein’s Law, feeding people feet first into (tree) limb shredders was practiced by the legal authorities … and *that* is the sort of standard to which the amendment risks exposing those held at Abu Ghraib …

  • Midwesterner

    And therefore, Peter, you want us to win the race to the bottom?

    I don’t care what the rest of the world thinks of our standards. I care what I think of them.

    I don’t expect trash to display moral conduct. I expect us to.

    Your statement suggests that maybe you think morals don’t matter, all is relative. I don’t.

  • Midwesterner


    As I understand it, this amendment is not about Geneva, it about the Army’s Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation.

    And as I read who the UCMJ applies to(Link)
    (a) number 9 is “POWs in the custody the armed forces.” That’s what this was about. POW status. They didn’t have it. Therefore the argument goes, executive discretion.

    I haven’t seen the full text of the proposed amendment(s?) yet, but my understanding is that it will stipulate that military personnel may only use the techniques listed in the Army’s Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation. No exceptions for any military personnel or geographic location is my understanding. I sincerely doubt the techniques we saw photographed will be listed in the manual.

    So far, I’ve heard no reference to Geneva in the amendment.

  • “And therefore, Peter, you want us to win the race to the bottom?”

    Don’t put words in my mouth, read what it says, live by your own moral code but don’t expect it to have an iota of influence on some dominant state fifty one hundred years hence. because they will simply do what they have to do

  • Verity

    Peter is correct. All these frills … where is the Treaty of Versailles today? Where is the Entente Cordiale? All these treaties hammered out over the centuries …

    The dominant power in 150 years will proceed as it chooses to proceed and will ignore all the treaties, or send diplomats to chatter politely about them at luncheons and dinners and not budge. Top dogs suit themselves. Life on our planet will continue thus.

  • Verity,
    Where was the Treaty of Westphalia in 1939?

  • Verity

    Peter – The dog ate it.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Verity, ha! ha! Brilliant.

  • Alistair Stobie

    These are very pertinent desk-bound observations.

    I served six years in the British Army and count amongst my claims to be the first 7th Div Infrantryman (after my driver) in to Iraq in 1991. More importantly a tour of west Belfast and south Armagh in 1988 and 92 respectively provide real life examples of how to constrain an Army;s natural instincts if it is politically required. After all war is a continuation of politics …….

    Cruelty, institutional and privately sadistic, against prisoners is as historical as armies. At the margin there is nothing you can do to stop low level petty violence and criminality. Soldiers are generally not soldiers becasue they love the life but because life denied them other opportunities. They come from a background where violence is the wallpaper (70% of my soldiers came from brolen homes and joined to get away from alchohol-related violence (it was/is a Scottish regiment.))

    However, if the policy demands that the “enemy” is treated humanely, the hierachy will enforce that rule. If the message from above indicates that violence is condoned, violence will ensue. If you have any doubt review the number of criminal convictions as a result of the Royal Marines touring the hot spots of NI and compare it with that of the Parachute Regiment. Different ethos, different results.

    It took the British Army a long time to learn that isolating the “enemy” meant that only a few could be your enemy. Witness Malaysia and N. Ireland. Given their (uneducated) heads everyone in theatre is an enemy to a private soldier. And in broad terms he is there for 6 months before marching up & down outside Balmoral for tourist entertainment. Unless the officer corps insists that this is a war and not a street battle the Army ends up alienating the few who would prefer peace over violence.

    It is so much more satisfying to beat the living daylights out of a thug on the street than it is to act as a policeman and create order.

    The long and short; violence is condoned in Iraq and the US military has yet to learn that it is not fighting a war but policing a peace. And their masters, particularly the Pentagon desk jockeys, have yet to work out that there is a difference. It took the British Army just under 30 years to work it out in NI. Here’s counting

  • Just a few miscellaneous comments.

    You guys are giving the president a pass on this one.

    So what’s new? Several members of the commentariat here sound like mouthpieces for the RNC, and probably are.

    It’s way too late for the Senate to kvetch and carp. The damage has been done.

    Ninety votes to nine! The approval of McCain’s bill is, among other things, a howling disavowal of the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld policy on treatment of prisoners. One can hope that it will be followed by an equally howling disavowal of the parties themselves, followed on perhaps by a howling disavowal of the mismanagement of the war itself. Is impeachment too much to hope for? First you treat the bums to a dressing-down. Then you throw them out. Others notice. Imagine Bush taking the heat for everything he’s fucked up, most especially this war–oh excuse, please, imagine him as a scapegoat for all that’s gone wrong. Ah yes … pass the Cubanos.

    At one stage Sullivan seemed to take upon himself the task of scolding other bloggers (notably Glenn Reynolds) for not buying into his argument. Well, this story today suggests that Sullivan has been right to bang on about the issue and to champion the cause of people in the military looking to clean house.

    It is at times sickening to read the lawyerly tiptoeing Reynolds does to avoid taking an actual, you know, position, that might annoy some of his readers or–god forbid–his colleagues. In other words, Reynolds is a coward. Sullivan is not.

  • Nonce
    This is not a US site!

  • Matt O'Halloran

    Reynolds is hoping to parlay Instapundit into a fulltime career as a bloviator above the internet parapet. Whatever they say, most ambitiouis bloggers aren’t ready to forswear the megabucks of a radio show or syndicated column in the despised MSM for the nickels-and-dimes purity of a website. So Glenn will go on pulling punches. Andrew is made of sterner stuff, and his ingestion of steroids gives him the odd spasm of ferocity.

  • Midwesterner

    Here is a copy of the McCain amendment. I believe this is as it was passed by the senate but the source is dated before the vote so not necessarily.

    (a) In General.–No individual in the custody or under the physical control of the United States Government, regardless of nationality or physical location, shall be subject to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

    (b) Construction.–Nothing in this section shall be construed to impose any geographical limitation on the applicability of the prohibition against cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment under this section.

    (c) Limitation on Supersedure.–The provisions of this section shall not be superseded, except by a provision of law enacted after the date of the enactment of this Act which specifically repeals, modifies, or supersedes the provisions of this section.

    (d) Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Defined.–In this section, the term “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” means the cruel, unusual, and inhumane treatment or punishment prohibited by the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States, as defined in the United States Reservations, Declarations and Understandings to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment done at New York, December 10, 1984.

    As I understand it, this is not any release of sovereignty, but rather references a preexisting statement of how we interpret our fifth, eighth, and fourteenth amendments and how we interpret them.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    None, I think you are being too harsh on Reynolds. I think he genuinely believed that at one stage Sullivan had gone beserk on this issue to the exclusion of all else. Reynolds covers a wide canvas of subjects, ranging from the fuckups at the Dept. of Homeland Security to the latest twists in nanotech. Sullivan has three pet subjects: gay marriage, the awfulness of the new pope and George Bush’s various failings. That’s it.