A Negligent President

Two recent developments in the “war on terror” give hope that the nation, and especially Congress, may be coming to its senses about the failure of President George W. Bush’s misconceived campaign to defeat Islamic terrorism by invading Iraq.

First, Bush delivered a “major” speech October 6 intended to reinvigorate support for “staying the course,” and perhaps not incidentally to divert attention from political problems at home. The speech was rightly met with skepticism and even indifference by the American public, a majority of whom, opinion polls now show, oppose the ongoing occupation of Iraq. Few believe that this week’s referendum on the Iraq constitution will do more than push that beleaguered nation’s bitter factions further apart, possibly into open civil war. With no cessation in violence or sign that Iraqi troops are willing or capable of battling the insurgency on their own, it seems likely that pressure from Republicans will force Bush to declare victory and begin bringing troops home before the 2006 midterm elections. At this late date, with nearly two thousand American dead, more than thirteen thousand wounded, and a bill exceeding $200 billion, even Bush’s GOP support is eroding.

More encouraging was the Senate’s passage (by an impressive 90–9 vote) of an amendment, authored by Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), to the military appropriations bill, which prohibits the Defense Department from authorizing the abuse or torture of prisoners. “No individual in the custody or under the physical control of the United States government, regardless of nationality or location, shall be subject to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment,” reads the amendment.

It’s about time.

McCain’s eloquent testimony on the floor of the Senate may finally have silenced administration apologists for “coercive interrogation,” a policy that betrays the nation’s highest ideals, undermines the battle against Al Qaeda, and places American soldiers in greater danger. (Justifying that policy, which entails placing the president above the law, is also an assault on the constitutional separation of powers.) As a prisoner of war in Vietnam for more than five years, McCain suffered unimaginable abuse. Yet that experience strengthened his belief in the rule of law, especially in time of war. “Our enemies didn’t adhere to the Geneva Convention,” McCain said. “Many of my comrades were subjected to very cruel, very inhumane and degrading treatment, a few of them even unto death. But every one of us—every single one of us—knew and took great strength from the belief that we were different from our enemies, that we were better than them, that we, if the roles were reversed, would not disgrace ourselves by committing or countenancing such mistreatment.”

This administration has disgraced itself, and tarnished the nation’s reputation, by the systematic encouragement of the torture, and inevitably the murder, of prisoners. Haplessly, President Bush has threatened to veto the appropriations bill if the McCain amendment remains in it. It would be the president’s first exercise of his veto power, and perhaps the most dramatic evidence yet of how dangerously out of touch with reality he has become.

Nearly a year ago, Commonweal published Peter Dula’s report on the situation in Iraq and his critique of the support of the Iraq invasion among some conservative Catholic theologians (“The War in Iraq,” December 3, 2004). Dula, a member of the Mennonite Central Committee, had spent ten months amid the bombings, kidnappings, murders, and chaos of American-occupied Baghdad. His judgment about the “progress” being made toward establishing a democracy was blunt: “Iraq is a catastrophe—on all accounts.” As Dula pointed out, the catastrophic consequences of the war were no surprise, but had been painstakingly anticipated by the Army, the State Department, and others. “Their conclusions were rejected, their committees silenced,” by the administration’s apparatchiks. Similarly, the Abu Ghraib abuses “were the predictable result of massive random arrests, denial of fair trial, poorly trained guards, and power shrouded in secrecy.”

One measure of whether a war is just or not, Dula reminded us, is how that war is conducted. It is damning that even once-strong supporters of Bush’s policy, liberals such as Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and George Packer of the New Yorker, now judge the conduct of the war, and especially the administration’s willful blindness to the military costs of imposing peace and stability, to be “criminal” or a case of “criminal negligence.”

That negligence has put hundreds of thousands of Americans and Iraqis in harm’s way. It is the negligence of a president who didn’t bother to fully grasp the difficulty or costs—in lives and in the nation’s moral prestige—of achieving his (too often merely lofty) goals.

October 11, 2005

Published in the 2005-10-21 issue: 
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