So far, on his book tour, President George W. Bush hasn't said much new. (Oh, except for airing his feelings about Kanye West -- thank God that national nightmare is over.) Yet, not suprisingly, the interviews Matt Lauer and others have conducted with the former president are framed as privileged glimpses behind the curtain: Tell us the real story, President Bush. Tell us how it looked from where you sat. So it seems worth pointing out that, in fact, we have other sources of information about decision-making during the Bush presidency, and thanks to those sources we actually know quite a bit more about "what really happened" than Bush is letting on.Adam Serwer at The American Prospect followed up on Bush's expression of revulsion over the Abu Ghraib incident, and his proud admission that he approved waterboarding with a "Damn right."
[W]hy was torturing detainees at Gitmo an act of heroism, while torturing detainees at Abu Ghraib an act of moral depravity, a disgrace to America's good name?
The answer seems obvious -- in the case of Abu Ghraib, Americans, faced with visual evidence of torture, recoiled. Fortunately for Bush, the CIA destroyed the visual documentation of their torturous interrogations, and those responsible will never be held to account. But there's no genuine moral distinction here between what happened at Abu Ghraib and what happened at the black sites, or at Gitmo, that would justify being horrified by one and not the others. The lesson that was learned, by that administration and this one, is that the crime is worse than the cover-up. So cover it up.
To this I would add that Bush's expression of disgust over Abu Ghraib is itself nothing new; as we recalled in a Commonweal editorial last year, Bush responded in that vein at the time, pledging on Al Arabiya: "We do not tolerate these kind of abuses." But of course that turned out to be false; not only did the United States "tolerate" abuse of prisoners; we orchestrated it. Bush also insisted that America's ideals guaranteed that "when there's an allegation of abuse...there will be a full investigation, and justice will be delivered. That, too, was false; his administration went out of its way to prevent such an investigation, and the Obama administration is following suit. In his exclusive, prime-time interview, Matt Lauer questioned Bush about the decision not to accept the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib scandal.
LAUER: Given the damage that Abu Gharib [sic] did to our reputation around the world, couldn't you have found someone to occupy that position? Wasn't that the right message to send?BUSH: Now here's what happens. We're-- we're in the middle of war and if I couldn't have found somebody quickly to replace Secretary Rumsfeld, you'd have been on TV sayin', "There's a vacuum at the Pentagon. It's sending terrible signals to our troops."
I must say I find it grimly amusing that Bush frames his decision as a response to the hostility of the media. If only people like Matt Lauer weren't so anxious to criticize the president on TV! Who knows what clear-eyed policy decisions we might see without an aggressive media forcing the president's hand. And yet Bush can sit down for an interview like this one because he knows that journalists like Matt Lauer, grateful for the access, will not confront him with any evidence that contradicts his version of events. He can be confident that he will not be asked to account for the discrepancies between what he promised in the wake of Abu Ghraib and what actually happened; he knows for a fact that the very obvious follow-up question "How can you say you were stunned by what happened at Abu Ghraib when it was based on interrogation methods you authorized?" will never, ever come up. And President Obama has that same assurance. Salon's Steve Kornacki summed up the Lauer interview well: "The self-styled 'Decider' is as maddeningly unreflective as ever, confident that he got all of the important stuff right as president and unwilling to cop to mistakes that involve anything more serious than optics." When it comes to examining evidence of torture and deciding what to do about it, concerns about "optics" have dominated the conversation. The failure of the Obama administration to follow through on its tough talk about restoring the rule of law is based on the same lesson the Bush administration learned: in terms of optics, there is no downside to covering up torture. And as long as you can get away with covering it up, there's nothing stopping you from going ahead with torture.