Right Hook

Conservatives debate torture by the U.S. military in Iraq: Some call it "sickening" while others claim it could save lives. Plus: The clash of civilizaciones.

By Mark Follman

Published May 5, 2004 10:48PM (EDT)

Last week's appalling images and allegations of torture by U.S. military personnel at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad have set off a new round of hot debate over the long list of political and strategic pitfalls the U.S. continues to confront in Iraq. Many on the right have harshly condemned the reported abuses -- even as they've sought to spin the disturbing news, albeit in various directions, in support of U.S. policy in the region. The dissonant debate is at once intriguing and deeply troubling, underscoring the daunting political crosscurrents that continue to ripple through Iraq and across a turbulent Middle East.

In Monday's Wall Street Journal, military historian and Hoover Institution senior fellow Victor Davis Hanson wrote that the "seemingly inhuman acts ... raise a host of dilemmas for the U.S." He spelled out the moral and strategic damage done:

"We must insist on a higher standard of human behavior than embraced by either Saddam Hussein or his various fascist and Islamicist successors. As emissaries of human rights, how can we allow a few miscreants to treat detainees indecently -- without earning the wages of hypocrisy from both professed allies and enemies who enjoy our embarrassment? In defense, it won't do for us just to point to our enemies and shrug, 'They do it all the time.'

"The guards' alleged crimes are not only repugnant but stupid as well. At a time when it is critical to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, a few renegade corrections officers have endangered the lives of thousands of their fellow soldiers in the field. Marines around Fallujah take enormous risks precisely because they do not employ the tactics of the fedayeen, who fire from minarets and use civilians as human shields."

Hanson also sees a crucial imbalance in worldwide media coverage of the war.

"There is an asymmetry about the coverage of the incident, an imbalance and double standard that have been predictable throughout this entire brutal war. The Arab world -- where the mass-murdering Osama bin Laden is often canonized -- is shocked by a pyramid of nude bodies and faux-electric prods, but has so far expressed less collective outrage in its media when the charred corpses of four Americans were poked and dismembered by cheering crowds in Fallujah. The taped murder of Daniel Pearl or a video of the hooded Italian who had his brains blown out -- this is the daily fare that emanates now from the television studios of the Middle East.

"Indeed, if Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera could display the same umbrage over mass murder that they do over these recent accounts of shame and humiliation of the detained Iraqis, much of the gratuitous violence of the Middle East would surely diminish."

There's little doubt that the influential Arab media could play a key role in stabilizing the region. But the masses of purportedly Western-friendly Arabs touted by U.S. hawks who backed the invasion of Iraq would be far less likely to buy into Hanson's subsequent apologia for the U.S. military abuses at Abu Ghraib. Hanson seems to directly contradict his own hearts-and-mind argument, saying the abuses might even have been justified:

"Right now we see only revolting pictures that properly shock our sensibilities. But because we do not know the circumstances of the interrogations, the conditions of confinement, or the nature of the acts that warranted imprisonment, we are also ignorant to what degree, if any, these men were responsible for horrendous acts -- or if their clumsy interrogators were trying to shame and humiliate them to extract information to save other lives.

"We who are appalled in our offices and newsrooms are not those who have had our faces blown off while delivering food in Humvees or are incinerated in SUVs full of medical supplies -- with the full understanding that there will be plenty of Iraqis to materialize to hack away at what is left of our charred corpses. War is hell, and those who do not endure it are not entirely aware of the demons that are unleashed, and thus should hold their moral outrage until the full account of the incident is investigated and adjudicated."

National Review contributor Jed Babbin takes a different view of the media's role, and argues that the true problem with the U.S. military is systemic. He cites the much-publicized Army investigation report from February 2004 by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, whose details Babbin calls "sickening."

"We have to handle this right. The courts martial should be open to any media that want to attend -- even al-Jazeera -- and the perpetrators' names dragged through the mud. Those who are guilty should be imprisoned for as long as the law allows. No plea bargains, no deals -- just the max. As a result of their actions, these few have dishonored their country and every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine who now serve ...

"Lost in the media frenzy over the abuses is one critical conclusion of the Army investigation: The Taguba report reveals a systemic problem with military intelligence. Solving that will, in the long run, be more important to winning the war than dealing with the few dirt bags who beat the prisoners."

Many conservatives have argued that U.S. intelligence operations were critically hamstrung prior to 9/11, and remain dangerously so on the ground in Iraq. Babbin agrees, though he carefully sidesteps any discussion of how vital intelligence should be collected.

"Time after time after time, our intelligence apparatus fails us. Whether it's the CIA or the military intelligence people interrogating prisoners in Iraq, they all seem to have one thing in common: The inability to fuse the intelligence we get from many sources, and use the information to help us both defend our nation and take the fight to the enemy.

"If, as Taguba says, the mechanism to do that was not in place in Abu Ghraib, how can we be sure it is in Guantanamo Bay, in Afghanistan, or anywhere else terrorists and prisoners of war are held?"

Opinion Journal editor James Taranto is doing damage control by playing up the possibility that some of the torture photos were fakes. Tuesday he cited reports by CNN and "left-wing broadsheet" the U.K. Guardian that British "military experts" have questioned the authenticity of some of the more disturbing images published in the British tabloids. But while the new realm of digital photography has complicated public relations issues around the war, Taranto concedes that "no one has challenged the veracity of photos showing American soldiers allegedly abusing Iraqi prisoners" -- nor has anyone questioned the validity of the disturbing and far-reaching Taguba report issued by the U.S. military. Nonetheless, Taranto rushes ahead with a condemnation of what he considers a pro-Arab press:

"The free press is one of democracy's glories, and even in wartime it's necessary to hold government accountable. But if the Mirror does turn out to have fabricated the photos, it will be the clearest evidence yet that some in the press are abusing their power and consciously contributing to enemy propaganda during wartime."

Relativism has been a prevailing theme on the issue across conservative weblogs. Under his heading "What real torture is like," blogger Alan K. Henderson rattles off a litany of horrific stories from Iran, Syria, Cuba and other nations ruled by autocratic regimes to support his view that the U.S. abuses are not so bad.

"Calling most of the recent atrocities in Iraq 'torture' is like calling a Mafiosa 'Nazi' -- equivocating two different degrees and kinds of evil."

But avidly pro-gun Texas-based blogger Kim du Toit finds the abusive behavior of U.S. military personnel revolting, and says it inexcusably corrodes the U.S. mission in the Middle East.

"If they're found guilty, I hope these assholes go to jail. Because when the Islamist pricks do this kind of thing to our soldiers, I want to be able to go after them with a vengeful spirit. Right now, we have no leg to stand on.

"Predictably, the accused American 'soldiers' have started to whine that they're the victims -- that it was the fault of the Army for running this place the way they did. Bullshit. The 'we were just obeying orders' defense disappeared at Nuremburg."

Insta Pundit's Glenn Reynolds says he agrees with Kim du Toit, but apparently disagrees with National Review contributor Jed Babbin's assessment that the problem is a systemic one. Reynolds hopes to downplay the scandal's relevance to U.S. military policy -- and he aims to tar John Kerry in the process, sounding the default right-wing refrain that Kerry's effort to end U.S. atrocities in Vietnam was unpatriotic.

"Of course, [the U.S. abuses in Iraq are] not the same as Saddam's torture -- which was a matter of top-down policy, not the result of assholes who deserve jail or execution, and will probably get one or both. As with other reported misbehavior, it should be dealt with very, very harshly. But those who would -- as Senator Kerry did after Vietnam -- make such behavior emblematic of our effort, instead of recognizing it as an abandonment of our principles -- are mere opportunists."

On the other hand, Reynolds seems conflicted about calling attention to the problem; he links back to his own account of another U.S. military-torture story in Iraq from early April. (And, to his credit, explains why it was essential to publicize it.)

"A while back, I linked to an account by Iraqi blogger Zeyad of serious misconduct by U.S. forces in Iraq ... I'll note that I got some criticism for publicizing Zeyad's account, and for saying that I trusted him, from people who thought I was being duped. And, of course, I could have been wrong. But although the facts aren't clearly established yet, it seems clear that Zeyad's report was largely correct.

"This leads to a bigger point on the Iraq reporting. Neither I, nor, I think, anyone who wants the Iraq effort to succeed, wants the press only to report good news. This is bad news, and it deserves to be reported. In fact, it needs to be reported, because it's only by finding out what's wrong that we have a chance to fix it. It's the cheap-shot faux-bad news, the lazy hotel-bar reporting, etc., that I object to."

For his part, conservative Australian blogger Tim Blair blithely argues that the widely publicized news of U.S. beatings and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners may have a positive payoff for U.S. foreign policy. Pointing to a recent Financial Times report, he declares that the North Koreans have suddenly "vowed to play nice."

"First Libya caved, and now [according to the Financial Times]:

"North Korea, probably the world's most secretive and isolated nation, has offered an olive branch to the US by promising never to sell nuclear materials to terrorists, calling for Washington's friendship and saying it does not want to suffer the fate of Iraq.

"Maybe it was those prison photographs that scared 'em."

The clash of civilizaciones?
He may be a lifelong Democrat who's planning to vote for John Kerry this November, but when it comes to the immigration issue author and Harvard scholar Samuel P. Huntington lands a lot closer to the hard-line politics of former Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan. Huntington is best known for his controversial mid-1990s book on global conflict, "The Clash of Civilizations." But while U.S. policymakers lose sleep over the potential danger posed by Islamic immigrants, Huntington currently sees a serious threat to the American way of life frothing up from south of the border. In a Q&A with the New York Times Magazine's Deborah Solomon, he explains why Mexican and Latin American immigrants better learn to speak English, or pack up and go home.

"Your new book, 'Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity,' suggests that Hispanic immigrants are undermining the greatness of the United States.

"Over 50 percent of the immigrants coming into the country are Hispanic, from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. And about half of the people coming into the country speak a single, non-English language. That is totally unprecedented.

"Some of us find it surprising that a man like yourself, a Harvard professor and an eminent political scientist, would see the trend toward bilingualism as such a threat.

"There are perfectly decent, responsible, democratic countries, like Canada and Belgium, that are bilingual. But that does create its own distinctive set of problems.

"But aren't those problems relatively small? Doesn't America's greatness lie in its ability to assimilate all kinds of people?

"The founding fathers were ambivalent about immigration. They invented the word 'immigrant' in the English language to describe the people coming in who were different than themselves. They did say if immigrants come, they should be dispersed.

"Your book implicitly endorses Anglo-Protestant values.

"Would America be the country it has been and still is, pretty much today, if in the 17th and 18th centuries it had been settled not by British Protestants but by French, Spanish or Portuguese Catholics? The answer is no. It would not be America. It would be Quebec or Mexico or Brazil.

"But we've welcomed waves of immigrants since.

"Immigration has been central to American development, as well as my personal life. My wife is the daughter of an Armenian immigrant who assimilated totally and successfully, as immigrants should.

"How, exactly, would you define the culture that you think immigrants need to embrace?

"We are talking about the core culture of this country, which derives from the founding settlers and includes the work ethic and individualism. It also includes the English language, English legal institutions, social institutions and customs."

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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2004 Elections Abu Ghraib Iraq War Torture