As the Bush administration confronts widening exposure of what increasingly appears to be its systematic policy, at least at some level, of interrogating war prisoners using inhumane treatment, the chorus of conservatives blasting Bush's post-invasion leadership as "incompetent" and based on "childish fantasy" has grown louder and louder. Though the bloody Iraqi insurgencies of April have quieted to some degree, the Bush team is now caught in perhaps the fiercest political firefight of its tenure since launching the invasion 14 months ago. Numerous critics on the right are angry over what they see as a series of strategic blunders, while others have demanded that the president take direct responsibility for the politically devastating torture scandal.
But not syndicated columnist Mark Steyn. The über-hawk has held his ground -- and actually is ripping Bush from the other direction. Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times this week, Steyn scoffed at Bush for not taking a harder line through the turbulent revelations of abuses by the U.S. military. He says that the only apology Bush should be making now is to Americans -- for going "soft" and apologizing to our enemies in a "fake" war over world opinion.
"The war on terror will be lost in the talking shops of Washington -- i.e., it will be thanks to the lack of resolve inculcated by excessive exposure to blow-dried pundits and Senate hearings. The war now has two fronts. In Iraq, the glass is half-full. In Washington, it's half-empty, and draining fast.
"The administration, in trying to see its way through both the phony crossfire and the real one, has been rattled by the fake war. Someone in the White House needs seriously to stiffen the Bush rhetoric ... Bush has to go back to speaking Rumsfeldian, not Powellite: He has to talk about winning total victory, hunting down the enemy and killing them."
Steyn says Bush shouldn't forget that the U.S. prisoner abuses are a matter of relative evil.
"He also needs to promise himself that he'll never again apologize to some Arab despot -- even relatively benign ones, like the king of Jordan -- for events in Iraq. If he feels the need to apologize, he should apologize to the American people for apologizing to the Arab world. This isn't just because what went on in Abu Ghraib is a picnic -- well, a Paris Hilton video picnic -- compared to what goes on every day in the prisons of our Arab 'allies.'"
While he's not the first right-winger to downplay the abuses by making a bizarre pop-culture comparison (Rush Limbaugh chose Madonna and Britney Spears), Steyn adds an interesting strategic rationale to his argument:
"More important than that, the Bush apology buys into one of the most fetid props of the region's so-called stability -- 'pan-Arabism.' If U.S. troops 'humiliated' some Portuguese prisoners, the president wouldn't apologize to the king of Norway or the prime minister of Slovenia. So why, when U.S. troops humiliate Iraqi prisoners, would he apologize to Jordan's King Abdullah or Egypt's thug-for-life? 'Pan-Arabism' is one reason why the region's a sewer. If Iraq succeeds, it will be by breaking with regional solidarity."
But some conservative military bloggers are now rejecting Steyn's brand of hard-liner bravado, pointing to powerful benefits from Bush's apology, particularly in the Arab media. Joe Carter, a career U.S. Marine from Texas who authors the Evangelical Outpost blog, reports a change of heart on the issue.
"When President Bush apologized for the events at Abu Ghraib prison I thought it was a mistake. At the time I believed that the apology would send the wrong message to the Arab street and be perceived as a sign of weakness. I felt it would imply that both the military and the Administration were not only responsible for the atrocities but culpable for the actions of a few criminals. I was wrong."
Carter cites a recent e-mail from an unnamed Marine colonel in Iraq who says he was struck by the degree to which Bush's apology has had a positive effect. The e-mail was posted by fellow military blogger Blackfive, a former U.S. Army major and Defense Intelligence Agency officer (who provides only his real first name, Matthew.) In the e-mail, the Marine colonel recounts a recent broadcast he saw on Arab television:
"'Why does Arab media fail at self criticism and why can't Arab human rights NGOs pressure Arab governments the way their counterparts do in America?', asked the host of satellite news channel al-Arabiy[a]'s (one of the harshest critics of the United States) 'Spotlight' news program. The follow up commentary was even more astounding, given the source. 'The Americans exposed their own scandal, queried the officials and got the American Government to accept responsibility for the actions of its soldiers,' stated the host before asking her guests why this sort of open and responsive action isn't taken in the Arab world."
The Marine colonel also wrote that "one of the largest newspapers in the Pan-Arab world" -- he doesn't specify which one -- had "raised the stakes even higher" by editorializing with the following:
"What happened at Abu Ghuraib is not surprising as there are many stories of horror inside Arab jails. The abuses that the Arab governments condemn at Abu Ghuraib are nothing compared to what happens in these governments' jails. Will the Arab regimes go on TV and apologize to their people in the same way President Bush did?"
The strategic payoff of such press, argued the Marine colonel, could be enormous.
"My colleague who heads our Arab media unit here in Baghdad called these statements nothing short of revolutionary for the Middle East media. And while they may not seem that profound on the surface, they are threads of a far greater, and still unfolding, story. Yes, the horrific actions of a few have tainted the good work of the many. But they have unwittingly done something else. The events of the past several days have given democracy a global stage within which to prove its worth.
"In all their lives, the citizens of Iraq never heard Saddam Hussein apologize. Not once. Not when he gassed more than 10,000 of his own people on an April morning a decade ago. Not when he dragged 300,000 men, women and children from their homes in the dead of night to be driven into the desert and summarily executed and buried in mass, unmarked graves ... No, the first time the people of this land ever heard an apology it came from the leader of the world's oldest democracy ... He was apologizing because in this instance, we were wrong."
Where is the FCC now?
When the torture story first broke, Rush Limbaugh made a number of outrageous remarks about the revelations, including calling the abuses by U.S. soldiers "pretty thoughtful" and "a brilliant maneuver." But two of his fellow right-wing shock jocks have since spewed rhetoric on the air waves that makes Limbaugh's comments look like child's play.
The sentiments speak for themselves, but what is perhaps most disturbing is their reach. "Savage Nation's" syndicated radio host Michael Savage, already infamous for telling a gay caller to "get AIDS and die" (MSNBC fired him for that), boasts 6 million American listeners per week, according to the nonprofit watchdog group Media Matters.org. On May 11, while repeatedly calling Abu Ghraib "Grab-an-Arab" prison, he launched into this little tirade:
"I think there should be no mercy shown to these sub-humans. I believe that a thousand of them should be killed tomorrow. I think a thousand of them held in the Iraqi prison should be given 24 hour[s] -- a trial and executed. I think they need to be shown that we are not going to roll over to them ... Instead of putting joysticks, I would have liked to have seen dynamite put in their orifices and they should be dropped from airplanes ... They should put dynamite in their behinds and drop them from 35,000 feet, the whole pack of scum out of that jail."
The next day Savage added that Arabs were "racist, fascist bigots," and purported to speak for a majority of Americans regarding the war. He offered several all-American solutions to our problems in the Middle East.
"Right now, even people sitting on the fence would like George Bush to drop a nuclear weapon on an Arab country. They don't even care which one it would be. I can guarantee you -- I don't need to go to Mr. Schmuck [pollster John] Zogby and ask him his opinion ... The most -- I tell you right now -- the largest percentage of Americans would like to see a nuclear weapon dropped on a major Arab capital. They don't even care which one...
"I think these people need to be forcibly converted to Christianity ... It's the only thing that can probably turn them into human beings."
He also made sure to plug his credentials.
"I'm going to give you one further example from my background as an anthropologist just so that you -- I'm trying to put context on this because you can go crazy if you don't have the context on this, because I'm going to lead up to something of what we must do to these primitives. Because these primitives can only be treated in one way, and I don't think smallpox and a blanket is good enough incidentally ... Smallpox in a blanket, which the U.S. Army gave to the Cherokee Indians on their long march to the West, was nothing compared to what I'd like to see done to these people."
Meanwhile, on May 14 Clear Channel radio host Glenn Beck, whose syndicated program airs on more than 100 stations across the country, offered some warm sentiments about the family of slain American civilian Nick Berg, who was beheaded by Islamic militants in Iraq.
"It is truly amazing to see the photos of uh -- of Nick Berg's dad out on the lawn just preaching to the choir about how he's gonna be on stage for an International ANSWER [Act Now to Stop War & End Racism] rally that is uh, rallying the people against racism and the war in just a couple of weeks -- don't forget the date. It's truly amazing stuff. Then he came out yesterday also and said, 'Well, ya know, al-Qaida MAY be as bad as the Bush administration.' [long pause] I'm supposed to feel bad for this guy ... I'm beginning to really dislike this guy. I'm beginning to question, you know, 'Can you let your son's body become the same temperature as your son's head before you turn this into a political campaign against the president -- could you do that?' ... I think he is grieving, but I think he's a scumbag as well. I don't like this guy at all."
(Is anybody wondering at this point if Howard Stern, who was booted off the air by Clear Channel last month, is still at the top of the FCC's hit list?)
Blame it on depraved American culture
When Congress was briefed last week on more of the torture images coming out of Abu Ghraib, Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., decided to take a pass, telling the New York Times, "I've already seen enough. Why would I want to go see a bunch of perverted pictures?"
But according to Heritage Foundation vice president Rebecca Hagelin, Lott may not be so typical an American. In a recent column published on Townhall.com, she rattles off a litany of statistics about the rampant consumption of porn in America -- and how our "rotted" national culture must have caused the torture in Iraq.
"A recent poll says Americans aren't even overly ashamed of what has gone on. Why? 'People out in the hinterlands can keep the perspective of the big picture,' the pollster told U.S. News magazine. Oh yeah? What is the big picture? That 'everyone does it'? That this was mistreatment, not torture? That these were mere 'fraternity pranks'? That the Iraqis are doing far worse to each other and to our soldiers? Forget defending it. It's indefensible...
"But, with the non-judgmental, sex-crazed, anything-goes culture that we have become at home, it seems that America has set herself up for international humiliation. Our country permits Hollywood to put almost anything in a movie and still call it PG-13. We permit television and computers to bring all manner of filth into our homes. We permit school children to be taught that homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle. We allow Christianity and the teaching of Judeo-Christian values to be scrubbed from the public square. We allow our children be taught how to use condoms in school, rather than why to avoid sex. We let these things happen. They don't happen on their own.
"While hearings take place to examine the horrific behavior that took place in a military prison overseas, it's time to take a cold, hard look at the degradation in our own country -- and in our own homes."
Gay-marriage licenses are "death certificates"
With a new wave of same-sex couples marrying in Massachusetts this week, conservatives once again launched the expected attack. Monday's 50th anniversary of the landmark civil rights case Brown vs. Board of Education provided a poignant backdrop, with some of the rhetoric in heartland states like Colorado and Pennsylvania -- the latter considered key in this year's election -- turning rather ugly:
"I think this is going to awaken people," said Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, according to an AP report published in the Denver Post. "It [gay marriage] is not a civil right. It is a behavior. [Gay-marriage advocates] never had to drink at different water fountains or ride in the back of the bus."
James Dobson, chairman of the Colorado Springs-based Christian group Focus on the Family, offered a grave assessment of the jubilant same-sex couples flocking to court houses in New England.
"We will look back 20, 30, 50 years from now and recall this as the day marriage ceased to have any real meaning in our country. The documents being issued all across Massachusetts may say 'marriage license' at the top but they are really death certificates for the institution of marriage as it has served society for thousands of years."
Lancaster Newspapers reported that The Pennsylvania Family Institute, a conservative organization based in Harrisburg, dubbed Monday "Destruction of Marriage Day.'' The group's vice president Tom J. Shaheen explained the logic behind the moniker this way:
"When you redefine something, you're changing it. To redefine marriage, if it no longer means what it traditionally meant, between a man and a woman, you've destroyed the meaning and that plays out in the future. Our society is worse off and our children are worse off. That's why it's seen as destructive."
Not surprisingly, the right-wing Christian Coalition once again pounded the table for a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages. Coalition president Roberta Combs played to fears of a "homosexualized" America and then blamed the whole thing on renegade courts.
"Traditional marriage has been dealt a severe blow beginning with so-called legalized homosexual 'marriages' [Monday] in the state of Massachusetts, an abomination which must not be allowed to continue. Traditional marriage is one of the last obstacles to the complete normalization of homosexuality in America. When a majority of Americans, 68% in a recent Time/CNN poll, agree that marriage is a union only between a man and a woman, it is time for Congress to rein in these judicial tyrants who are making these radical judicial decisions. The Federal Marriage Amendment is crucial in giving back to elected officials the ability to define marriage instead of activist judges who are supposed to interpret law and not make it."
Keeping the faith
Meanwhile, after a wave of same-sex marriages in San Francisco earlier this year, the Presidential Prayer Team, a nonprofit organization whose "singular purpose is to encourage Americans to pray daily for the President," called on supporters in late February to pray for Bush and his team to "codify marriage as being between one man and one woman" so that "a spirit of moral decency will arise in America."
But the group also regularly beseeches the higher power to help out with foreign policy -- last week it called on its flock to appeal for help with the rising Abu Ghraib disaster.
"Presidential prayer requests for May 13, 2004:
"Pray for the President as he works closely with Pentagon and Congressional leaders to guide the investigation into the Iraqi prison abuse concerns. Now that the problem has been revealed to be much larger than originally thought, pray for wisdom for all involved, that justice will be done, swiftly and resolutely, and that respect for the dignity of every human will be honored and valued."
The PPT elaborated on that commendable appeal for a resolution to the problem -- though perhaps a bit more specifically than the White House might have liked.
"Pray for the President and the leaders of our military including Gen. Richard Myers, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, General John Abizaid, Central Command Chief, Brig Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy director of U.S. military operations in Iraq, General Geoffrey Miller, head of U.S. prisons in Iraq, and all leaders responsible for the ongoing military operations in Iraq. Pray for God's wisdom to impact our military, from the leadership down to every troop who serves and bravely protects our freedom."
And the group offered one other directive for helping the Bush White House that seemed particularly apropos of the need for prayer:
"Pray for the President as he works with United Nations special envoy Brahimi, Ambassador Paul Bremer and the Iraqi Governing Council as the June 30 deadline for the turnover to the Iraqi interim government approaches. Pray for the success of all systems that must be in place by then, including water and electric utilities as well as health care and education."
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Read more of "Right Hook," Salon's weekly roundup of conservative commentary and analysis here.