A test for the Gonzales plan

By Tim Grieve

Published February 1, 2005 7:16PM (EST)

When Alberto Gonzales dismissed some protections of the Geneva Conventions as "quaint," then-Secretary of State Colin Powell warned that stepping away from those protections would "reverse over a century of U.S. policy and practice in supporting the Geneva Conventions and undermine the protections of the law of war for our troops, both in this specific conflict and in general."

Today, as the Senate debates Alberto Gonzales' nomination to serve as attorney general, the nation may get a real-life understanding of what Powell meant. According to the Associated Press, Iraqi militants claim to be holding a U.S. soldier hostage in Iraq. The U.S. military says it does not know yet whether the claim is legitimate. The militants have posted a photo of what appears to be a soldier in fatigues, his arms tied behind his back and a gun at his head.

Not so long ago, the United States could have credibly claimed the moral high ground while demanding good treatment for the captive. But that was before Alberto Gonzales helped pave the way for the U.S. troops to abuse detainees. It was before Abu Ghraib. Now what can the United States say?

Colin Powell warned the White House about days like this three years ago. Nobody listened then. And as the Gonzales confirmation moves toward its inevitable conclusion -- Bill Frist just asked how anyone could oppose this "manifestation of the American dream" -- it's clear that at least 50 U.S. senators won't listen now.

Update: It now appears that the militants' claim to have a hostage is false; the U.S. military says it knows of no missing soldiers, and the photograph the militants posted may well have been a fake. The good news makes the Gonzales problem less immediate; it does not make it any less important.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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