Right Hook

Why have conservatives been silent about new evidence that the Bush administration sanctioned torture? Victor Davis Hanson and Jonah Goldberg tell us.

By Mark Follman

Published February 28, 2005 9:02PM (EST)

Conservatives who praise President Bush's policies in the global war on terrorism often say that when it comes to the unprecedented demands of the conflict, the president's critics just don't "get it." But lately, when it comes to the use of torture -- and a growing body of evidence that the Bush White House has sanctioned it by proxy in foreign countries (which has been illegal under U.S. law since 1998) -- most on the political right just don't discuss it.

As harrowing stories of detainees abused by U.S. and foreign interrogators keep on emerging, and as evidence mounts that the administration's secret program of "extraordinary rendition" has dropped scores of detainees into a black hole of inhumane treatment and perhaps permanent legal limbo, why has the political right bound and gagged itself on the issue?

A thorough search of right-wing blogs and Op-Ed pages from the past two months turned up next to nothing on the issue, save the occasional tortured apologia. In early February, following reports of alleged sexual and religious abuse of detainees held in the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Opinion Journal editor James Taranto dismissed the news by focusing his attention on an old debate from America's culture war. "A Washington Post article about allegations of 'torture' at Guantanamo Bay contains [a] curious paragraph," Taranto wrote. Here's the paragraph from the Feb. 10 Post article to which he referred:

"Detainee lawyers likened the tactics to Nazis shaving the beards of orthodox Jews or artists dunking a crucifix in urine to shock Christians. 'They're exploiting religious beliefs to break them down, to destroy them,' said Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents several dozen detainees. 'What they're doing, it reminds me of a pornographic Web site -- it's like the fantasy of all these S&M clubs.'"

"The crucifix in urine is a reference to Andres Serrano's infamous photograph 'Piss Christ,'" Taranto said, zeroing in on the lawyer's analogy. "Which raises the question: Why isn't the Center for Constitutional Rights demanding that the Gitmo interrogators get the National Endowment for the Arts grants to which they are clearly entitled under the First Amendment?"

Taranto's obfuscating twist inspired Aussie blogger Arthur Chrenkoff to declare, "One man's torture is another man's S&M dungeon." He wondered whether "detainee lawyers and the Centre for Constitutional Rights think that artists dunking a crucifix in urine constitutes an unacceptable torture for Christians. And if so, who can the Christians sue?"

Chrenkoff suggested that the alleged fondling of genitals and smearing of fake menstrual blood on detainees might be no worse than subjecting them to a few hours of hardcore punditry. "This is all such a tricky area, isn't it?" he asked. "If exploiting religious beliefs to break down detainees is a no-no (and I'm not arguing that it should or shouldn't be), are all the other types of beliefs, for example political or ethical beliefs, also off-limits? Would smearing vegetarians with meat be torture? Now, to some people, being locked up in the same room with a Republican, particularly a talkative one who makes fun of your deeply cherished ideals (think Rush Limbaugh or Mark Steyn or James Taranto), would be torture, too. Is this a purely subjective judgment of the torturee or are there some objective components in making the call?"

But at least one or two known figures on the right, if pressed, are willing to warn of the dangers of the current Bush administration policy -- though Right Hook had to get off the Internet and pick up the phone to hear from them. (The pajama-clad pundits of the blogging "revolution" might consider this a primer.) In the wake of yet more evidence that the administration has sanctioned torture of detainees at the hands of foreign "allies," Right Hook spoke with staunch war hawk and Hoover Institution fellow Victor Davis Hanson.

"If we're exporting detainees for the express purpose that they be tortured under interrogation by another regime, it's a terrible idea," he said. "Any short-term gain that might come out of it won't be worth the long-term ill impression created by it. We're promoting democracy across the region, and you can't have torture by a dictatorial government. You just can't do it. If you're an idealist and you believe in democracy, it's bad policy. It's hypocritical, and it will blow up in your face."

Hanson added that a number of conservative colleagues with whom he's recently spoken think that Bush has "flipped his lid" on foreign policy, that the president is "drunk on Wilsonian idealism."

Hanson sees a necessary break with the bad players of the region if democracy is going to flourish there. "I think what's going on right now in Lebanon is amazing, and in Iraq, too," he says. "I'm not a utopian, but I think as [the region] moves further in this direction you're going to see the severing of a lot of ties -- with military officers and intelligence groups, with autocrats and royalty.

"A lot of the old ways of doing business have to change. You can't promote torture. You can no longer promote a guy like King Abdullah, or Hosni Mubarak's son, or any of these people. Saudi Arabia is one of the worst societies in the world. Prince Bandar should be put out of business."

Hanson has been joined by a few other lonely war hawks in denouncing torture, including Andrew Sullivan, Jeff Jacoby and blogger Sebastian Holsclaw, who weighed in earlier this month: "President Bush must be shown that the Republican Party is not willing to stand for the perversion of our moral standards," Holsclaw wrote. "The Republican-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House can close the loophole which allows for extraordinary rendition and can loudly reaffirm that torture is not something we do. We are the majority party, and we claim to be a party that cares about the moral health of the nation. We are damning ourselves if we sit back and let it continue."

But Hanson says that the political right's overwhelming silence on torture probably results from many continuing to believe that the ends do justify the means, assuming that interrogation by torture is effective for culling useful information (few, if any intelligence experts believe that it is), and that we're facing a new type of more "insidious" enemy.

National Review Online editor at large Jonah Goldberg is one who subscribes to that view.

"There are a lot of people who support the war who simply understand that these are some of the lesser evils of fighting a war on terrorism," Goldberg said in a phone interview.

That's in spite of the fact, he says, that some detainees who have been tortured turn out to be innocent.

"To be brutally honest, I'm torn about it. I don't mean to be callous about it: I think the U.S. government should do everything it can to see to it that innocent people don't get treated horribly. I don't know anybody on the right who would say, 'I'm in favor of innocent people being tortured.' But that said, I think a lot of people on the right are skeptical of hype: That the allegations are not nearly as horrendous or as widespread a matter of policy as the media portrays."

Goldberg adds that many Bush supporters are more "realist" than their detractors say. "For an undertaking of this scale, this war is probably one of the most humanitarian efforts the U.S. has ever conducted, in terms of limiting civilian casualties and all of these things. What you get is an environment in which the U.S. gets punished for only being good, and not being perfect," he says. "But many people I know don't buy into the notion that wars which need to be won can be fought as antiseptically as people who are against the war claim they should be."

For him, that concept extends to the clandestine activities of the U.S. government. "If, because of a legal regime in the U.S. which guarantees the civil liberties of Americans -- and I'm all in favor of that -- we have to go to other countries in order to successfully interrogate terrorists, then I'm not horrified by that proposition," Goldberg says. And while he concedes that it fundamentally contradicts what the United States stands for, "what undermines what we stand for," he says, "is the publication of all this information."

"We did all sorts of terrible things in World War II, and there was a reason why we had military censors," he says. "I do think there's a reason why the CIA does this stuff in secret, and why I think it should do a lot of things in secret. These things have a lot of propaganda value, both negative and positive, so I think we need to separate out what we think are 'good policies' from what the consequences are if those policies are publicized."

"There are lots of things that are ugly and terrible about war," Goldberg adds. "I think that people on the right are more comfortable allowing for that."

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Read more of "Right Hook," Salon's weekly roundup of conservative commentary and analysis here.

Mark Follman

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

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