Now, admit it -- even in your jaded, Glenn Greenwald-reading mind, the Bush administration has left behind it a rosy afterglow of tolerance and statesmanship when compared to Trump and Cruz (a patina that has been reinforced no doubt by the simple passage of time, which forgives all and shrinks even Donald Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft to the size of childhood bogeys). Has the thought not crossed your mind and lips—“Remember how Bush used to emphasize in speeches that America was not declaring war on Islam, and that Muslim citizens were just as American as....?” Sure, we all dismissed it as empty rhetorical posturing at the time, but only because we didn’t yet realize what a sign of relative health and safety it was for the American republic that politicians in 2001 still found it important to distance themselves publicly from accusations of Islamophobic prejudice. Maybe the Neocons weren’t so bad, I start to think, maybe…
But no -- I need to burst that creeping bubble of nostalgia. To do it, after all, we have only to turn to the discussion of (and evident interest in implementing) torture, indefinite detention, and other war crimes that has been reviving in the GOP debates the past few weeks. Here we see starkly the ways in which the Neocons are the ones who woke this beast, even if they are among those now being despoiled by it.
Trump and Cruz -- and Rubio too, with his escalating rhetoric of filling the cells of Guantanamo to capacity – can say the things they do in large part because of lines the Bush administration had already transgressed long before (and that the Obama administration has since failed to reinscribe or has found news ways to violate). It is true that the tone has changed from one generation of GOP candidates to the next – from the affectless Cheney to the brazen Trump; from the windy pseudo-idealism of “democracy promotion” extolled in Neocon position papers to the frank nihilism and criminal zeal of Ted Cruz’s promised “carpet-bombing” air war -- yet the current GOP candidates are only putting words to what the Bush administration actually did. The nihilism was there as an undercurrent of the Bush administration’s actions, even if it took Trump and Cruz to boil the rhetoric hot enough to match it. Indeed, it took the actions to render the unthinkable thinkable, and thereby allow the rhetoric to flourish. “In the beginning was the Deed!” as Faust correctly revises John—the Word is more apt to come second.
Viz. the evolution of the debate over torture. The Bush administration introduced waterboarding into its conduct of the War on Terror at a time when openly defending torture was still taboo -- hence they needed to erect the complex sophistry of “enhanced interrogation." You may recall that this terminological ruse -- treated now with near universal derision-- actually succeeding in throwing dust in the eyes of many an esteemed authority at the time; suddenly after the new doctrine was announced, the conferences and debate halls were shuddering from one end of the world’s leading democracy to the other with the sounds of law professors and foreign policy hacks buckling under to the legality of torture – “Maybe if it was done with medical personnel on hand…”—“I mean, suppose there were a ticking time bomb?” Crucial to the whole spectacle at first was the fiction that waterboarding was not torture, that pounding music and disorienting sounds and psychological dislocation and sleep deprivation were not torture (which would be news to the protagonist of Darkness at Noon), that solitary confinement was not torture (how could it be, when it is standard practice in America’s prisons?).
From the start, this conceptual hocus pocus was mostly for the sake of the courts and the op-ed writers and the odd “liberal interventionist” or two who wandered in. If you actually sounded out any true, dyed-in-the-wool Bush supporter on the subject in those years, you never had to scratch deep to reveal that it actually mattered very little to them whether waterboarding was torture or not, because the real reason they were willing to support it was precisely that they thought torture was justified, and the laws of war were too constraining. Lo, when 2014’s Senate report revealed the full extent of the atrocities committed through this program, everyone stopped seriously debating whether or not these practices constituted torture. Now we just had Cheney declaring that he had “no sympathy” for the victims one way or the other (this was the guy I was just recalling favorably – how short memory is when it has to compete with nostalgia!) The way had been cleared for the inevitable new position -- it was only a matter of time before someone took it up and proclaimed it openly--: that torture is just fine.
Enter Trump, who has not only declared that we would “bring back waterboarding and a heluva lot worse,” but has now penned an editorial (or had someone on his staff pen it) that makes no attempt whatsoever to preserve the old sophistry that “enhanced interrogation” is not torture. Trump does note: “there has […] been significant pushback against what some have called torture,” but nowhere in what follows does he try to pretend that this is actually the wrong name for it. For Trump, it doesn't appear that waterboarding's status as a form of torture makes any particular difference, no matter how categorically it could be proved. Instead he writes: “nothing should be taken off the table when American lives are at stake. The enemy is cutting off the heads of Christians and drowning them in cages, and yet we are too politically correct to respond in kind. […] I will do whatever it takes to protect and defend this nation and its people.” You hear that? Nothing should be off the table. We should respond in kind. This is a new one. Even Cruz has been trotting out the old Bush administration line that waterboarding can’t possibly constitute torture because torture involves damaging people’s internal organs. (In origin, this bizarre definition is a John Yoo concoction, according to the Intercept, but I first heard it from my freshman roommate, whose mind was stocked from Krauthammer columns and like sources).
Of course, waterboarding is torture --it is, as two Intercept writers put it, "an archetypal form" of torture -- and everyone who seriously advocated for it knew from the beginning that it was torture; the whole purpose of the “enhanced interrogation” memos was to find a loophole that could make torture legal (one doesn't need fresh legal arguments, after all, when one is confident one is not violating the law). The key difference between then and now is not practical, therefore, it is rhetorical. John Yoo’s tangled artifices sound very different from Trump’s open defiance of the Constitution, humanitarian law, and all moral scruple, but both are willing to inflict intolerable suffering on people who are powerless to resist and wholly at their mercy. Trump is only dialing up the rhetoric to accord with the practice. Moreover, I doubt he could do so if the way had not already been cleared—he could not stand before the nation and promise “a heluva lot worse than waterboarding” if the 42nd president hadn’t already subjected detainees to waterboarding and a "heluva lot" else besides.
It does not help that liberals still ritualistically trot out the bromide, whenever waterboarding is mentioned, that “experts agree that such techniques are an ineffective means of obtaining…,” etc.—as if this were the decisive consideration. They rely on such arguments partly from their general terror of using a moral idiom in matters of foreign or economic policy, where they might offend someone they actually know, but also from a persistent and doggedly mistaken belief that the main reason crowds roar with pleasure at the mention of waterboarding or indefinite detention has to do with some utilitarian calculus. Once again Trump, with his pitch-perfect ear for the subterranean hatreds that roil beneath our politics, has hit much closer to the mark than they ever could. As he put it recently, “If [waterboarding] doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing.” Torture appeals to the people who support it not because they see it as counter-terrorism, but because it is terrorism, and serves the same impulses toward vengeance, retribution, toward “getting one’s own back” on the other guy as all terrorism does. As Charles Simic observed recently in the New York Review of Books: “For our own sadists, despite what anyone says to the contrary, torture works, because they personally get such immense satisfaction from imagining what inflicting that kind of thing on another human being would be like.”
This desire for vengeance was why so many American's embraced a policy of torture after 9/11, and it is is why they embrace it now after San Bernardino. Once again, the old Republican Establishment and the new Trump are revealed to be not so different after all.
One could go on with similar comparisons. Cruz’s “carpet-bombing” pledge makes for worse copy than the Bush administration’s emphasis on the “humanitarian” achievements of its military interventions, it is true; yet it was the Bush administration that actually did kill 100,000 civilians in its early bombing raids and dropped white phosphorus and depleted uranium-tipped missiles on populated areas in Iraq, whereas Cruz hasn’t yet had the opportunity.
So too, the misanthropy, nativism, and isolationism that have marked the tenor of this campaign season—(and I count here, among other things, Trump’s admiration for Putin and just about everyone’s love of the increasingly brutal military regime in Egypt)-- these things are small-minded and morally vacuous in a way the Neocons’ grand designs never quite were. One misses in 2016 the notion that was always present-- however disingenuously -- in Neoconservative discourse that the United States was in some way committed to supporting democracy and human rights in the world. There again, however, the difference is more one of tone than substance. After all, the present generation of U.S. strategic partnerships with convenient autocrats in the developing world date mostly from the Bush era -- most were in fact a direct product of the so-called War on Terror. The draconian regime in Ethiopia, for one, that is presently cracking down on internal dissent, was first courted and funded as a “regional security partner” in the Bush years. Indeed, Ethiopia provided some of the early victims for the Bush administration’s program of extraordinary rendition in the Horn of Africa. (After fighting a U.S.-backed war in Somalia, the Ethiopian state secretly moved captured fighters to its own soil, where many of them were tortured or held incommunicado in appalling conditions and then interrogated by members of the CIA and FBI.) In the same years, the U.S. also cultivated an alliance with the abhorrent ruling regime in Uzbekistan, known for having once boiled two dissidents alive. (Uzbekistan was another convenient site for extraordinary rendition, sitting close to Afghanistan.) These must be added to the longstanding U.S. support for military regimes and client states in the Persian Gulf, Pakistan, Egypt, and elsewhere that have long been engaged in suppressing the aspirations of their own populations for civilian and representative rule. Let us not for one second pretend that Bush was a democratic idealist.
Along similar lines, by the way, if Trump did swing Putin around to being a U.S. ally again, this would hardly be a repudiation of Neocon doctrine-- it would be the delayed consummation of a Bush-era project. It was Bush, let us recall, who once looked into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul— a moment of spiritual communion that happened to occur while the latter was waging his brutal second war in Chechnya -- a conflict that was also touted as a “counter-terrorism” operation.
This election year as in others, therefore, it may turn out that our politics has merely been dancing on the surface on the things, to the neglect of the deeper structural forces that really matter – that the inflated personalities and outrageous rhetoric have disguised a more linear retrogression carried from one generation of candidates to the next, rather than a conflict between the generations.
It wouldn’t be the first time this had happened. Over and again, American politics has seemed in an election year like it was finally going to become a pitched struggle between dramatically opposing ideologies – and over and again, as time passes and we are able to adopt the longer view, the ideologies all shrink to insignificance and the underlying trajectory of American policy is revealed. Think of those Cold War tussles between Kissingerian Realism and...– what was the other one even supposed to be again? They seemed very important to people at the time, no doubt, but in retrospect it has to be said that almost no one would treat them as a serious shaping factor in U.S. history. Kissinger appears to us now as just a slightly more heinous than average exemplar of the same consensus agenda that had informed U.S. foreign relations since the Truman doctrine—that of supplying right-wing autocracies with arms and money when they were battling “communists” (or socialists or democrats or liberals or protestors or ethnic minorities, etc.), of sabotaging or isolating or actively unseating elected governments who showed too much independence of the Washington line, etc. U.S. administrations from 1947 on all did it—regardless of where they may have stood on the great questions of “realism” and “idealism” and “containment” and all the others. The think tank buzzwords come and go, "they rise and vanish in oblivious host” (Clare). Almost never are they seen with the benefit of hindsight as serious factors in historical analysis. What remains are the actual deeds that they may or may not reflect.
I suspect “Neoconservatism” and “isolationism” in the GOP will go the same way. What historians will remember of our era is not some grand clash of styles between a Neocon establishment and an isolationist insurgency -- they will notice instead the underlying deterioration of values that runs in a straight line from Bush and Cheney to Trump, Cruz, and Rubio. This is the big story of what has happened over the last two decades in U.S. foreign policy (and by extension, the world that is impacted by this policy). It has little to do with personalities and ideologies. It is the story of how the U.S. violated one human right after another in the name of fighting terrorism, and thereby provided a script for other regimes to do the same. It is the story of how, from one end of the Earth to the other, governments and regimes and dictators who have their own stake in rolling back human rights protections learned how to appeal to the specter of terrorism to do so.
It's a familiar pattern. In the Cold War, it was the communist threat that justified every use of the torture chamber and firing squad. Every tin pot tyrant from Duvalier to Pinochet learned to talk the lingo of “protecting the free world” while they dropped dissidents out of helicopters or burned people out of their houses in the middle of the night (As the Tonton Macoutes are always saying of themselves in Graham Greene's The Comedians: "We are a bulwark of democracy.") With the collapse of the Soviet Union, this ideological currency ran out, however, and a replacement was needed. It was conveniently supplied by the U.S.’s War on Terror. Suddenly Putin, Meles Zenawi, Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov and the People’s Republic of China were all speaking the language of “counter-terror” in their efforts to suppress dissidents, separatists, and restive ethnic minorities. All at once, one was hearing the same clichés in Egypt and in Ethiopia that one did in the Patriot Act. To this day in Ethiopia, most detained political dissidents are held on trumped up terrorism charges, with terrorism being defined so as to sweep in various attempts to “influence the state." Now France, an ostensibly democratic nation, is taking a leaf from the same book. Authorities there recently approved yet another extension of the “state of emergency" under which they have so far charged at least 23 individuals with the vaguely-defined thought crime of “apologizing for terrorism.”
This—the global erosion of human rights standards in the name of fighting terrorism – is the most lasting legacy of the Bush administration. When Trump, Cruz, and Rubio win applause from the crowd for promising ever more war crimes of torture, destruction, and indefinite detention without trial, they are only picking up on the same cues from the architects of U.S. foreign policy that have made things easier for every other regime and politician in the world who has found that human rights don't often win votes and certainly tend to get in the way of a good "carpet-bombing." The hawks have come home to roost.