The neoconservatives are drifting back into the
Democratic Party fold from whence they came, attempting to limit the terms of
the discourse on foreign and security policy so there will be no surprises from
the new administration. Media neocons like Bill Kristol and David Brooks are
jumping on the Hillary bandwagon, convinced that she will, if anything, prove
to be more hawkish than her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice.
The mainstream media is also doing its bit. The New York Times leads
the way in stifling any real debate, recently featuring on its opinion pages
a "Transitions" series that incorporates the views of designated "experts."
The choice of contributors, including Madeleine
Albright, William Cohen, and Peter
Bergen, has guaranteed a consensus that America's use of its military might
in the international arena is a force for good. One piece, titled "Let
Russia Stop Iran," was written by three Israelis who are members of
the Institute for International Security Studies, a think-tank in Tel Aviv dedicated
to Israeli security.
Notable among the contributors are two leading neocons, Danielle Pletka and
Reuel Marc Gerecht, both of whom support torture and war with Iran. Pletka is
vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise
Institute (AEI), and Gerecht is currently a senior fellow at the Foundation
for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a think-tank that focuses heavily on Israeli
security. Gerecht was also at AEI but recently lost his sinecure in a purge
that reportedly was initiated by Pletka. Michael Ledeen also was removed and
wound up with Gerecht at FDD, and Joshua Muravchik is also reported to be leaving
Pletka is Australian born and is reported to be a close associate of Martin
Indyk, also an Australian by birth, who became U.S. ambassador to Israel under
Bill Clinton. She was educated in the United States, worked in Israel and the
U.S. as a journalist, and eventually found a niche on the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, where she served as a staffer. AEI regards her as an expert on the
Middle East, though there is no evidence in her official bio that she speaks
either Farsi or Arabic.
Syrian Strategy" might be described as predictable in that it dismisses
diplomatic attempts to improve relations with Syria, which would, inter alia,
divide it from Iran and potentially remake the status quo in the Middle
East. Per Pletka, Syria has been "funneling killers into Iraq to oppose
coalition forces, assassinating its opponents in Lebanon, arming Hezbollah to
attack Israel, and starting a nuclear weapons program with help from North Korea,"
all of which are assertions that intentionally narrow the terms of the discourse
but are debatable or even manifestly false.
Pletka reasons that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad "can maintain his
grip on power only as long as he is seen as a vital instrument of Israel's defeat,"
and she rejects those who believe that Syria actually wants to become a "normal"
state, asserting that it wishes to remain a pariah. For Pletka, it's all about
Israel, but not surprisingly she provides no evidence to support her claims
about Damascus. Nor does she appear to have an answer to the challenge posed
by Syria apart from unrelenting hostility, a simplistic solution to a complex
problem that is completely divorced from reality. Her viewpoint would appear
to be undermined by the Israelis themselves, who are talking to the Syrians
Gerecht is a more interesting character altogether. A student of Bernard Lewis,
he believes that the only thing that Muslims truly understand is the mailed
fist. He has said that Iranians have "terrorism in their DNA," and
he advocates negotiating with Iran only as a prelude to bombing. He currently
resides in Prague, where his wife, Diane Zeleny, is director of communications
for Radio Free Europe, a position she was given after being on the receiving
end of a grievance filed by the American Foreign Service Association in 2006
when she broke every rule in State Department assignments to obtain a godfathered
appointment to head a media response center in Brussels. Zeleny was allegedly
a favorite of the redoubtable Karen Hughes, the self-styled soccer mom turned
public diplomacy czarina whose gaffe-filled "listening tours" to the
Muslim world were amusingly described in the world media. Gerecht has been involved
in trying to establish a neocon beachhead in Europe based in Prague, an effort
that has produced several security conferences featuring celebrities such as
Pletka approves of the torture of terrorist suspects, but Gerecht, as a former
intelligence officer, has made a study of the practice and is heavily into its
benefits. Like many neocons, he is fond of the therapeutic effects of institutionalized
violence but has never served in the military, preferring to leave the dirty
work to others. Unlike many of his neocon colleagues, Gerecht does speak Farsi
and has some actual understanding of what is going on in the Middle East, though
with the usual Likudist lean in terms of how he interprets developments.
It is astonishing that the New York Times would even print a piece advocating
torture, but the article is just one more indication of the access that the
neocons have to the nation's editorial pages. Gerecht's "Out
of Sight" argues that Barack Obama will undoubtedly recognize the utility
of rendition, in which terrorism suspects are sent to their home countries to
be interrogated, i.e., tortured. He sets his stage carefully, raising the specter
of "the slaughter of civilians by Islamic holy warriors" and then
posing a choice "between non-deniable aggressive questioning conducted
by Americans and deniable torturous interrogations by foreigners acting on behalf
of the United States." He dismisses the third option of non-coercive questioning
of suspects, citing the imaginary, Jack Bauer-esque "ticking time bomb"
scenario in which a terrorist has information that can stop an attack and "save
thousands of civilians." Gerecht concludes by rejecting calls to close
Guantanamo, because it would release an apparent horde of "enemy combatants"
prepared to wreak havoc worldwide.
Curiously enough, in 2005 Gerecht was opposed to rendition. He claimed in the
Weekly Standard that torture is a useful interrogation tool, similar to
his current position, and he also cited the ticking-bomb fantasy, but he insisted
that the abuse be carried out by American interrogators rather than foreigners.
His preference was partly derived from his view that foreigners are intrinsically
unreliable, but it was also shaped by his belief that the CIA should not be
relinquishing control over potential sources of intelligence, or as Gerecht
puts it, "willfully diminishing the flow of reliable information."
The principal flaw in Gerecht's argument, if one might dignify it by calling
it an argument, is that rendition and torture both are fallible processes that
lack any mechanism to protect the innocent. Fear of arbitrary action by government
is why America's founders created a constitution that enshrined individual rights
and liberties and why most Americans demand a rule of law with inbuilt safeguards,
even for suspected terrorists. That Bush and Cheney have managed to pervert
the system and get away with it, a development that both Gerecht and Pletka
applaud, does not change the fundamental moral and legal issues.
Nor is there any actual evidence that torture has ever saved anyone's life,
much less "thousands of innocents." And it has not made the United
States any safer. Washington's torture of Muslims has created more enemies than
friends around the world. "Enhanced interrogation" can also lead to
other abuses, including the mistreatment of American soldiers who are captured
by militants who themselves have been tortured. Selective use of torture lowers
the bar for everyone. Torture is disgraceful for the government and country
that order it, and it dehumanizes the CIA officers called upon to do it.
Professional interrogators know that most people subjected to torture will
say anything to stop the pain, meaning that the information obtained under duress
just might not be reliable. The process whereby one arrives in the torture chamber
is also questionable. It is not known how many of the hundreds of people rendered
to other countries for torture were actually terrorists. There are several well-documented
cases of errors being made, and it has been suggested that very few renditions
were justified, even if one accepts the perverted logic that established the
rendition and torture programs in the first place. One might also question Gerecht's
presumption of the guilt of the prisoners at Guantanamo. He assumes they are
terrorists to justify keeping the offshore prison, but there is considerable
evidence that many of the inmates were merely in the wrong place at the wrong
Ethically and legally there is also a long tradition of rejecting torture,
which Gerecht and Pletka ignore in spite of the oft-repeated neocon insistence
that policy be guided by "moral clarity." German and Japanese officers
were executed after the Second World War for torturing prisoners, and the principle
was firmly established that torture, including waterboarding, is a war crime.
The U.S. is signatory to the UN's anti-torture convention. But then again, Nuremberg
also determined a war of aggression to be the ultimate war crime, and since
both Gerecht and Pletka embraced the invasion of Iraq and welcome yet another
preemptive war against Iran, one presumes that they consider themselves to be
above any conventional moral or legal restraint.
Gerecht and Pletka, both of whom are inordinately fond of Israel, should also
note that the Israeli Supreme Court has banned torture, and the Shin Bet security
service has discovered that interrogating prisoners without coercion actually
produces more and better intelligence. Many American interrogation experts would
agree based on their own experience. The most pathetic thing about neocons like
Pletka and Gerecht is that they frame imposing arguments to sustain a worldview
in which suffering inflicted on innocent people becomes an abstraction, like
a model in a political science class, completely respectable and devoid of consequences.
One suspects that they can embrace torture because they know it won't happen
to them or to their friends hunkering down at their desks at AEI and FDD. Only
some hapless Arab or Afghan will get the chop, and what does it matter if he's