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Obama on Israel-Palestine

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Obama on Israel-Palestine

Barack Obama is recognized to be a person of acute intelligence, a legal scholar, careful with his choice of words. He deserves to be taken seriously—both what he says, and what he omits. Particularly significant is his first substantive statement on foreign affairs after assuming office, on January 22, 2009, at the State Department, when introducing George Mitchell to serve as his special envoy for Middle East peace.1

Mitchell’s assignment was to focus his attention on the Israel-Palestine problem, in the wake of the recent U.S.-Israeli invasion of Gaza. During the murderous assault, Obama and his staff remained silent apart from expressing their deep sympathy with Israeli children who face rocket attacks (because of Israel’s refusal to accept a cease-fire, as they failed to mention). As for the hundreds of Palestinian children being butchered by U.S. arms, he unfortunately could not speak, because there was only one president.

On January 22, however, the one president was Barack Obama. He still could not comment, however, because the attack on Gaza had been called off, by coincidence no doubt, just before the inauguration. And we must look forward.

Obama’s State Department talk emphasized his commitment to a peaceful settlement. He left its contours vague, apart from one specific proposal: “The Arab peace initiative,” Obama said, “contains constructive elements that could help advance these efforts. Now is the time for Arab states to act on the initiative’s promise by supporting the Palestinian government under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, taking steps towards normalizing relations with Israel, and by standing up to extremism that threatens us all.”

Obama was not directly falsifying the Arab League proposal, but his carefully framed characterization of it is instructive.

The Arab League peace proposal does indeed call for normalization of relations with Israel in the context—repeat, in the context—of a two-state settlement in terms of the long-standing international consensus, which the United States and Israel have blocked for thirty-five years. The core of the Arab League proposal, as Obama and his Mideast advisers know very well, is its call for a peaceful political settlement in these terms, which are well known and recognized to be the only basis for the peaceful settlement to which Obama professes to be committed. The omission of that crucial fact can hardly be accidental, and signals clearly that Obama envisions no departure from U.S. rejectionism. His call for the Arab states to act on a corollary to their proposal, while the United States ignores even the existence of its central content, which is the precondition for the corollary, surpasses cynicism.

The most significant acts to undermine a peaceful settlement are the daily U.S.-backed actions in the occupied territories, all recognized to be criminal: taking over valuable land and resources and constructing what the leading architect of the plan, Ariel Sharon, regarded as bantustans for Palestinians.2 The comparison has been bitterly attacked as unfair, a charge that has some merit, though not in the sense intended. The bantustans had to be sustained as relatively viable, unlike the fragments left to Palestinians under Sharon’s conception, now being realized. For good reasons: South Africa relied on Black labor, but Israel’s goal is to remove the Palestinians, at least from sight. The United States and Israel even continue to oppose a political settlement in words, most recently in December 2008, when the two rejectionist states (and a few Pacific dependencies) voted against a UN resolution supporting “the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination” (passed 173 to 5, U.S.-Israel opposed, with evasive pretexts).

Obama had nothing to say about the settlement and infrastructure developments in the West Bank, and the carefully crafted measures to control Palestinian existence, designed to undermine the prospects for a peaceful two-state settlement, as openly conceded decades ago.3 His silence was an eloquent refutation of his oratorical flourishes about how “I will sustain an active commitment to seek two states living side by side in peace and security.”

Also unmentioned was Israel’s use of U.S. arms in Gaza in violation not only of international but also U.S. law. Or Washington’s shipment of new arms to Israel—allegedly, prepositioning for potential U.S. use—right at the peak of the U.S.-Israeli attack, surely not unknown to Obama’s Middle East advisers. They apparently have not deigned to respond to an Amnesty International study released a few weeks later reviewing the arms used illegally in the Gaza attack, almost all from the United States, and calling for an arms embargo on shipments of arms to Israel, that is, for the United States to observe international and domestic law—a “milestone” in the conflict, Norman Finkelstein rightly observes.4

Obama was firm, however, that smuggling of arms to Gaza must be stopped. He endorses the agreement of Condoleezza Rice and then–Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni that the Egyptian-Gaza border must be closed—a remarkable exercise of imperial arrogance, as the Financial Times observed: “As they stood in Washington congratulating each other, both officials seemed oblivious to the fact that they were making a deal about an illegal trade on someone else’s border—Egypt in this case. The next day, an Egyptian official described the memorandum as ‘fictional.’” Egypt’s objections were ignored—and soon overcome, as we shall see.5

In referring to the “constructive” Arab League proposal, Obama called for support for the defeated political party in the January 2006 Palestinian election, to which the United States and Israel reacted, as we have seen, by severely punishing Palestinians for their failure to understand what we mean by “democracy.” A minor technicality is that Abbas’s term had run out on January 9, and that Fayyad was appointed without confirmation by the Palestinian parliament (many of them kidnapped and held in Israeli prisons without credible charge, or any at all). Haaretz describes Fayyad as “a strange bird in Palestinian politics. On the one hand, he is the Palestinian politician most esteemed by Israel and the West. However, on the other hand, he has no electoral power whatsoever in Gaza or the West Bank.” The report also notes Fayyad’s “close relationship with the Israeli establishment,” notably his friendship with Sharon’s extremist adviser Dov Weisglass. Though lacking popular support, he is regarded as competent and honest.6

Obama’s insistence that only Abbas and Fayyad exist conforms to the consistent Western contempt for democracy unless it is under control, recognized in scholarship and so well documented that it takes true genius to remain oblivious to the facts.7

Obama repeated the familiar reasons for ignoring the elected government led by Hamas. “To be a genuine party to peace,” Obama declared, “the Quartet [United States, EU, Russia, UN] has made it clear that Hamas must meet clear conditions: recognize Israel’s right to exist; renounce violence; and abide by past agreements.” Unmentioned, also as usual, is the inconvenient fact that the United States and Israel firmly reject all three conditions for themselves. In international isolation, they bar a two-state settlement, thus rejecting Palestinian national rights. They of course do not renounce violence. And they reject the Quartet’s central proposal, the “Road Map.” Israel formally accepted it, but with fourteen reservations that effectively eliminate its contents (tacitly backed by the United States). As already discussed (see p. 302, note 23), it is the great merit of Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid to have brought these facts to public attention for the first time—and in the mainstream, the only time, it appears. But even this was quickly effaced.

It follows, by Obama’s reasoning, that neither the United States nor Israel is a “genuine party to peace.” But that cannot be. It is not even a phrase in the English language.

It is perhaps unfair to criticize Obama for this further exercise of cynicism, because it is close to universal, unlike his evisceration of the core component of the Arab League proposal, which is his original contribution.

Also near-universal are the standard references to Hamas: a terrorist organization, dedicated to the destruction of Israel (or maybe all Jews). Omitted is the fact that the United States and Israel are not only dedicated to the destruction of any viable Palestinian state, but are steadily implementing those policies. Or that unlike the two leading rejectionist states, Hamas has called for a two-state settlement in the terms of the international consensus: publicly and repeatedly.8 Israel and the United States object that the Hamas proposals do not go far enough. Perhaps so, but they surely go much farther toward the international consensus than the firm and unwavering U.S.-Israeli rejectionist stance, reiterated obliquely by Obama in his State Department talk.

Obama began his remarks by saying, “Let me be clear: America is committed to Israel’s security. And we will always support Israel’s right to defend itself against legitimate threats.”

He had nothing to say about the right of Palestinians to defend themselves against far more extreme threats, such as those being implemented daily, with U.S. support, in the occupied territories. But that again is the norm.

Also normal is the enunciation of the principle that Israel has the right to defend itself, as if that were in question. It is not. So does everyone. But in the context the cliché is worse than vacuous: it is a further exercise in cynical deceit, for reasons already reviewed. As a well-trained specialist in the law, Obama surely is aware that the real issue is whether Israel had the right to defend itself by force—after having rejected peaceful means that it has every reason to believe will suffice. It is a useful propaganda technique to stand up heroically in defense of rights that are not contested, while systematically effacing the only issue at stake.

The deceit is particularly striking in this case because the occasion was the appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy. Mitchell’s primary achievement was his leading role in bringing about a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland. The settlement that Mitchell helped to negotiate called for an end to both IRA terror and British violence. There was no question that Britain had the right to defend itself from terror. At issue was whether it had the right to do so by force when there were peaceful alternatives that could be explored: recognition of the legitimate grievances of the Irish Catholic community that were at the roots of IRA terror. When Britain adopted that sensible course, the terror ended. The implications for Mitchell’s mission with regard to Israel-Palestine need not be spelled out. And omission of them is, again, a striking indication of the commitment of the Obama administration to traditional U.S. rejectionism and opposition to peace, except on its own extremist terms.

Obama also praised Jordan for its “constructive role in training Palestinian security forces and nurturing its relations with Israel”—which contrasts strikingly with U.S.-Israeli refusal to deal with the freely elected government of Palestine while savagely punishing Palestinians for electing it, with pretexts that do not withstand a moment’s scrutiny. It is true that Jordan joined the United States and Israel in arming and training Palestinian security forces, so effectively that they were able to suppress any manifestation of support for the miserable victims of the U.S.-Israeli assault in Gaza, also arresting supporters of Hamas and the prominent journalist Khaled Amayreh. Meanwhile the faction that the United States supports was organizing their own demonstration in support of Abbas and Fatah, in which most participants “were civil servants and school children who were instructed by the [Palestinian Authority] to attend the rally,” according to the Jerusalem Post. Our kind of democracy.9

Obama made one further substantive comment: “As part of a lasting cease-fire, Gaza’s border crossings should be open to allow the flow of aid and commerce, with an appropriate monitoring regime.” He did not mention that the U.S.-Israel had rejected much the same agreement after the January 2006 election, and that Israel had never observed similar subsequent agreements on opening borders.

Also missing is any reaction to Israel’s announcement that it rejected the cease-fire agreement, so that the prospects for a cease-fire to be established, let alone to be “lasting,” are not auspicious. The reasons were reported prominently and repeatedly in the press: Israel will not allow border crossings with Gaza to open, and will insist that Gazan life be reduced to a bare minimum, unless Gilad Shalit is released. Furthermore, “the government planned to use the issue to bargain for” his release, another gross violation of core provisions of international humanitarian law.10

Shalit’s capture is a persistent and prominent issue in the West, another indication of Hamas’s criminality. Whatever one thinks about his capture, it is uncontroversial that capture of a soldier of an attacking army is a far lesser crime than kidnapping of civilians, exactly what Israeli forces did one day before the capture of Shalit, invading Gaza City and kidnapping two brothers, the Muamar brothers, then spiriting them across the border where they disappeared into Israel’s opaque prison system. Unlike the much less significant case of Shalit, that crime was virtually unreported and was quickly forgotten, along with Israel’s regular practice for decades of kidnapping and killing of civilians in Lebanon and on the high seas, often imprisoning them without charge in Israel.11 But it is the capture of Shalit that bars a cease-fire, under the principles of imperial ideology.

Israel’s routine kidnapping of civilians and similar crimes continue unabated, and unnoted. To recall one example cited earlier, the very reliable Gazan human rights organization, Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, reports that on September 6, 2009, the IDF carried out another regular infiltration into Gaza and “kidnapped five Palestinian children who were on their way home after grazing sheep,” ages fifteen to seventeen, taking them to Israel under cover of helicopter fire around the Bedouin village from which they were abducted. Their press release provided the names. The crime—needless to say far more severe than the capture of Shalit—passed unnoticed.12

Obama’s State Department talk about the Middle East continued with “the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan…the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism.”A few hours later, U.S. planes attacked a remote village in Afghanistan, intending to kill a Taliban commander. “Village elders, though, told provincial officials there were no Taliban in the area, which they described as a hamlet populated mainly by shepherds. Women and children were among the 22 dead, they said, according to Hamididan Abdul Rahmzai, the head of the provincial council.”13

Afghan president Karzai’s first message to Obama after he was elected in November 2008 was a plea to end the bombing of Afghan civilians, reiterated a few hours before Obama was sworn in. This was considered as significant as Karzai’s call for a timetable for departure of U.S. and other foreign forces.14 The rich and powerful have their “responsibilities.” Among them, the New York Times reported, is to “provide security” in southern Afghanistan, where “the insurgency is homegrown and self-sustaining.” All familiar. From Pravda in the 1980s, for example.


The Torture Memos

The torture memos released by the White House elicited shock, indignation, and surprise. The shock and indignation are understandable—particularly the testimony in the Senate Armed Services Committee report on Cheney-Rumsfeld desperation to find nonexistent links between Iraq and al-Qaeda, links that were later concocted out of thin air as justification for the invasion. Former army psychiatrist Major Charles Burney testified that “a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq. The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish this link…there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results”; that is, torture. McClatchy Newspapers reported the comments of a former senior intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue: “The Bush administration applied relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime.… [Cheney and Rumsfeld] demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration.… ‘There was constant pressure on the intelligence agencies and the interrogators to do whatever it took to get that information out of the detainees, especially the few high-value ones we had, and when people kept coming up empty, they were told by Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s people to push harder.’”1

These were the most significant revelations, barely reported.

While such testimony about the criminality of the Bush administration should indeed be shocking, the surprise at the general picture revealed is nonetheless surprising. A narrow reason is that even without inquiry, it was reasonable to suppose that Guantánamo was a torture chamber. Why else send prisoners where they would be beyond the reach of the law—incidentally, a place that Washington is using in violation of a treaty that was forced on Cuba at the point of a gun? Security reasons are alleged, but they are hard to take seriously. The same expectations held for secret prisons and rendition, and were fulfilled.

A broader reason is that torture has been routine practice from the early days of the conquest of the national territory, and then beyond, as the imperial ventures of the “infant empire”—as George Washington called the new Republic—extended to the Philippines, Haiti, and elsewhere. Furthermore, torture was the least of the many crimes of aggression, terror, subversion, and economic strangulation that have darkened U.S. history, much as in the case of other great powers. Accordingly, it is surprising to see the reactions even by some of the most eloquent and forthright critics of Bush malfeasance: for example, that we used to be “a nation of moral ideals” and never before Bush “have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for.”2 To say the least, that common view reflects a rather slanted version of history.

In the past sixty years, victims worldwide have endured the CIA’s “torture paradigm,” developed at a cost reaching $1 billion annually, according to historian Alfred McCoy, who shows that the methods resurfaced with little change in Abu Ghraib. There is no hyperbole when Jennifer Harbury entitles her penetrating study of the U.S. torture record Truth, Torture, and the American Way. It is highly misleading when investigators of the Bush gang’s descent into the gutter lament that “in waging the war against terrorism, America had lost its way.”3

Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld et al. did introduce some important innovations. Ordinarily, torture is farmed out to subsidiaries under U.S. supervision, not carried out by Americans directly in their government-established torture chambers. Alain Nairn, who has undertaken some of the most revealing and courageous investigations of torture, points out that “what the Obama [ban on torture] ostensibly knocks off is that small percentage of torture now done by Americans while retaining the overwhelming bulk of the system’s torture, which is done by foreigners under U.S. patronage. Obama could stop backing foreign forces that torture, but he has chosen not to do so.” Obama did not shut down the practice of torture, Nairn observes, but “merely repositioned it,” restoring it to the norm, a matter of indifference to the victims. Since Vietnam, “the U.S. has mainly seen its torture done for it by proxy—paying, arming, training and guiding foreigners doing it, but usually being careful to keep Americans at least one discreet step removed.” Obama’s ban “doesn’t even prohibit direct torture by Americans outside environments of ‘armed conflict,’ which is where much torture happens anyway since many repressive regimes aren’t in armed conflict…his is a return to the status quo ante, the torture regime of Ford through Clinton, which, year by year, often produced more U.S.-backed strapped-down agony than was produced during the Bush/Cheney years.”4

Sometimes engagement in torture is more indirect. In a 1980 study, Latin Americanist Lars Schoultz found that U.S. aid “has tended to flow disproportionately to Latin American governments which torture their citizens…to the hemisphere’s relatively egregious violators of fundamental human rights.” That includes military aid, is independent of need, and runs through the Carter years. Broader studies by Edward Herman found the same correlation, and also suggested an explanation. Not surprisingly, U.S. aid tends to correlate with a favorable climate for business operations, and this is commonly improved by murder of labor and peasant organizers and human rights activists, and other such actions, yielding a secondary correlation between aid and egregious violation of human rights.5 More matters that cannot enter consciousness.

These studies precede the Reagan years, when the topic was not worth studying because the correlations were so clear. And the tendencies continue to the present.

Small wonder that the president advises us to look forward, not backward—a convenient doctrine for those who hold the clubs. Those who are beaten by them tend to see the world differently, much to our annoyance.

An argument can be made that implementation of the CIA’s “torture paradigm” does not violate the 1984 UN Torture Convention, at least as Washington interprets it. Alfred McCoy points out that the highly sophisticated CIA paradigm, based on the “KGB’s most devastating torture technique,” keeps primarily to mental torture, not crude physical torture, which is considered less effective in turning people into pliant vegetables. McCoy writes that the Reagan administration carefully revised the international Torture Convention “with four detailed diplomatic ‘reservations’ focused on just one word in the convention’s 26-printed pages. That word was ‘mental.’… [T]hese intricately-constructed diplomatic reservations re-defined torture, as interpreted by the United States, to exclude sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain—the very techniques the CIA had refined at such great cost.” When Clinton sent the UN Torture Convention to Congress for ratification in 1994, he included the Reagan reservations. The president and Congress therefore exempted the core of the CIA torture paradigm from the U.S. interpretation of the Torture Convention; and those reservations, McCoy observes, were “reproduced verbatim in domestic legislation enacted to give legal force to the UN Convention.” That is the “political land mine” that “detonated with such phenomenal force” in the Abu Ghraib scandal and in the shameful Military Commissions Act that was passed with bipartisan support in 2006, later effectively restored by Obama. For such reasons, after the first exposure of Washington’s resort to torture, constitutional law professor Sanford Levinson commented that it could perhaps be justified in terms of the “interrogator-friendly” definition of torture adopted by Reagan and Clinton in their revision of international human rights law.6

Bush, of course, went beyond his predecessors in authorizing prima facie violations of international law, and several of his extremist innovations were struck down by the courts. While Obama, like Bush, eloquently affirms our unwavering commitment to international law (and differs from Bush in that he is familiar with it), he seems intent on substantially reinstating the extremist Bush measures.

In the important case of Boumediene v. Bush in June 2008, the Supreme Court rejected as unconstitutional the Bush administration claim that prisoners in Guantánamo are not entitled to the right of habeas corpus. Glenn Greenwald reviews the aftermath. Seeking to “preserve the power to abduct people from around the world” and imprison them without due process, the Bush administration decided to ship them to Bagram, in Afghanistan, treating “the Boumediene ruling, grounded in our most basic constitutional guarantees, as though it was some sort of a silly game—fly your abducted prisoners to Guantánamo and they have constitutional rights, but fly them instead to Bagram and you can disappear them forever with no judicial process.” Obama adopted the Bush position, “filing a brief in federal court that, in two sentences, declared that it embraced the most extremist Bush theory on this issue.” Obama’s argument amounts to saying that prisoners flown to Bagram from anywhere in the world—in the case in question, Yemenis and Tunisians captured in Thailand and the UAE—“can be imprisoned indefinitely with no rights of any kind—as long as they are kept in Bagram rather than Guantánamo.”

In March, a Bush-appointed federal judge “rejected the Bush/Obama position and held that the rationale of Boumediene applies every bit as much to Bagram as it does to Guantánamo.” The Obama administration announced that it would appeal the ruling, thus placing Obama’s Department of Justice “squarely to the Right of an extremely conservative, pro-executive-power, Bush 43-appointed judge on issues of executive power and due-process-less detentions,” in radical violation of Obama’s campaign promises and earlier stands.7

The case of Rasul v. Rumsfeld appears to be following a similar trajectory. The four plaintiffs charged that Rumsfeld and other high officials were responsible for their torture in Guantánamo, where they were sent after they were captured by Uzbeki warlord Rashid Dostum. Dostum is a notorious thug who was then a leader of the Northern Alliance, the Afghan faction supported by Russia, Iran, India, Turkey, and the Central Asian states, joined by the United States as it attacked Afghanistan in October 2001. Dostum then turned them over to U.S. custody, allegedly for bounty money. The plaintiffs claimed that they had traveled to Afghanistan to offer humanitarian relief. The Bush administration sought to have the case dismissed. Obama’s Department of Justice filed a brief supporting the Bush position that government officials are not liable for torture and other violations of due process in this case, because the courts had not yet clearly established the rights that prisoners enjoy.8

With mostly cosmetic changes, Obama reinstated military commissions, one of the uglier violations of the rule of law during the Bush years. There is a reason. “Officials who work on the Guantánamo issue say administration lawyers have become concerned that they would face significant obstacles to trying some terrorism suspects in federal courts. Judges might make it difficult to prosecute detainees who were subjected to brutal treatment or for prosecutors to use hearsay evidence gathered by intelligence agencies.”9

A serious flaw in the criminal justice system by Obama’s standards, it appears. The right wing in the United States takes much the same stance, demanding that accused terrorists be tried in military courts because the law grants defendants too many rights, a regular theme of talk radio hosts. It is perhaps of interest that this stance of utter contempt for the values that the country has professed to uphold since its earliest days is called “patriotic.”

There is much debate about whether torture has been effective in eliciting information—the assumption being, apparently, that if it is effective, then it may be justified. By the same logic, when Nicaragua captured U.S. pilot Eugene Hasenfuss in 1986 after shooting down his plane delivering aid to Reagan’s contra forces, they should not have tried him, found him guilty, and then sent him back to the United States, as they did. Rather, they should have applied the CIA torture paradigm to try to extract information about other terrorist atrocities being planned and implemented in Washington, no small matter for a tiny and poor country under terrorist attack by the global superpower. And Nicaragua should certainly have done the same if they had been able to capture the chief terrorism coordinator, John Negroponte, then ambassador to Honduras, later appointed counterterrorism czar, without eliciting a murmur. Cuba too should have done the same if they had been able to lay hands on the Kennedy brothers and their successors in the terrorism racket. There is no need to bring up what victims should have done to Kissinger, Reagan, and other leading terrorist commanders, whose exploits leave al-Qaeda far in the distance, and who doubtless had ample information that could have prevented further “ticking bombs.”

Such considerations, which abound, never seem to arise in public discussion. Accordingly, we know at once how to evaluate the pleas about valuable information and “ticking bombs,” or the fury about terrorism—by enemies.

There is, to be sure, a response: our terrorism, even if surely terrorism, is benign, emanating as it does from the City on the Hill. Perhaps the most eloquent exposition of this thesis was presented by New Republic editor Michael Kinsley, designated at that time by the media as a spokesman of “the left.” Americas Watch (then a branch of Human Rights Watch) had protested State Department confirmation of official orders to Washington’s terrorist forces to attack “soft targets”—undefended civilian targets—and to avoid the Nicaraguan army, as they could do thanks to CIA control of Nicaraguan airspace and the sophisticated communications systems provided to these rather unusual guerrillas. In a gentle reprimand, Kinsley explained that U.S. terrorist attacks on civilian targets are justified if they satisfy pragmatic criteria: a “sensible policy [should] meet the test of cost-benefit analysis,” an analysis of “the amount of blood and misery that will be poured in, and the likelihood that democracy will emerge at the other end”10—“democracy” as U.S. elites determine. His thoughts elicited no comment, to my knowledge, apparently deemed acceptable. It would seem to follow, then, that U.S. leaders and their agents are not culpable for conducting such sensible policies in good faith, even if their judgment might sometimes be flawed.

Perhaps culpability would be greater, by prevailing moral standards, if it were discovered that Bush administration torture cost American lives. That is, in fact, the conclusion drawn by U.S. major Matthew Alexander [pseudonym], one of the most seasoned interrogators in Iraq, who elicited “the information that led to the U.S. military being able to locate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qa’ida in Iraq,” correspondent Patrick Cockburn reports. Alexander expresses only contempt for the harsh interrogation methods: “The use of torture by the U.S.,” he believes, not only elicits no useful information but “has proved so counterproductive that it may have led to the death of as many U.S. soldiers as civilians killed in 9/11.” From hundreds of interrogations, Alexander discovered that foreign fighters came to Iraq in reaction to the abuses at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, and that they and their domestic allies turned to suicide bombing and other terrorist acts for the same reason.11

There is also mounting evidence that Cheney-Rumsfeld torture created terrorists even more directly. One carefully studied case is that of Abdallah al-Ajmi, who was locked up in Guantánamo on the charge of “engaging in two or three fire fights with the Northern Alliance.” He had come to Afghanistan after having failed to reach Chechnya to fight against the Russian invasion. After four years of brutal treatment in Guantánamo, he was returned to Kuwait. He later found his way to Iraq, and in March 2008 drove a bomb-laden truck into an Iraqi military compound, killing himself and thirteen soldiers—“the single most heinous act of violence committed by a former Guantánamo detainee,” the Washington Post reports, the direct result of his abusive imprisonment, his Washington lawyer concludes.12

All much as a reasonable person would expect—and something we should bear in mind when reading about released prisoners turning to terror.

Another standard pretext for torture is the context: the “war on terror” that Bush declared after 9/11, an atrocity that was a “crime against humanity” carried out with “wickedness and awesome cruelty,” as Robert Fisk reported.13 9/11 rendered traditional international law “quaint” and “obsolete,” Bush was advised by his legal counsel Alberto Gonzales, later appointed attorney general. The doctrine has been widely reiterated in one or another form in commentary and analysis.

The 9/11 attack was doubtless unique, in many respects. One is where the guns were pointing: typically it is in the opposite direction. Another unique feature is the scale of terror by a non-state actor. But horrifying as it was, it could have been worse—as on the first 9/11, already discussed (p. 27). But in that case responsibility traces straight back to Washington, so that the analogy, though clearly appropriate, does not enter consciousness, while the facts are consigned to the “abuse of reality” that the naïve call history.

It should also be recalled that Bush did not declare the “war on terror”; he re-declared it. Twenty years earlier, the Reagan administration came into office declaring that a centerpiece of its foreign policy would be a war on terror, “the plague of the modern age” and “a return to barbarism in our time,” to sample the fevered rhetoric of the day. That war on terror has also been expunged from historical consciousness, because the outcome cannot readily be incorporated into the canon: hundreds of thousands slaughtered in the ruined countries of Central America and many more elsewhere, among them an estimated 1.5 million in the terrorist wars sponsored in neighboring countries by Reagan’s favored ally, Apartheid South Africa, which had to defend itself from Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, one of the more world’s “more notorious terrorist groups,” so Washington determined in 1988. In fairness, it should be added that twenty years later Congress voted to remove the ANC from the list of terrorist organizations, so that Mandela is now at last able to enter the United States without obtaining a waiver from the government.14

The reigning doctrine is sometimes called “American exceptional-ism.” It is nothing of the sort. It is probably close to universal among imperial powers. France was hailing its “civilizing mission” while the French minister of war called for “exterminating the indigenous population” of Algeria. Britain’s nobility was a “novelty in the world,” John Stuart Mill declared, while urging that this angelic power delay no longer in completing its liberation of India. This classic essay on humanitarian intervention was written shortly after the public revelation of Britain’s horrifying atrocities in suppressing the 1857 Indian rebellion. The conquest of the rest of India was in large part an effort to gain a monopoly of opium for Britain’s huge narcotrafficking enterprise, by far the largest in world history, designed primarily to compel China to accept Britain’s manufactured goods.

Similarly, there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Japanese militarists who were bringing an “earthly paradise” to China under benign Japanese tutelage, and protecting innocents from “Chinese bandits,” as they carried out the rape of Nanking and other hideous crimes. History is replete with similar glorious episodes.

As long as such “exceptionalist” theses remain firmly implanted, the occasional revelations of the “abuse of reality” can backfire, serving to efface terrible crimes. The My Lai massacre is an example. It was a mere footnote to the vastly greater atrocities of the post-Tet pacification programs, ignored while indignation focused on this single crime. Watergate was doubtless criminal, but the furor over it displaced incomparably worse crimes at home and abroad—the FBI-organized assassination of Black organizer Fred Hampton as part of the infamous COINTELPRO repression, or the bombing of Cambodia, to mention two egregious examples.15

Torture is hideous enough; the invasion of Iraq is a far worse crime. Quite commonly, selective attention to atrocities has this unfortunate function.

Historical amnesia is a dangerous phenomenon, not only because it undermines moral and intellectual integrity, but also because it lays the groundwork for crimes that lie ahead.

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