Baptism

From Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish:

“Yesterday was a vital day of clarity for what has happened to America in the Bush presidency. …

“Q Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?

“THE VICE PRESIDENT: It’s a no-brainer for me, but for a while there, I was criticized as being the Vice President “for torture.” We don’t torture. That’s not what we’re involved in. We live up to our obligations in international treaties that we’re party to and so forth. But the fact is, you can have a fairly robust interrogation program without torture, and we need to be able to do that.”

It’s not torture. It’s a “dunk in water.” Like baptism. Or maybe like the dunk tank at the school carnival.

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Now They Vote

You’d have to have a very hard heart not to be moved at least a little by the pictures of Iraqis going to the polls; going to the polls, moreover, with little idea what their votes will bring; just clear that whatever happens, it’s different from the past.

As to what the vote means, let’s wait a while and see. I’m amused/bemused to read Andrew Sullivan, who on Friday asked how we might judge the vote’s "success."

The amusement/bemusement is twofold. First, Sullivan throws out a set of blind metrics in his post: He suggests "over 50 percent turnout among the Shia and Kurds, and over 30 percent turnout for the Sunnis. No massive disruption of voting places; no theft of ballots. Fewer than 500 murdered." (I find that death figure appalling and outrageous on so many levels it’s hard to sit still and sort them out. Yes, that will be a great success if you’re not one of the 499 or one of their daughters, sons, wives, husbands, mothers or fathers. And: What’s 500 more lives on top of the tens of thousands spent already? And: The nerve of us Yanks, whether we support this war or not, to talk about these lives so casually).

But the thing that really kills me about Sullivan’s success metrics is the way they bounce around. Last week, Chris Matthew asked him to define success, and he said, "Success is 80 percent turnout in–in most of the regions, extremely enthusiastic voting among the Kurds and the Shias, and better than expected among the Sunnis." And today, after letting reality, or whatever it is, sink in a little, he offered this: "My revised criteria: 45 percent turnout for Kurds and Shia, 25 percent turnout for the Sunnis, under 200 murdered. No immediate call for U.S. withdrawal. Reasonable?"

No, not reasonable. But not because the numbers are off. Because they’re a sort of game we’ve all gotten used to watching the media and our leaders play. That game is both a cause and a symptom of the trouble we’re having understanding what’s happening in Iraq (and much of the rest of the world, including the United States, but that’s another post for another time). We’re so impatient for results that we have to know even before we’ve covered over the seed whether it’s growing yet.

When the media plays this way, it’s a game that’s nearly childish in its antsiness to be first to say what it all means. That’s a trait that leads to quick acceptance of announcements like "Iraq’s about to unleash weapons of mass destruction on the United States" or "the Iraqis will love us when we get there" to "major combat is over." Let’s just have a decent respect, for once, what we don’t know about all the dimensions of Iraqi reality and admit that some percentage figure won’t tell you a thing, by itself, about where this is all headed.

Of course, I do have my own opinion. I can’t imagine this working. I just don’t see how an alien power, especially one with as little credibility as we appear to have among Muslims in the Mideast, can both violently overthrow a government and impose a democratic replacement (much less one capable of creating the oasis of stability that Bush talks about).

Our Torture Problem

Andrew Sullivan, of Andrew Sullivan fame, has a huge and absorbing piece in The New York Times Sunday Book Review on Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the Bush administration (along with the rest of us) and torture. He’s reviewing a couple of newly published books that document the administration’s policy on and practice of torture (“Torture and Truth,” by Mark Danner, and “The Abu Ghraib Investigations,” edited by Steven Strasser),

Sullivan’s take is thoughtful. He supported going to war in Iraq, still supports it, but has become a forceful critic of the Bush administration’s handling of it. His critique of the administration’s rationalization of torture and abusive tactics is pretty devastating. Although I’ll never agree with him on going to war in Iraq, I respect his willingness to look at his own, and other citizens’, complicity in what has taken place:

“Did those of us who fought so passionately for a ruthless war against terrorists give an unwitting green light to these abuses? Were we na├»ve in believing that characterizing complex conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq as a single simple war against ”evil” might not filter down and lead to decisions that could dehumanize the enemy and lead to abuse? Did our conviction of our own rightness in this struggle make it hard for us to acknowledge when that good cause had become endangered? I fear the answer to each of these questions is yes. …

“I’m not saying that those who unwittingly made this torture possible are as guilty as those who inflicted it. I am saying that when the results are this horrifying, it’s worth a thorough reassessment of rhetoric and war methods. Perhaps the saddest evidence of our communal denial in this respect was the election campaign. The fact that American soldiers were guilty of torturing inmates to death barely came up. It went unmentioned in every one of the three presidential debates. John F. Kerry, the ”heroic” protester of Vietnam, ducked the issue out of what? Fear? Ignorance? Or a belief that the American public ultimately did not care, that the consequences of seeming to criticize the conduct of troops would be more of an electoral liability than holding a president accountable for enabling the torture of innocents? I fear it was the last of these. Worse, I fear he may have been right.”