Wednesday, November 14, 2007

US: Democrats at the Temple of Cowardice

It's hard to grasp how the US Senate, especially the Democrats, can be so weak, so cowardly, and so stupid.

Recently they approved Michael Mukasey as the new Attorney General, despite his unwillingness to answer a simple question about the legality of torture. Asked whether "waterboarding" is illegal, he refused to answer.As the International Herald Tribune put it so well: "It was not a difficult question. Waterboarding is specifically banned by the Army Field Manual, and it is plainly illegal under the federal Anti-Torture Act, federal assault statutes, the Detainee Treatment Act, the Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions. It is hard to see how any nominee worthy of the position of attorney general could fail to answer 'yes.'" (IHT, Nov 11, 2007)

There really is a right and wrong answer on this one. America prides itself on its claims to freedom and liberty. It is also plainly failing to live up to its values on this issue.

My recent visit to three Arab countries reminded me that charges of hypocrisy are central to the low regard of America in the Arab world. No one admires it when Saudi Arabia locks up political dissidents, but the Saudi regime makes no pretensions to civil rights or democracy. When the US adopts similar practices, it is not just its actions but also its hypocrisy that tears into the American image.

It would be bad enough if this was just a matter of bad policy; it also seems like bad politics. The Financial Times reports that Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic senator whose support for Mr Mukasey was crucial, made clear that she had voted for him in part because "Mr Bush had threatened that if Mr Mukasey were rejected, he would not provide another nominee." (FT, Nov. 6) The fact that the Senate Democrats can be bullied around by Bush so easily -- still, after 7 years -- is appalling.

Democrats hope that if and when they seize the White House in 2008, all will be well in the world. Think again. Unless they learn to wield power responsibly, America's reputation will continue to suffer.


Lay-lay said...

It's not just that hypocrisy damages the US on these issues; it also damages democracy, liberty and humane treatment. If the countries that preach these things don't practise them, why should anyone even bother preaching them, let alone practising them? It gets harder and harder to convince anyone that liberal democracy is superior to tyranny and authoritarianism, when the people in charge of nominally liberal democratic states don't bother practising the values they're supposed to be defending.

Anonymous said...

There are two issues here: one is our image abroad, the other is how we conduct business at home. The Democrats may be of one (ineffectual) mind about our image abroad, but they seem unable to connect the dots to policy changes needed at home.

The Democrats have squarely rejected the myriad actions of the Bush administration that tarnish "the American image", though Jeff is right to point out that they haven't done that much about it.

But the reason they have not been successful in turning the tide is not entirely cowardice or stupidity. It is the frightening expansion of the Executive's power. Before the Democrats can reverse Bush policies to truly win the "hearts and minds" of those cultures and countries we've alienated, they have to figure out how to rein in the power of the Executive to reinterpret the US constitution and international law.

Kevin said...

I think that the most relevant question for Mukasey (and one that we could only wish to hear our President or Vice-President answer honestly) is "Is there anything that an agent of the US government could perform to a person that WOULD qualify as torture?" While noone seems to be willing to admit that our government condones the use of torture, it seems pretty clear that the answer to my question, from Mukasey and others, is a resounding "No!" This is policy not by decision, but by lack of definition. Keeping things vague makes it easier not only for the administration to change the rules as it wishes, but also for the Democrats to cave in while claiming they are not.

The thing that makes me sad here is that resorting to torture seems to bespeak such a lack of confidence, such fear. This seems to be more clearly visible when seen from abroad. I wish there was a Democrat willing to take a more aggressively nationalist stance and say "Only a weak and degenerate people lead by a fearful leader is willing to torture to guarantee safety, we are a strong, proud, and principled nation, and even if torture can be used to reduce the risks we face, we will not do it." I won't be holding my breath. The Democrats seem to be content to let Republicans define "strength" for them.