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The Cheerleader in China

It was a dreadful coincidence and no one felt sorrier for George Bush than I. He made a perfectly wonderful speech in Thailand and was done in by the timing. It made him sound the perfect fool. That is because he made the speech the same day that the military tribunal in Guantánamo rendered its verdict in the case of Salim Ahmed Hamdan.

When Mr. Bush was in Thailand he thought it would be a good time to criticize China’s human rights record, which everyone agrees is terrible. The problem is that the Hamdan verdict reminded everyone that both China and Mr. Bush who pride themselves on their respect for human rights have nothing to be proud of.

In Guantánamo, a military tribunal convicted Osama bin Laden’s driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, of providing material support for terrorism. Mr. Hamdan is the first person in Guantánamo to be tried by the military commissions that were created in 2006. Mr. Hamdan was convicted on a Wednesday and the prosecution asked for a life sentence. On Thursday the commission sentenced him to 5 ½ years in prison with credit for the 61 months he has already spent in prison. Within 5 months he will have served his sentence. Unfortunately, that is the end of the good news for Mr. Hamdan unless something unexpected happens. That’s because at the end of the 5 months he will still be an unlawful combatant and that means Mr. Bush can keep him in prison as long as he wants or until the war that Mr. Bush has declared is declared over by Mr. Bush, whichever happens first

Although the trial does not by itself, do anything to hasten Mr. Hamdan’s release, the verdict to the contrary notwithstanding, it serves one useful purpose from Mr. Bush’s, if not Mr. Hamdan’s perspective. It enables the administration and its supporters to point out that, because the trial has been conducted, human rights are being observed and the military commissions are working in a way that proves the United States is a country that follows the rule of law even though it doesn’t. (The people who believe that, of course, are the ones who invented this new justice system. The rest of the world is less credulous.)

As I said at the outset, the timing of the verdict was awful. That did not inhibit the national orator. On the same day Mr. Haman’s sentence was imposed Mr. Bush gave a speech and that was where the awkwardness came in. The speech was given by Mr. Bush during a stop-over in Thailand on his way to the Olympics taking place in China.

Mr. Bush relished the opportunity to be the first U.S. president to attend an Olympic ceremony outside the U.S. In part he viewed it as a reward for the tough time he has had during the last 8 years. The opportunity came, appropriately enough, during the twilight of his perpetually dark administration. And there could hardly be a better reward for a job poorly done, than to attend the games as the leader of the entire free world (except for Guantánamo.)

It was clearly a fun time. He took his wife and one of his daughters. There were lots of good parties including a dinner for 300 people to which he and his father and other important people were invited. He got to play a little beach volley ball with one of the very pretty bikini-clad beach volley ball women, tap one on the back and have his picture taken with her with their arms around each other, he wearing a cocky baseball cap and looking every bit the frat boy he was in college and still is. But even though this was a fun trip he was mindful of his responsibilities as leader of the free world and took advantage of the trip to make a verbal show of being committed to human rights. And that is why he made a really good speech in Thailand.

In that speech he expressed “deep concerns” about restrictions on faith and free speech in China. He expressed concern about the detention of dissidents. The detained dissidents are not, of course, the detainees at Guantánamo. Those people are not called dissidents. They are called unlawful combatants. They have something in common with dissidents, however. Both dissidents and unlawful combatants are kept in jail until the country that is holding them decides, in its sole discretion, when they can be released. Nonetheless, all in all it was a good speech and Mr. Bush had a very good time in China.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a lawyer living in Boulder, Colorado. He can be reached at:  Brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu

 

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