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The Contrition of Warlords

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture raises a dilemma for the world’s superpower: how will America regain its moral leadership? If all the evils that are done under dictatorship are done under the world’s great flagship of democracy, how is the world to know what’s so good about American-sponsored democracy?

Laws of war

The release of the Senate Report is the first step in reclaiming America’s moral superiority: America investigates itself, publicly confesses its sins, and vows change. This isn’t enough, according to the New York Times editorial writers (“Prosecute Torturers and Their Bosses,” Dec. 21, 2014). They call for prosecutions of the Bush administration officials, as stipulated by international agreements on torture which the US has signed.

It’s kind of incredible that there are internationally ratified laws on war. Why have the states of the world gotten together to make agreements about the proper and improper ways of killing and destroying? They are not only preparing for war, fighting wars and doing whatever they can to win wars, but also agreeing to self-restrictions as part of a universal restriction.

In practice, they do not give up war, but agree to rules of war: you can go so far in killing and destroying, but no further. This fine line establishes a good side and a bad side of war. States really want to claim there is a moral basis for war. Fight a war properly and it’s ok for the right reasons. States don’t just say that war is a horrible thing; they always say: we are forced into it. There are good wars and bad wars.

The only way to make this moral distinction is to divide the methods of war. States establish rules for types of weapons, the killing of civilians, the treatment of prisoners of war, and so on. There is always something arbitrary in these distinctions: Poison gas is a violation of the laws of war, but not nuclear weapons. The morality of landmines is still debated; they are condemned for being “indiscriminate,” but part of their usefulness is their indiscriminate nature and the deliberate terror of war. Torture is very discriminate, but hard to define, so lawyers are called in to decide what constitutes torture.

The fact that it takes decades for states to ratify treaties regarding the laws of war indicates that it’s a calculation on all sides whether they consider these distinctions useful to make. On the one hand, they are reluctant to give up their means of waging war; on the other, they want to make these distinctions. If one nation could set the rules, this would not be the case; but the world’s leading power, the USA, has not been the impetus for banning methods of war, usually joining them late in the game. All states – Israel, Syria, China, Russia, etc. – have an interest in signing laws of war. What are they aiming at?

The criterion is: this is a method of warfare that is too disgusting for a civilized nation. We don’t do it, whether we get something from it or not. We have to be better than the ones who do. A rule of war is universal and by adhering to it we put ourselves in the ranks of moral powers. The calculation is to be able to make a distinction between our good methods and their moral depravity.

When one side makes a case that it is adhering to moral standards when fighting a war, it uses these standards. It uses them as a diplomatic weapon against other states and as a propaganda tool to organize its own population. It represents itself as following universally agreed on standards. This universality is supposed to elevate one’s own state above the particularity of the other nation.

This moral point of view justifies one’s own wars and castigates those of enemies. This is the practical aspect of war morality: it is always a restriction of the other state. No state wants to restrict itself. It says that the enemy’s wrong methods show they rule badly. It doesn’t matter if everything the US accuses its enemies of is something the US does; that if ISIS beheads its enemies, the US uses drones. This hypocrisy is the basis for advertising oneself as a good power.

Scoring points

The defenders of the Bush administration and the CIA never say they reject the laws of war, but that the laws of war must fit the new kind of war the US is waging against a new kind of enemy. They tried to one-sidedly set new standards for their own war which differed from the universal agreements of the 20th century. They still recognize torture as bad, but revise what they want to call torture.

It turned out that in a multipolar world the laws of war can’t be re-written; they take lots of agreement. The US wasn’t successful in imposing its interpretation of international law on the rest of the world. Obama’s criticism of Guantanamo has always been that America can’t lead the world, organize alliances and point fingers at other states when it’s caught violating international agreements by running a giant torture camp. In Obama’s view, Bush’s foreign policy caused a dissension among America’s allies that was counterproductive to American goals in the world. Rather than just putting facts on the ground and declaring American interests to be decisive, America would have more success in the world by acknowledging the critique of it by other states.

This is welcomed by America’s European allies, who thereby use the laws of war for their own national interests. They get to say: we are joining America in accusing America. They congratulate themselves on playing a bigger role in the world and being the good conscience of their alliance with the superpower. This is hardly a concern about tortured Muslims. Likewise, Putin and Iran have been making hey with the CIA torture revelations; he’s also a party to the standards of war and making use of them as a diplomatic weapon against his adversary.

Morality in war = success in war

The headlines announcing the findings of the Senate’s report were revealing in a back-handed way: torture is “brutal and ineffective.” On the face of it, the two points of view would seem to clash. Is torture condemned because it’s morally repugnant or because it doesn’t work? Both views are held, so a connection is being made: If a war is successful, then everything that was done to win it was justified; but if you don’t win, everything is on the table.

The laws of war governing the treatment of prisoners of war are useful to victorious powers for representing themselves as the good guys to the conquered population. A state can’t expect to win the population over by saying: we’re exactly the same as the guys we beat. There always has to be something better promised to the defeated nation under the new rulers. Today Germans and Japanese will say the Americans liberated them from the wrong kind of rule. They have accepted their moral education: the bad guys had concentration camps and the good guys didn’t. There isn’t much to this distinction. In reality, the US shot German prisoners dead rather than take them to POW camps and dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. But it’s said this was “saving lives.”

The failure of Bush’s Iraq policy is the background of the Senate report. The use of torture by the CIA was hardly unknown before the images from Abu Ghraib became a public scandal; the moral outrage in elite circles occurred when it became clear that the Iraq war had gone completely wrong; that the conquest and pacification of Iraq had turned out to be more problematic than projected; when the occupation had turned into a dirty war. The images were seen as evidence the US did not have things under control. That’s when the war became morally “senseless” for the American political elite. Their moral outrage was fueled by the doubt that Bush could make a realistic claim that success was on the horizon or had an exit strategy. It was publicly wondered how long the morale of American soldiers could be sustained.

If the Bush administration had succeeded in its objective of installing a reliably pro-American bastion in the Middle East, it is a safe bet that American neither politicians nor editorial writers would now be talking about “America’s shame.” They never talk about the shame of American actions during world war two, the last time America won a war to its satisfaction.

Part of the US making amends for torture is to win the world population over to its side in its war on terror. The US is still facing a worldwide resistance to western hegemony from its Islamist enemies, who are gaining recruits like mad from the US and Europe. In the question of who is fighting the good fight, many think it is on the side of the Islamic State. The Obama administration urgently wants to pacify the Middle East so that it can concentrate on the Pacific, but it can’t put its old wars behind it. Every attempt to make inroads just makes the situation worse.

So how can America distinguish itself from ISIS? By saying: their violations of the laws of war are systematic; ours are individual excesses, deviations, “un-American.” Guantanamo was a “mistake” – as if it was set up by mistake!

The New York Times editorial makes clear the political calculation behind all the moral outrage about torture coming from elite circles in the USA: this is about “regaining [America’s] moral credibility to rebuke torture by other governments” (Dec. 21, 2014). No without reason, they say: crime without punishment means there was no crime. If the perpetrators are in jail, then it will not be just words, but the state is behind it. This is the small difference they want. They still presume the CIA’s legitimacy and its purpose.

Cheney’s unrepentance also stands on war morality. He does not say the US is an immoral power, but that these “enhanced” methods were required to defend freedom and democracy and therefore these methods are moral. We did it because we had to and it worked. Cheney might be an extremist who is out of step with those who are currently in power, but his view has many adherents around the world.

Sometimes the weapon of war morality is turned against oneself. One doesn’t abandon the weapon, but makes amends. One recognizes the immorality of torture because the laws of war are a good weapon for war in American hands. The fact that the US doesn’t abandon the laws of war only shows that it does not intend to abandon war and that it will never be honest about the purpose of war.

Geoffrey MacDonald co-edits Ruthless Criticism.