Torture, Honor and Obama

by Michael Brenner Dr. Michael Brenner is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations. He publishes and teaches in the fields of American foreign policy, Euro-American relations, and the European Union. He is also Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

Brenner is the author of numerous books, and over 60 articles and published papers on a broad range of topics. These include books with Cambridge University Press (Nuclear Power and Non-Proliferation) and the Center For International Affairs at Harvard University (The Politics of International Monetary Reform); and publications in major journals in the United States and Europe, such as World Politics, Comparative Politics, Foreign Policy, International Studies Quarterly, International Affairs, Survival, Politique Etrangere, and Internationale Politik.

His most recent work is Toward A More Independent Europe, Egmont Institute, Brussels.

Torture is back in the news (good) -- along with renditions (bad) and assorted assassination units (worse). Let's concentrate on what looks positive. The Inspector General of the Justice Department has issued a report recommending that cases involving gross abuses, perhaps including murder, committed by American personnel in Iraq will be reopened. The White House itself demurs, preferring to look ahead (Afghanistan?), not backwards. Still, the probe now will go forward with a green light from Secretary Eric Holder. Reason to celebrate? Hold your applause until the finale.

The Holder investigation will be self-limited -- when it materializes. Obama has made it abundantly clear that he will have no part of a deep probe into torture, rendition, surveillance or anything else associated with the 'war on terror.' What Holder has in mind seemingly is an investigation of those persons (mainly contract workers) who did things outside the 'square' of permissible actions established by the Bush Justice Department guidelines (as drawn in the air by Obama a couple of weeks ago). In other words, a replay of the unconscionable Abu Ghraib travesty when 23 year old Lynndie England was cynically sacrificed to save the skin of the Army brass and their civilian superiors. Except this time the indicted will have competent lawyers in an open civilian court. Let's visualize what they will do with Obama's figurative square in cross-examining Bush era officials: "so, slamming prisoners' heads against walls was allowed, but not unless they wore whiplash collars. Please tell the court why my client's firm grip on Mohammed X's neck was not a reasonable functional equivalent." These courts inescapably will become theatres of the absurd. That is why I doubt that any civil legal proceedings -- in the end -- will actually occur.

As to the future, I find it impossible to comprehend how we can ensure against a repetition of these offenses without knowing precisely what has been done with what effect. And, above all, without holding to account those who initiated and condoned criminal acts. That is something we likely will never know or do given a strong aversion to airing 'dirty linen' by the White House and the Congress. It is worth remembering that some of the worst abuses occurred in the first months of the American occupation of Iraq. The center of operations where torture was institutionalized was Camp Cropper on the outskirts of Baghdad, which opened its doors in May 2003. Its commander was General Stanley McChrystal. This is the same McChrystal who Obama has charged with executing the 'new' American strategy in Afghanistan that aims at winning the hearts and minds of the natives.

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