Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld will never be tried for war crimes in the US because the country lacks a consensus on torture
The US will not prosecute Bush
By John McQuaid, guardian.co.uk
The evidence is mounting that top US officials – including President George Bush, vice-president Dick Cheney and former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld – committed war crimes by authorising the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” – ie torture. The war crimes drumbeat has accelerated with the recent release of two books: New Yorker writer Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side and Philippe Sands’s Torture Team, which document the executive decision-making that led the US to set aside not just the Geneva Conventions, but a tradition of respect for the human rights of enemy prisoners that dates to back to George Washington’s prohibition on harming POWs.
Current and former Bush officials are now scrambling to avoid the opprobrium – not to mention the risk of prison time – that would result from criminal prosecution. This week, Capitol Hill was treated to the spectacle of Sands and Douglas Feith, a former Rumsfeld protege who was an architect of the Iraq invasion, testifying side by side before a House subcommittee. In an earlier interview with Sands, Feith claimed to be “really a player” in the engineering of legal workarounds to the Geneva Conventions at GuantÃ¡namo. Before the committee, Feith declared his unerring support for Geneva.
The stream of commentary on this topic is waxing as we near the end of the Bush presidency. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof went his fellow pundits one better, suggesting that what the US needs is a South Africa-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission to sort through not just the legal transgressions of the past eight years, but the political manipulations as well.
Hang on a moment. There is no way that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld or the second- and third-tier enablers of torture – the Feiths and John Yoos – will be prosecuted for war crimes in the United States.
The obstacle to prosecutions is the absence of a national consensus on the specific issue of torture, or, more generally, the Bush administration’s actions on terror. Certainly there is a consensus that the Bush administration has been a disaster and that the Iraq war was a mistake. But this doesn’t apply to specific terrorism policies, on which the White House still has more or less a political blank check to do as it pleases. (Whether a majority of the public supports those policies is debatable, but Republicans still back Bush, and Democrats are still cowed by the risk of appearing soft on the issue.) See Kevin Drum on why this is not Watergate: a well of political support remains for Bush’s terror policies, “enhanced interrogation” among them.
The matter of criminal culpability lies several steps further on. Even if they concede that torture is a war crime and buy the practical arguments against it – that it generates false information, endangers US soldiers should they be taken prisoner and is disastrous for America’s image and diplomatic efforts – many Americans would still resist prosecuting officials whose motive was averting terror attacks.
This also goes deeper than politics. I hate to sound cynical, but Americans don’t have much interest in accountability, truth or reconciliation. Our national motto is “move on”. The buzzword of the decade is Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness”. Trials or commissions on war crimes would force a reckoning that many Americans don’t think is necessary and/or would simply rather not have.
However, those still hoping to see Bush and his associates in the dock might see promise in another feature of American culture: its disposability. What seems set in stone today, an immutable law of politics, almost certainly won’t be tomorrow. What once seemed an issue of high principle to many conservatives – embracing torture and defending Bush & Co – may quickly become passÃ© once Bush leaves office and other issues come to dominate. The ideal condition for a successful prosecution is not a rising tide of outrage at Bush that would stoke the divisions in US society, but indifference.
Still, the most likely scenario for a torture prosecution is something like what happened to ex-Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. His own country wouldn’t touch him, but an industrious Spanish prosecutor – aided by the work of human rights activists and backed by international opinion – indicted him for torture and war crimes and nearly snared him. If Bush, Cheney or Rumsfeld faced a similar indictment from abroad, Americans would be outraged – but not really. The US government would try to head it off, but wouldn’t be able to do much. No one would actually go on trial, but the indictees would see their travel options humiliatingly curtailed and go to their graves knowing the phrase “charged with war crimes” will be next to their names in the history books.