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Issue Date:  November 18, 2005

Leading away from the will of the people

Advice from the extremes begets extreme scenarios. How else to explain a time in which the president of the United States declares, “We do not torture” while his vice president continues to lobby for an exception that would allow the CIA to use torture in an amendment outlawing such methods?

Perhaps these competing sentiments are symptoms of an unraveling of the Bush administration’s approach to the world. For that approach was based on specious neoconservative assumptions -- that this is the new American century, that projection of U.S. power to the far reaches of the globe would be both easy and welcome, that applying a coat of Jeffersonian democracy to the Middle East was one invasion away.

Some would call our invasion of Iraq a bold and even overdue assertion of power. It was, instead, an old and failed approach to new problems.

Look around now -- and we are just beyond the latest carnage, this time in Amman, Jordan -- and know that the policy, however one might define it, has produced chaos and death in amounts well beyond the worth of any gain. Even if one argues -- and we are yet willing to listen to such rationale -- that the United States must remain in Iraq to prevent an absolute collapse of government and civil society, it is time for some sober truth-telling. Iraq was not the problem. No weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq. Intelligence was manipulated to provide a reason for war. There was no connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. In terms of the war on terror, the U.S. invasion of Iraq has made things worse, increasingly exposing allies to vicious terrorist attacks while our treasury and military capability is tied up in a futile war that has created a breeding ground for terrorists.

* * *

This is a difficult age in which to try to keep global secrets.

Planes delivering U.S. prisoners of war to countries where they are going to be tortured are easily tracked. Prisoner abuse images fly instantly around the Internet. Secret CIA prisons in other parts of the world are quickly revealed.

Perhaps we’re not good at building or maintaining an empire and we’re not good at keeping secrets because such pursuits are so at odds with who and what we claim to be.

In an incisive essay, “Fringe Government,” in the Oct. 6 issue of The New York Review of Books, historian Garry Wills connects the dots between the rubble of our domestic and foreign policies and the actors from the religious fringes that have become central influences in this White House. Leading from the religious right fringes, of course, causes grand distortions and disconnects among layers of leadership and between leaders and people. The imbalance resulting requires considerable contortions to keep appearances of stability.

From stem cell research to end-of-life issues, from the courts to the role of government itself, Wills shows the leadership on a separate track leading away from both the concerns and the will of the people. “It is understandable that the evangelical-Catholic coalition would call this a ‘culture of death,’ subject to God’s wrath and calling for extreme measures,” Wills writes.

“This presents a difficult problem. How do you govern an apostate nation? When the entire culture is corrupted, the country can only be morally governed in spite of itself. A collection of aggrieved minorities must seize the levers of power in every way possible. One must govern not from a broad consensual center but from activist fringes of morality.”

The aggrieved minorities are civic Gnostics who have little need for the formalities of checks and balances and consultation with those who might hold opposing views. Morality has become a rather constricted commodity and has nothing to do with war. The coin of this realm is unquestioning loyalty to those who act on the promptings of higher powers and grand dreams of American empire.

* * *

But it is all going badly.

From Sept. 11 onward, the Bush administration has consistently attempted to turn America’s best instincts against itself. From easy resort to the use of force, to preemptive warfare, to the suspension of civil liberties in the Patriot Act, we have heard the words of democracy used to diminish freedom. The catalogue of examples is long, but none better illustrates how easily principle is eroded than the recent attempts by Vice President Dick Cheney to stop an amendment by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would ban torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners. McCain, of course, knows from personal experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam the horrors of torture and its ineffectiveness. So do a lot of other military personnel who back the amendment.

Cheney pushes on, meeting with senators openly and in secret, attempting to sell the notion that advancing U.S. interests requires that its agents remain unfettered by international convention or basic considerations of our own rule of law.

The United States makes an exception for torture. Imagine how that sounds beyond our borders. We are losing more than the war on terror.

“We do not torture,” says President Bush. “Except,” says the vice president.

National Catholic Reporter, November 18, 2005

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