"The United States is committed to the world-wide elimination of torture," George W. Bush explained in a June 2003 speech, "and we are leading this fight by example."
Oh, the irony!
At the time, Bush seemed to have a good grasp of the relevant issues. "Freedom from torture," he said, "is an inalienable human right." True. "The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, ratified by the United States and more than 130 other countries since 1984, forbids governments from deliberately inflicting severe physical or mental pain or suffering on those within their custody or control." Also true. And lastly, a straightforward recognition of who the torturers of the world are, and why they do it: "Yet torture continues to be practiced around the world by rogue regimes whose cruel methods match their determination to crush the human spirit."
Last week, we learned that among those spirit-crushing rogue regimes was the government of the United States of America, which is now "leading by example" in the field of hair-splitting and wink-nod authorizations of torture. Thanks to the recent "compromise" between the hard-core torturers in the Bush administration and "moderate" Republican torture opponents, we continue to live in a country that does not officially endorse the infliction of "severe pain." That would be torture, you see. "Serious pain," however, is fine. That's merely cruel and degrading treatment. (The president used to be against that, too, but, well, things change.)
The interesting thing, as David Luban points out, is that the compromise defines "serious pain" as "bodily injury that involves extreme physical pain," so the ultimate significance of this distinction between serious and severe might be called into question. More to the point, the law simply shreds the very concept of law, as Jack Balkin explained with this rundown of the components:
Eliminating the writ of habeas corpus, denying anyone the right to invoke rights guaranteed by Geneva in judicial actions, prohibiting the use of any foreign sources in construing the meaning of the Geneva Conventions, proclaiming that the president is the authoritative source of the meaning of Geneva with respect to the War Crimes statute, amending the War Crimes statute with language that allows the president to continue to engage in torture-lite (after all, he is now the authoritative source of its meaning), and finally, making all these amendments retroactive to November 26, 1997.
Other countries, of course, practice torture in violation of international law. As has now been clear for a while, we have been in their company for some years. The latest twist, however, is that we now won't show any shame about it. Rather than simply violating the laws to which we have agreed to adhere, we're repudiating them, simply denying that the standard by which civilized nations operate apply to us.
The problems here will be widespread. One of the strengths of democracies on the international scene is precisely that it's much harder for liberal states to violate agreements. Dictatorships can say one thing and do another with ease. Democracies feature free presses, free speech, the rule of law, independent judiciaries, legislative oversight, and other measures to ensure that laws and treaties are followed. This is, to the conservative mind, a weakness. In their view, cheating is a good thing, and America's historical difficulty in cheating constitutes a problem. They're dead wrong. Cooperation is a good thing - the best ticket to prosperity, security, and international peace. Democracies can cooperate with other countries - and especially with other democracies - more credibly and effectively, and that's one of the reasons the world's democratic block is so much stronger and more prosperous than the rest of the world.
But the rule of law is now off the table as far as Bush is concerned. What's more, insofar as national-security policy is at issue, the United States increasingly doesn't look like much of a democracy. As the congressional Republicans march in lockstep behind the White House's torture agenda, they don't even know the composition of that agenda. The Boston Globe reported Saturday that 90 percent of members of Congress don't know "which interrogation techniques have been used in the past, and none of them know which ones would be permissible under proposed changes to the War Crimes Act." Which is to say: In practice, absolutely everything would be permitted, since the only people capable of overseeing the interrogation program haven't done it, won't do it, and have no intention of doing it in the future.
Consequently, the United States now presents itself as what amounts to the globe's largest and most powerful rogue state - a nuclear-armed superpower capable of projecting military force to the furthest corners of the earth, acting utterly without legal or moral constraint whenever the president proclaims it necessary. The idea that striking such a posture on the world stage will serve our long-term interests is daft. American power has, for decades, rested crucially on the sense that the United States can be trusted and relied upon, on the belief that we use our power primarily to defend the community of liberal states and the liberal rules by which they conduct themselves rather than to undermine them.
An America prepared to casually toss out the most fundamental principles of international humanitarian diplomacy - along with basic human decency and the rule of law as side helpings - is not a country others are going to want to cooperate with. It will constitute a threat to their interests and values. Nor will it be a country blessed with a lot of accurate intelligence. As Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky has pointed out, an intelligence service shot-through with demands that it torture people "degenerates into a playground for sadists," the service itself "an army of butchers" skilled at terrorizing its victims but hardly capable of unraveling complicated investigations.
It's a grim future brought to us by grim and deranged men - by people who seem to have developed an unhealthy level of admiration for America's enemies. (They want the country they run to transform itself into a facsimile of its evil adversaries.) It's a future in which it may become increasingly hard for decent citizens of this country to say truthfully that they're proud to be Americans.
Matthew Yglesias is a staff writer for The American Prospect.