As the torture of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison was being exposed, the Bush administration launched a public relations campaign to cast itself in the same light as those who liberated Europe from tyranny during World War II.
President George W. Bush, who refers to himself as a “war president” and keeps a bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office, kicked off this theme-building project June 2 in his speech to the Air Force Academy: “Like the Second World War, our present conflict began with a ruthless, surprise attack on the United States. This is the greatest challenge of our time, the storm in which we fly.”
Colin Powell echoed the theme, telling France 3 Television: “I think we can compare the fight against the Nazis and the fight against communism with the fight that we are now all engaged in against terrorism. And Iraq is a part of that battlefield.” Condoleezza Rice claimed that Bush will go down in history on par with “people like Roosevelt, people like Churchill and people like Truman,” noting that like those leaders, the current president is “an agent of change for the better.”
The parallels drawn by the Bush administration to the Allied leadership during World War II is intended to bolster a floundering international image of the United States, an image considerably damaged by policies ranging from the withdrawal from the Kyoto protocol to the renunciation of the International Criminal Court to the Iraq war and the torture at Abu Ghraib. By comparing the “fight against terrorism” to the “fight against the Nazis,” the administration asserts that it is the moral heir of those who fought fascism. But even as the administration draws parallels to World War II, it is undermining the framework of international law in place since that war to prevent a repeat of Nazi-style crimes. By fashioning legal arguments that torture is permissible under certain conditions the administration is negating a half-century of international efforts geared to eliminate the practice.
Since the Enlightenment, torture had been considered a thing of the past in Europe, until the Nazis rose to power in Germany and legislated the permissibility of “third-degree” interrogation. Nazis used torture extensively in the nations Germany invaded and occupied in order to obtain information about resistance activities.
During the Nuremberg trials, some Nazis defended themselves by claiming they were following orders. The Tribunal, however, rejected this defense and asserted, “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.”
Although the superior orders defense long ago was discredited in international law, the Bush administration resurrected it as a legal out for U.S. soldiers who might be charged with war crimes. A March 2003 White House memorandum offered legal arguments “that could render specific conduct, otherwise criminal, not unlawful.” In justifying torture, the administration dusted off the “superior orders” defense, namely that potential offenders would be acting pursuant to orders in which no moral choice was available.
More broadly, the memo asserted that George Bush has an “inherent” right to ignore domestic and international prohibitions against torture, and that those prohibitions do not apply to his prosecution of the “war on terror.” The administration also sought to redefine what constitutes torture and ill treatment, concepts already exhaustively detailed in numerous laws and conventions. The administration argues, for instance, that torture is not torture if the brutality doesn’t cause “serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death,” or in the case of psychological abuse, if it doesn’t last “months or even years.”
After World War II, torture was perceived as an aberration that must not be allowed to recur. In the official commentary on the text of the Geneva Conventions, the International Committee of the Red Cross wrote in 1949 that the conventions were intended to prevent “acts which world public opinion finds particularly revolting — acts which were committed frequently in the Second World War.”
Now, the Bush administration argues that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to the war on terror. Bush even signed an order in February 2002 that stated, “I have the authority under the Constitution to suspend Geneva.” In interrogation practices from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay to Iraq, the United States has disregarded not only the Geneva Conventions but the U.N. Convention Against Torture and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, all of which were created in response to World War II and have as their purpose preventing another Nazi-style descent into barbarity.
As the Bush administration attempts to portray war in Iraq as a sequel to World War II at the same time it shreds the international treaties that sought to prevent a repeat of that conflagration, we must ask: What role exactly is Bush playing?