Wednesday, May 6, 2009

John Bolton on the "Spanish inquisition"

John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN (where his rudeness and chauvinistic arrogance epitomized for many the faults of the Bush administration's approach to international relations - a la Bush's Sec of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's famously snide reference to "old Europe"), weighs in in today's Washington Post with an essay about the impending Spanish legal investigation of Bush's Dept of Justice lawyers who penned the legal "justifications" for torturing detainees. (Bolton refers to it as the "Spanish inquisition" - using a lower case "i", but the allusion is quite intentional.)

Bolton seems astounded that any country might raise its head in defiance of American authority and prerogatives, or feels that it has the right to challenge, on the basis of established international law and treaties, American actions. This kind of arrogance IMO epitomizes the neocon approach to the rest of the world: the US's decisions and actions are by definition good and infallibly moral, because we are the United States, the "indispensable nation."

I have to wonder how much this essay might be motivated by self-defense. Bolton himself (as opposed to John Yoo, Bybee, Alberto Gonzalez et al.) did not author or authorize the Justice Dept memos, but it would difficult to argue that he was so much out of the loop to have been unaware of the kinds of interrogations that his own actions at the UN implicitly defended. He may not be liable to legal prosecution, but from a moral and ethical standpoint, he was involved up to his neck.

But as Mark Danner and many others have noted, were not we all complicit? To quote Danner's superb recent piece in the NYRB,

There is a sense in which our society is finally posing that "what should we do" question. That it is doing so only now, after the fact, is a tragedy for the country—and becomes even more damaging as the debate is carried on largely by means of politically driven assertions and leaks. For even as the practice of torture by Americans has withered and died, its potency as a political issue has grown. The issue could not be more important, for it cuts to the basic question of who we are as Americans, and whether our laws and ideals truly guide us in our actions or serve, instead, as a kind of national decoration to be discarded in times of danger. The only way to confront the political power of the issue, and prevent the reappearance of the practice itself, is to take a hard look at the true "empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years," and speak out, clearly and credibly, about what that story really tells.
Anyone who was paying attention over the last five years knew what was going on - but as a society, we all let it happen. Some of us even applauded, or even helped set the stage. To quote Toby Keith's song that appeared right after 9-11:
This big dog will fight
When you rattle his cage.
And you’ll be sorry that you messed with
The U.S. of A.
Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass
It’s the American way.
The American way, indeed. The responsibility lies on us to clean our own house, indeed, but to the extent that we neglect to do that . . . well, then maybe a little "Spanish inquisition" is in order.

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