Nonsense and Sensibility II

Ronald Coleman at Dean’s World (and also appearing at Likelihood of Confusion) commented on my post of Friday, Nonsense and Sensibility, wherein I criticized Senator John McCain for what I consider to be egomaniacal opposition to the President’s request for legislation defining the parameters for CIA interrogation of jihadi prisoners. Legislation, moreover, based on the “McCain amendment” to the 2006 Department of Defense Appropriations Bill.

I said that McCain’s stance had three problems:

1) he does not recognize that had he been detained at Guantanamo [rather than the Hanoi Hilton] he would have found his treatment extremely benign in comparison, 2) the jihadis have demonstrated they don’t give a rat’s ass about non-humans (infidels and “apostates” of Islam) by the commission and broadcast of beheadings – primarily of civilians, a flagrant Geneva violation – and 3) North Vietnam was a signatory to the Geneva Conventions.

The first point shows that McCain’s experience has robbed him of any sense of proportion on certain matters (parallel to how his involvement in the Keating scandal led him to campaign finance reform). The second point indicates that our troops cannot be protected in this war by merely asserting our sensibilities. The third brings into question why the Senator thinks Geneva would protect our troops even if we were fighting another nation-state.

Mr. Coleman addressed all three points. On the first he doesn’t

…have any doubt at all that Sen. McCain has no problem “recognizing” the difference between what we do at Guantanamo and what was done to him at the Hanoi Hilton. I don’t see how that argument is relevant.

Perhaps “does not recognize” should have been “does not acknowledge.” I’ll admit that Senator McCain is mentally acute enough to distinguish between Gitmo and the Hanoi Hilton. I meant that he speaks and acts as though he can’t. In Today’s Wall Street Journal – OpinionJournal, I receive some support for that view and why it is relevant. I include Colin Powell’s quote to illustrate the main arguments against having some clear definition of what is permissible in interrogation of jihadi irregulars:

Geneva Contention
Does John McCain favor the CIA interrogations or not?

…Colin Powell put it most demagogically when he claimed the Bush Administration was trying to redefine Geneva and would lead others to “doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism” and “put our own troops at risk.”

…Mr. McCain seems to want it both ways: On the one hand, he claims the Administration has all the legal rights it needs to maintain the CIA interrogation program. So he can deny responsibility if the program is shut down. On the other hand, he won’t speak up and support such interrogations, and he continues to imply that the Administration favors “torture” and illegal behavior even as he knows the CIA is demanding no such thing.

Let’s also hear from the Senator himself:

“This is about the lives of American men and women who are serving our country,” McCain said Thursday on CNN. “It’s very important, not because we have an election coming up, but because we have men and women who are serving in the military who need every protection we can provide them with.”

…and, On TV yesterday, Senator McCain asked: “Are we going to be like the enemy?” Senator, we are not like the enemy and no one is proposing that we should be.

Whatever John McCain’s intellectual recognition of the differences between Gitmo and the Hanoi Hilton, he certainly talks as if he can’t distinguish “them from us.”

Ron sees my second and third points as redundant:

The second point and the third point are really the same point: Our actions and commitments do not have any effect on how our troops will be treated by the enemy. This presumes that McCain’s only motivation is to protect American troops who may be, God forbid, mistreated because of some rhetorical or legalistic argument that, because of abuse of the bad guys by us, it is “okay” to abuse our guys.

On a macro level, Ron is right – these are the same points. We’ll come to the distinction in a minute. I don’t presume troop protection to be McCain’s only motivation. In fact, I discount it as a motivation entirely. But that’s what he says motivates him. McCain and Powell do propose publicly, if not seriously, the argument that we must avoid having a clear interpretation of Common Article III of the Geneva Conventions in order to protect our troops.

Ron also makes this point, which actually contains an answer to his conflation of my second and third points:

None of this means I share Sen. McCain’s view on this issue. I am pretty sure I don’t (I have not looked at in detail). But I think his point is a moral one: We must and should be better. I know which usual suspects will show up in the comments telling me what a sucker I am, but I think they’re wrong. Not because it’s a sign of weakness to be better, but because it’s a sign of strength. And I cannot fathom a serious argument that John McCain does not understand that.

We must be better. Certainly. We need to be better without even having to think about it, so we need to define the rules. And having granted that, I’ll ask the Senator to grant that we have already demonstrated that we are 1,000 percent better than the North Vietnamese and 100,000 percent better than the jihadis – and to stop implying otherwise.

So here’s the question: Just how much better do we have to be than a handful of Belgian judges? Do we think that defining degrading treatment as lack of access to private toilets will restore confidence among the French as to “the moral basis of our fight against terrorism?”

Just how much better would Colin Powell have us be? This is a man whose moral authority evaporated when he played keep-away with Richard Armitage’s duplicity. If all he can do is utter these platitudes, the doubt here should be about the moral seriousness of the State Department.

The fact that our degree of difference from the North Vietnamese is less gigantic than our difference from the jihadis is why protecting our troops against Geneva signatories and against jihadi butchers are two different points. They are markers on the continuum of our “betterness.” Whatever we expect from the CIA, it is not what we expect from the World Court or from Amnesty International – whether they lump us with Vlad the Impaler and Pol Pot or not.

As to a serious argument that John McCain does not understand that being better is better, I have none. However, I do think him capable of demagoguing the issue by pretending he’s all that stands between Bush and the moral decay of Western Civilization. Now is the time to read that OpinionJournal link if you haven’t already.

Finally, Ron thinks my concern with McCain’s motivations is a non-starter, “I think he is making a mistake by focusing on John McCain’s motivations.” Despite the potential for naked political motivation (McCain’s, not mine), this may be true. John McCain may well be more honest than Keating, the Incumbent Protection Act and the Gang of 14 would lead one to believe. I might even buy McCain’s piety in opposing his own language being applied to Geneva as heartfelt rather than political, if it were not for his willingness to suspend the civil liberties of Americans to his own advantage. Perhaps the first transgression has clouded my judgment.

I do not think that anyone would deny the colossal arrogance of that, however, and until otherwise notified I will retain my suspicions about his motivations. Your mileage may vary.

And thanks for the motivation, Ron.

2 thoughts on “Nonsense and Sensibility II”

  1. Thanks for the visit …. We appear to be on the same page RE: McCain AND Colin Powell.I’ve never trusted McCain — he’s too eager to grab the soapbox to split hairs and to preen his own career. Allegations of his uncontrollable anger is a concern, as well.I knew C. Powell in Nam. While I hoped for his success as Sec. of State and even saw the potential for future service — he’s shown himself to be no more “moral” (– he used the derivative first) in public service than he was “moral” during his military service.And no — these personal vents are not triggered solely by the images of mutilated soldiers released again Saturday. These sentiments were building before McCain, Graham, Powell, et al distanced themselves from and back-stabbed the President RE: the SCOTUS ruling and what he asked Congress to do concerning the Genova Conventions.