As George W. Bush and Dick Cheney make their case for some positive legacy from the past eight years, two arguments are playing key roles: the notion that torturing terror suspects saved American lives and the belief that Bush’s Iraq troop “surge” transformed a disaster into something close to “victory.”
Not only will these twin arguments be important in defining the public’s future impression of where Bush should rank on the presidential list, but they could constrain how far President Barack Obama can go in reversing these policies. In other words, the perception of the past can affect the future.
Though most current thinking holds that George W. Bush might want to trademark the slogan “Worst President Ever,” America's powerful right-wing media (and its many allies in the mainstream press) will surely seek to rehabilitate Bush’s reputation as much as possible.
Even elevating Bush to the status of a presidential mediocrity might open the door for a revival of the Bush Dynasty with brother Jeb already eyeing one of Florida’s U.S. Senate seats and possibly harboring grander ambitions.
And even if another Bush in the White House is not realistic, a kinder-gentler judgment on George W. Bush at least could help the Republican Party rebound in 2010 and 2012. So evaluating the Bush-Cheney torture policies and how successful the “surge” are not just academic exercises.
Two recent articles by people with first-hand knowledge also shed important new light on these issues: one by a lead U.S. interrogator in Iraq and the other by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
The interrogator – using the pseudonym “Matthew Alexander” for an article in the Washington Post’s Outlook section on Nov. 30 – wrote that the practice of humiliating and abusing prisoners had proved counterproductive, not only violating U.S. principles and failing to extract reliable intelligence but fueling the Iraqi insurgency and getting large numbers of U.S. soldiers killed.
Indeed, “Alexander,” a U.S. Air Force special operations officer, argued that it was his team’s abandonment of those harsh tactics that contributed to the tracking down and killing of the murderous al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June 2006, an important turning point in reducing levels of violence in Iraq.
“Alexander” said he arrived in Iraq in March 2006, amid the bloody civil war that Sunni extremist Zarqawi had helped provoke a month earlier with the bombing of the golden-domed Askariya mosque in Samarra, a shrine revered by Iraq's majority Shiites.
“Amid the chaos, four other Air Force criminal investigators and I joined an elite team of interrogators attempting to locate Zarqawi,” he wrote. “What I soon discovered about our methods astonished me. The Army was still conducting interrogations according to the Guantanamo Bay model. ... These interrogations were based on fear and control; they often resulted in torture and abuse.
“I refused to participate in such practices, and a month later, I extended that prohibition to the team of interrogators I was assigned to lead. I taught the members of my unit a new methodology -- one based on building rapport with suspects, showing cultural understanding and using good old-fashioned brainpower to tease out information.”
By getting to know the captives and negotiating with them, his team achieved breakthroughs that enabled the U.S. military to close in on Zarqawi while also gaining a deeper understanding of what drove the Iraqi insurgency, “Alexander” wrote.
“Over the course of this renaissance in interrogation tactics, our attitudes changed. We no longer saw our prisoners as the stereotypical al-Qaeda evildoers we had been repeatedly briefed to expect; we saw them as Sunni Iraqis, often family men protecting themselves from Shiite militias and trying to ensure that their fellow Sunnis would still have some access to wealth and power in the new Iraq.
“Most surprisingly, they turned out to despise al-Qaeda in Iraq as much as they despised us, but Zarqawi and his thugs were willing to provide them with arms and money,” the interrogator wrote, noting that this understanding played a key role in the U.S. military turning many Sunnis against the hyper-violent extremism of Zarqawi’s organization.
“Alexander” added that the new interrogation methods “convinced one of Zarqawi's associates to give up the al-Qaeda in Iraq leader's location. On June 8, 2006, U.S. warplanes dropped two 500-pound bombs on a house where Zarqawi was meeting with other insurgent leaders.”
Despite the success in killing Zarqawi, “Alexander” said the old, harsh interrogation methods continued. “I came home from Iraq feeling as if my mission was far from accomplished,” he wrote. “Soon after my return, the public learned that another part of our government, the CIA, had repeatedly used waterboarding to try to get information out of detainees.”
“Alexander” found that the engrained support for using “rough stuff” against hardened jihadists was difficult to overcome despite the successes from more subtle approaches.
“We turned several hard cases, including some foreign fighters, by using our new techniques,” he wrote. “A few of them never abandoned the jihadist cause but still gave up critical information. One actually told me, ‘I thought you would torture me, and when you didn't, I decided that everything I was told about Americans was wrong. That's why I decided to cooperate.’"
From hundreds of these interrogations, “Alexander” said he learned that the images from Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib were actually getting American soldiers killed by drawing angry young Arabs into the Iraq War.
“Torture and abuse cost American lives,” the interrogator wrote. “I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq.
“It's no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001.
"How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me -- unless you don't count American soldiers as Americans.”
Nevertheless, in a series of candid “exit interviews,” Vice President Cheney – and to a lesser degree President Bush – have defended their actions that included sanctioning brutal methods of interrogation, such as the simulated drowning of “waterboarding.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Cheney Defends Waterboarding Order.”]
To this day, the belief that subjecting “bad guys” to physical and psychological abuse makes them crack -- and thus saves American lives -- remains a central myth that the departing Bush administration won’t abandon. A parallel myth is the notion of the “successful surge.”
It holds that Bush’s brave decision to go against the prevailing political winds in early 2007 and escalate U.S. military involvement in Iraq – with a 30,000-troop “surge” – saved the day. News stories and opinion articles across the U.S. news media, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, have transformed this argument into “conventional wisdom.”
However, as we have pointed out in other stories, the reality is far more complex, with several other key reasons contributing to the drop in Iraqi violence, many predating or unrelated to the “surge,” including:
However, in Washington political circles, it was all about the “successful surge.”
There also was little concern about the 1,000 additional U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq since President Bush started the “surge” in 2007. The Americans killed during the “surge” represent roughly one-quarter of the total war dead whose numbers have now passed the 4,200 mark.
Surprisingly to some Iraq War critics, one of the chief obstacles to Bush’s “surge” was the widely despised Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who – in fall 2006 – pushed for a strategy that would have slashed the U.S. military presence in Iraq dramatically by mid-2007.
On Nov. 6, 2006, Rumsfeld sent a memo to the White House, in which he listed his preferred – or “above the line” – options as "an accelerated drawdown of U.S. bases ... to five by July 2007" and withdrawal of U.S. forces "from vulnerable positions — cities, patrolling, etc. ... so the Iraqis know they have to pull up their socks, step up and take responsibility for their country."
Two days later, Rumsfeld was forced to submit his resignation and Bush announced Robert Gates as the new Defense Secretary. Not aware of Rumsfeld’s memo, Washington pundits and many leading Democrats misinterpreted the personnel shift as a reaction to the Democratic congressional election victory on Nov. 7, 2006.
The consensus view was that the “realist” Gates would oversee a rapid U.S. military drawdown in Iraq. However, the opposite occurred. Gates became Bush’s front man for the “surge.” [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Robert Gates: As Bad as Rumsfeld?”]
The subsequent conventional wisdom about the “successful surge” catapulted Gates from the ranks of the departing Bush administration into those of the arriving Obama administration, where he will remain Defense Secretary.
On Nov. 23, 2008, less than three weeks after Obama’s Nov. 4 election victory as it was becoming clear that Obama would retain Gates, Rumsfeld shed more light on his own Iraq War strategy in an op-ed for the New York Times.
While bowing to the prevailing conventional wisdom about the “successful surge,” Rumsfeld defended his pre-surge thinking, explaining that a number of factors had set up the “tipping point” that enabled the “surge” to be successful.
Though using more positive language about those preconditions (than we did), Rumsfeld made essentially the same points, adding that previous increases in U.S. troop levels – to numbers comparable to the “surge” levels – had achieved minimal effect in containing the violence.
“As one who is occasionally — and incorrectly — portrayed as an opponent of the surge in Iraq, I believe that while the surge has been effective in Iraq, we must also recognize the conditions that made it successful,” Rumsfeld wrote.
“By early 2007, several years of struggle had created the new conditions for a tipping point:
- Al Qaeda in Iraq’s campaign of terrorism and intimidation had turned its Sunni base of support against it. The result was the so-called Anbar Awakening in the late summer of 2006, followed by similar awakening movements across Iraq.
- From 2003 through 2006, United States military forces, under the leadership of Gen. John Abizaid and Gen. George Casey, inflicted huge losses on the Baathist and Qaeda leadership. Many thousands of insurgents, including the Qaeda chief in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, were captured or killed and proved difficult to replace.
- The Iraqi Security Forces had achieved cohesion, improved operational effectiveness and critical mass. By December 2006, some 320,000 Iraqis had been trained, equipped and deployed, producing the forces necessary to help hold difficult neighborhoods against the enemy. By 2007, the surge, for most Iraqis, could have an Iraqi face.
- And the political scene in Iraq had shifted. Moktada al-Sadr, the firebrand cleric, declared a cease-fire in February 2007. The government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, seated in May 2006, moved against militias and Iranian-backed militias and has imperfectly, but notably, rejected narrow sectarian policies.
“The best indication that timing is everything may be that there had been earlier surges without the same effect as the 2007 surge. In 2005, troop levels in Iraq were increased to numbers nearly equal to the 2007 surge — twice. But the effects were not as durable because large segments of the Sunni population were still providing sanctuary to insurgents, and Iraq’s security forces were not sufficiently capable or large enough.”
In other words, even Rumsfeld would agree that the simplistic conventional wisdom of Washington – that Bush’s “surge” turned everything around and that everyone, including Barack Obama, must accept that “fact” – doesn’t square with the more complex reality.
Still, as Americans should have learned over the past three decades of image-managing – from Ronald Reagan to Karl Rove – perceptions can be a powerful thing. Perception may not be the same as reality but it can become a very dangerous substitute both in defining the present and charting the future.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on December 27, 2008.