Dark Bilious Vapors

But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors....
--Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation I

Home » Archives » May 2004 » We read a surprisingly perceptive essay....

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05/25/2004: We read a surprisingly perceptive essay....

by Thomas C. Green on the U.S.'s "War on Terra™" fiasco in The Register yesterday:

If the human rights debacle at Abu Ghraib teaches us anything - besides the routinely-forgotten lesson that people with guns and uniforms tend to go sadistic and feral unless observed openly and controlled rigidly - it teaches us that the global battle against terrorism is being waged by incompetents and fools.


The wild scenes at Abu Ghraib have become emblems of all that is wrong with the Iraq campaign. But it is important to realize that they are also emblems of all that is wrong with the war on terrorism and the Bush administration's grasp of national security. Ham-fisted tactics are being employed by unqualified grunts, cocky CIA and military intelligence officers, and private Rent-a-Rambo contractors. This produces the tremendous amount of intelligence data that military bureaucrats demand, only most of it is rubbish.


Acquiring useful intelligence, and interpreting it properly, require skill, which can be taught, and talent, which can't. Unfortunately, the 9/11 atrocity put the intelligence racket into immediate overdrive, with a "we need it yesterday" mentality. This ensured that the vast majority of MI, CIA, and special forces operators flooding the field would be amateurish and untalented, though tremendously eager and flush with patriotic hostility. Many thousands of Arab men have disappeared into secret CIA and special forces rat holes in Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and Iraq, where they may languish for decades with no hope of any legal process to challenge accusations against themselves, or present evidence in their favor.

To some, this may seem fitting punishment for terrorist scum. But it's important to bear in mind that any reliable information these people might provide is highly perishable. Once a major player is captured, his compatriots will immediately begin altering their plans, so that when he finally does talk, he'll be talking about a plot that has either been called off or has been reconfigured drastically. Unless such information can be used quickly, it is valuable only as general background on the tactics of one's enemy -- assuming, of course, that any of it is truthful.

This new festival of human rights violations by the United States government is about revenge for 9/11, not about gathering useful intelligence. It is also about deterrence: it's a symbolic putting of heads on pikes near the city gates to discourage criminals. It is, quite simply, a terror tactic.

Saddam Hussein liked to torture his political enemies, and often mutilated them so that upon release they would become living emblems of the regime's core message: when you offend the government, you will regret it for the rest of your life. But his goal was to intimidate the populace, not to gather intelligence. He had a network of spies and sellouts to handle that business separately. Even he understood the difference between gathering intel and beating a confession out of some poor bugger. It's a pity that this distinction is lost on the Bush administration.


The fact that the US military's prisoner abuse has lately been revealed to the public is not the problem. The entire process is the problem. All of what's been going on has been known, suspected, or rumored throughout the Arab world for at least two years, especially in the regions most likely to produce useful sympathizers. No one, except the touchingly credulous American public, is surprised.

Meanwhile, the Washington spin machine has reinvented the affair at Abu Ghraib as a public relations problem for the United States, and the urge to see it as a matter of bad publicity has become a surprisingly bi-partisan folly. We've been warned by Democrats and Republicans alike that the chief problem is the perception of others: the widespread Arab outrage and consequent added danger to US troops from that outrage. Others fret about the loss of American prestige among allies and sympathetic foreigners.

Democrats have agonized about the loss of American face overseas while delighting in the loss of face for Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, which is sure to alienate a number of Bush voters in November. For Republicans, there has been no upside. They have struggled to paint the sadists at Abu Ghraib as a mere smattering of white-trash drifters operating independently, lest the military itself be seen as lacking discipline and virtuous leadership. And the terrorists are even nastier, many Republicans point out by way of excuse.

The politicization of who's nastier recently became surreal, as Republicans tried for about a week to use the decapitation by terrorists of Nicholas Berg as evidence that the evildoers are in fact meaner, and, even more absurdly, that this somehow justifies the torture at Abu Ghraib and numerous other US installations.


The Abu Ghraib disgrace is not a public relations problem. It is not merely a "stain" on the American people. It is, rather, the inevitable outcome of a breakdown in military discipline brought about by the utter failure of Bush administration strategy and doctrine in the war on terrorism. The US intelligence apparatus was let off the leash and told to get "results," which it has been doing with extraordinary relish. But you simply cannot torture your way to victory in a conflict where the enemy is mobile, dispersed, and loosely affiliated in ad hoc arrangements. You need accurate, up-to-date intelligence and friends on the ground, not a lot of terrified taxi drivers and unemployed bachelors confessing to ludicrous schemes and grassing out their neighbors to save themselves.

The Bush administration's entire national security strategy is a fiasco in which Iraq serves merely as a metaphor. For the Bushies, politics are the only reality, and the war on terrorism is the crown jewel of their political apparatus. There was a desire, inspired by re-election ambitions, to stage something really big in this so-called war, to dazzle the public, and to position Bush as the "strong leader" that his campaign boilerplate constantly insists, against all evidence, that he really is.

Invading Iraq was big enough, and presumed easy enough, to satisfy the basic political requirements. That the Iraq campaign has actually undermined the war on terror is of no consequence in the Bush calculus. It
looked like a mighty blow against the forces of evil, which is all that he and his entourage thought necessary.


Despite all the intelligence debacles since 9/11, the Bush administration has steadfastly refused to accept responsibility for its blunders and lies. Indeed, White House spin-meisters have stage-managed Junior so skillfully that a majority of Americans still believe national security to be his strong suit, rather than his Achilles heel.

Of course, the Bush administration's true strong suit is public relations, and little more. A war that had been sold as an urgent matter of self-defense has been reinvented to fit the Bush version of reality. It was a humanitarian mission, we are now told, meant to liberate the Iraqi people from an autocratic minority leadership that tended to imprison citizens indiscriminately and torture them, propped up by heavy weapons and mass violence. Which, of course, is a spot-on description of the American occupation from the point of view of virtually every Iraqi.

The war in Iraq illustrates that the Bushies are crassly cynical about national security, willing to pervert it for political aims, as well as insatiable consumers of the lousiest possible intelligence so long as it fortifies their delusions of empire and amplifies their tough-on-terror bluster.

Abu Ghraib illustrates that they prefer it this way.

Len on 05.25.04 @ 07:33 AM CST

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