Bush's Turnabout on Torture

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Throughout the war on terror, the Bush administration has spurned calls to engage in nation-building, while embracing the need to torture—or at least get close to it—to protect the nation. But this week, it reversed course on both fronts.

Until Thursday, the Bush administration maintained that its need to extract time-critical intelligence from suspected terrorists required it to skirt the Geneva Convention and other international niceties that obligated the administration to treat terrorists the same as conventional prisoners of war. In recent weeks, it has made a last-ditch effort to at least exempt intelligence agents from the more stringent guidelines.

But after months of resisting Senator John McCain’s push to ban torture in U.S. detention facilities, the White House retreated on Thursday. One day after the House of Representatives gave its support to McCain’s measure, the Bush Administration agreed to a deal that would put McCain’s language prohibiting “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” into a long-delayed Senate defense authorization bill. “This government does not torture and we adhere to the international convention of torture, whether it be here at home or abroad," President Bush said while announcing the deal alongside McCain in the Oval Office.

The collapse of the administration's position on torture—and, despite the protestations that it was not a U-turn, it was—echoes another recent reversal. This week, the administration elevated "stability missions"—aka "nation building"—alongside of major combat operations. In a November directive, acting deputy defense secretary Gordon England told his combat commanders around the world to make sure post-combat stability ops are coordinated with the State Department. On Wednesday, Bush formally designated Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to spearhead efforts to rebuild nations following wars or insurrection.

It's the closest the administration has come to conceding it fumbled its handling of post-war Iraq. Bush's action effectively gives the State Department control over an area that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his minions ran in post-war Iraq. But before nightfall Thursday, Rumsfeld was fighting back. "I think we ought to try to avoid the nation-building concept," the defense chief told a Pentagon audience. "We ought to think of it as creating an environment that is hospitable for those people to be able to build their own nation and to fashion it in a way that fits them. That's what's going on in Afghanistan; that's what's going on in Iraq, notwithstanding the way it's characterized in the press." But more than $200 billion and 2,100 U.S. troops' lives into Operation Iraqi Freedom, it's fair to ask how much smoother the invasion and its aftermath might have gone if the revamped Bush policies on both nation-buidling and torture had been in place from the start.