Conservative Reaction Cycle

Kevin Drum:

The conservative response to Abu Ghraib has been fascinating, hasn’t it? First reaction: this is horrible and the soldiers involved should have the book thrown at them.

Second reaction: yeah, it’s bad, it really is, but it’s worth remembering that it’s nowhere near as bad as what Saddam did.

Third reaction: enough, enough! Jeez, it’s been a whole week. This issue has been hijacked by militant Bush-haters who just want to use it for craven partisan reasons.

Fourth reaction: still to come. Maybe torturers as heroes thanks to testimony from someone or other that one of the scraps of information they extracted saved a convoy somewhere? Hey, war is hell.

I’d just note that these positions aren’t mutually exclusive and that they are indeed a reaction to hystrionics by opponents of the administration.

First: Virtually all of the mainstream Right is still here. Of course these things are very bad. They violate the standards of human decency, and they violate the law. Furthermore, they undermine the war effort itself.

Second: As Dan Drezner observed, spare me the reaction of the “Arab Street.” It is a fact that far worse brutalities were the norm in Iraq before we got there. As Matt Yglesias notes, that’s of course not the point–we invaded a foreign land under benevolent motives and thus have to be above reproach. But let’s not degenerate into the moral relativism that the U.S. is somehow an evil empire because some thugs within our midst acted criminally.

Third: Well, yes. The military and intelligence communities have umpteen investigations on. The chain of command up to at least the one star level has already been shaken up and all indications are that the perpetrators are going to be punished criminally. It’s also clear that, if systemic problems are found that contributed to this, they’ll be addressed. So, give it a bit of time to shake out before making wild-eyed charges, calling for cabinet resignations, and pronouncing the war over.

Fourth: Doubtful. While I’m by no means an expert in intelligence gathering or interrogation techniques, I know enough to know that torture and abuse are precisely not the way to go about extracting useful information. People under torture will tell their captor anything to get them to stop. The way to get information is to gain their confidence–precisely the opposite of what these bozos did. Plus, if word gets out that your military is abusing prisoners, it gets radically harder to get people to surrender rather than going down fighting, costing more lives all around as well as drying up the pool of captive to interrogate.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I know enough to know that torture and abuse are precisely not the way to go about extracting useful information.

    I’m no expert, either. Still, it’s worth noting that after many AARs both UK and US intelligence have determined that shame, fear and physical coercion or pressure are effective means to extract useful information. The goal is to take it to the edge of the envelope without stepping over the line to torture along the lines of Saddam’s regime.

    That said, the individual soldiers shown in the pictures are not in the intelligence field. In the tripartite system of prison management, those soldiers are on the bottom rung, the “blue collar workers”, so to speak. They act as janitors, record-keepers, repairmen and, yes, guards. Over them, DoD contractors act as management responsible for the prison operating smoothly, securely, and efficiently.

    At the top of the triangle are the intel folks who perform individual interrogations. They are the ones who use fear, shame and pressure as tools. But they do so only in controlled situations conducted only by them. Because the line between a prisoner’s willing compliance and a prisoner’s willingness to lie as a means of self-preservation is so fine, those efforts are not entrusted to soldiers lacking the training and skill needed to tread the fine line between interrogation and abuse.

    Anyway, I simply wanted to agree with and emphasize your fourth point: that what we saw was, indeed, abuse and had nothing to do with effective extraction of information. As such, it is implausible that those soldiers’ activities were in any condoned or encouraged by the U.S. military.

    Those soldiers were assholes. Period. They should be punished as such. But the U.S. military should not be blamed for the hideous behavior of some of its volunteers.

  2. Cathy says:

    The moment they snapped a picture of themselves posing with the prisoners, was the moment they became the worlds biggest idiots. A picture is worth a thousand words. Yep, I’d call them assholes.
    I think what we have to remember, is it was an American soldier that turned in his own. Someone had enough courage to do the right thing.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I bet Kevin is gleefully hoping that more prisoners are humiliated and is praying for outright torture so he can score some political points.

  4. Eric says:

    “Virtually all of the mainstream Right is still here.”

    Rush isn’t. He’s the mainstreamiest. The people calling his show seem to be mega-dittoing him on this. The always stuttering Scott McClellan refused to distance the white house from the Rush’s views.

    So maybe if we go by number of voices you may be right but if we go by number of listeners I think Rush has you beat.

    “But let’s not degenerate into the moral relativism that the U.S. is somehow an evil empire because some thugs within our midst acted criminally.”

    Most people aren’t doing that. The problem is that the US sells itself as the Moral Heavyweight of the world. Usually we are. So when we commit torture it is, as a matter of fact, much much worse than when anybody else commits it. Part of our Super Power legal tender has been our moral superiority and we just spent all of it with these photos.

    It’s not just a couple bad apples. We had Rumsfeld (and others) thumbing his nose at the Geneva Convention for over a year now. We’ve had reports of abuse at Guantanamo that previously we could dismiss by saying “We don’t do that sort of thing in America.” Now we can’t claim that. What we lost took us a century to gain. We’re not going to earn it back anytime soon.

    So while we may still believe we’re better than the rest of the world, the rest of the world, not just the Arab Street, is no longer likely to agree with us.

    “It’s also clear that, if systemic problems are found that contributed to this, they’ll be addressed.”

    That is not at all clear. This administration has proven that it values ideology over results. If the photos weren’t released then it’s certain that nothing would have been done.

    Now that there’s a shit-storm the only thing that’s clear is that the white house is going to give the same bad answers to this problem that it has given to all previous problems. Simple declarative sentences (such as “The US is good people!”) will be repeated ad nauseum. Scott McClellan will dodge follow up questions with replies like, “I…I believe…I think I’ve already made our position clear on that.” President Bush will give slightly off topic but obviously on-message and coached replies in the Rose Garden. That’s what’s clear.
    Eventually the immoral conservative whore gang(Novak, Rush, Coulter, Hannity, etc.) will beat away at this issue and the public will get tired of hearing about it.

    “So, give it a bit of time to shake out before making wild-eyed charges, calling for cabinet resignations,”

    What do you consider a firing offense? How much does Rumsfeld need to screw up before you think it’s reasonable to can his ass? It’s not just the torture, it’s the entire conduct of the war in Iraq that is flawed. Our not having enough troops is his fault. He was the main repeater of the fairy tale that the Iraqi’s would be throwing flowers at us. He is the one who can’t come up with a plan that lasts longer than a week (we’re in fallujah, then we’re not, then we’re seiging it, then we’re going in, then we’re retreating…it’s like he’s making it up as he goes along. This isn’t reacting to the “realities on the ground” this is panic.)

    How much does one man need to get wrong before he’s out the door?

  5. McGehee says:

    I thought it was hilarious that reporter characterizing Limbaugh as “the spokesman for the conservative party” in trying to justify why the White House must either dismiss what he says or be thought to agree with him.

    Let’s get something straight here: the White House had already said what it thought of what happened. The culprits were already being punished long before the news broke, and from what I’m seeing there’s an additional investigation underway since the news broke.

    I’d say the White House’s actions speak louder than even Rush Limbaugh’s words. Trying to tie Bush to some guy on the radio is just another pathetic attempt to make partisan hay out of the suffering of Iraqi prisoners of war, just like the calls for Rumsfeld to be fired.

  6. Eddie Thomas says:

    I think that Kate’s comments are right on target. Prisoners will tell lies to bring the interrogation to an end, but this just means that there need to be investigators to confirm the reports given. As Kate said, though, these soldiers were not interrogators, at least not trained ones.

  7. Eric says:

    Yes McGehee I agree that the white house doesn’t need repudiate Rush. Considering how disgusting and childish his rantings on this issue have been though, one wonders why they don’t when asked about it. It’s a soft ball that Even Stuttering Scott could have hit out of the park.

    Many of us got quite angry/annoyed at mainstream muslims for not taking a vocal stand against the radicals within their own group after and since 9/11. I don’t understand why we expect of Muslims what we do not expect from Bush.

    Oh wait a second…I do expect that. So I guess I’m at least consistent.

  8. John Anderson says:

    Eric “If the photos weren’t released then it’s certain that nothing would have been done.” Er, a number of officers were relieved of duty back in January, the pics came out at the end of April. SSg Frederick started his “journal” and self-serving letters home in mid-January, after finding himself under investigation. The Pentagon released information in mid-January that an investigation of abuses was under weigh. It simply was not reported in “Big Media” until pictures were made available.

  9. Eric says:

    Yes John, of course you’re right. I should have been more clear.

    The army was taking action, because the army is still made up of largely decent and honorable men, unlike the people in the executive branch. Of course nothing that army did quietly and behind the scenes would have forced the administration itself to deal with the problem it caused.

    So when I said nothing would have been done, I meant nothing would have been down by the administration. Rumsfeld would still be thumbing his nose at the geneva convention and proving the world that we elected savages to run the worlds only superpower.

    So the decent men of the army would have quietly cleaned it’s own house but the administration would have continued dodging responsibility for it’s messes and neither Rumsfeld or Bush would have even bothered to read the report.

  10. Zach says:

    I don’t care how you want to justify america’s actions! If you are american it’s your fault as well as every politician who agreed to the war. Just because you’re a superpower you get to abuse people and invade foreign countries? Did they ask for your help? Even if they needed assistance, you don’t just invade the country. Besides, almost the whole of Iraqi population would rather trust Saddam than a bunch of yankees full of shit that have technological advancement. Saddam was a cold killer and indeed was a cruel man and should have been the one in that prison at that moment, but that wasn’t the case now was it? You had everyone except him in that prison! But again, what do you care? If the oil prices go down (again bush talked to the Saudi’s to lower the prices only once the elections come so as to be re-elected…smart guy from texas, eh?), you’re all happy and sadly you can’t talk about anything because you have never suffered what people suffer in Palestine and Iraq thanks to your perfect nation. Anyways, the american prisons are quite similar…why not spread out the culture? Overseas? What next, Iraq new state of the u.s.? I’ll tell you, you think Hitler is atrocious? Look at yourselves! As if human lives are disposable things. Your system attaches numbers to human beings as well as monetary values…that is your culture. Fries with that? The Iraqi’s have a much, much more complex culture than that and at least with Saddam they could express it. Saddam was a coward, but still, he will always be better than bush. Mutilated humans, raped children, mind you they weren’t prostitutes like you find in your streets that get paid for it. Hey, I have no sympathy as well for those ridiculously stupid americans who think they are at home in a foreign country and then get sliced and diced to shreds. I don’t even care about 2 or even up to 50 when it comes to compare with the hundreds of thousands that die from your stupidity. You know, there is a responsibility for playing God and if you don’t take it your system will cripple and fail. Then another power will rise and another, and then it won’t be Arabs, it’ll be americans, or british, or who knows. The Jews suffered by the hand of Hitler, the Arabs by americans, then what? Guess since you people think you are the perfect nation! I have something simple to say, and I will say it:
    don’t try to conquer the universe when you haven’t conquered the galaxy, don’t try to conquer the galaxy unless you have conquered the solar system, don’t attempt to conquer the solar system if you haven’t yet conquered the Earth, leave the Earth alone if you haven’t even conquered its’ inhabitants…have you conquered them? No! I still see loads of crime and problems in the u.s. even up to today! The H.A. are out there and hunting for people’s skin and all you can do is think about Iraq and terrorism! Stop the terrorism in your country first! Have you forgotten that it may very well be possible that 9/11 was not caused by Arabs but someone within the country – there are hints all over the place and if you didn’t already realise it world war 3 (media war) has already started! Please don’t cover the truth! Many people would fail kindergarten in the political world and I’m not joking! If everyone remembered what they were taught when they were young boys and girls, this world would be free of terrorism and corruption. I’ll leave you with 3 quotes:

    Where ignorance reigns, life is lost!

    The more butter we have, the less we have to spread it. The less butter we have, the more we want to spread it…much like culture.[Hint: America has very little culture and attempts to spread it to many places, not just Iraq.]

    Culture is what is left when everything else is lost.