The Distractions Of The Surge and Waterboarding

A small but important point about the way in which the debate over the war in Iraq and interrogation has evolved. We are now finding ourselves discussing whether the surge is a tactical success and how extensive waterboarding has been (and may be). These are not unimportant issues, and worth debating. But they are becoming the main issue, and they mustn't. They are trees and the subject at hand is a forest.

No one believes that waterboarding has been the primary form of torture for the Bush administration. It has, in fact, been a minor facet of a much broader attempt to redefine the moral core of US military and CIA interrogation to normalize abuse and torture in dealing with detainees. Torture is legally the use of "severe mental or physical pain or suffering" to extract information from captives. Among the more gruesome techniques are the long-term use of stress positions as seen at Abu Ghraib, the use of hypothermia and extreme heat, manipulation of diet, multiple beatings, and sexual and psychological warfare. All these techniques have been documented in use across the theater of combat after Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld gave the signal and provided the memos telling their subordinates to take the gloves off. To make this grave debate about three instances of waterboarding high-value detainees is a distraction from the broader facts of the last few years. It's an attempt to minimize the depth and scope of the new policy, the concerted effort to retain it, and a bid to distract public attention from what has really gone on. Waterboarding is a huge issue. But it is the beginning of the question, not the end.

The same can be said for the debate over the surge. The debate over Iraq cannot be reduced to an analysis of whether the surge produced or coincided with a drop in sectarian violence from 2006 levels to 2005 levels. The questions we have to answer are much bigger ones. How does this reduction in violence connect to a serious political strategy to get Iraq functioning as a halfway normal country without over 100,000 US troops in occupation? Why is it in the national interest to remain occupying such a country for the indefinite future? What national security goals have been met by the last six years of warfare? Can any non-partition scenario be feasible without permanent occupation? Making the larger debate about whether al Qaeda is now - let's hope - on the run in Iraq seems to me a bit stupid when al Qaeda barely existed in Iraq before the Bush occupation.

The two big issues remain. How are we to deal with the extensive record of war crimes authorized and perpetuated by the president of the United States for six years? How does the permanent occupation of Iraq help US interests in the Middle East and the world?

There are forests and there are trees. It's time to focus on the forests for a change.