I wanted to avoid the usual cliches about watching the sausage get made, but the confirmation battle over Alberto Gonzales is a classic example of why these things are so unpleasant to watch.
When it was still just a rumor that Gonzales would replace John Ashcroft as attorney general, ABC's George Stephanopoulos opined that "even that kind of a cosmetic change" - appointing the first Hispanic attorney general - "would suggest a change in tone."
That's right. What offended people about Ashcroft's tenure at DOJ weren't his policies, his intelligence, or his skill as an administrator. It was the deafeningly "white" tone emanating from everything he did. And, besides, we all know those Hispanics are just plain nicer.
It seems, however, that Gonzales' ethnic force-field couldn't fully protect him from reality, as he faced tough questions in his confirmation hearings about his role in the treatment of "enemy combatants," as well as in the phantasmagorically exaggerated horrors of Guantanamo. (For all of the talk about how Ashcroft was the mustache-twirling evil mastermind behind these things, it took Gonzales' nomination to make Ashcroft's critics realize that the outgoing A.G. had nothing to do with them. That stuff was all run by the Department of Defense and the White House Counsel's Office.)
Fortunately for Gonzales, a Hispanic tone isn't his only strong suit. He has a rags-to-riches story as the son of migrant workers. And, for some Republicans, that's all he needs. On the eve of Gonzales' hearings,Viet Dinh, a former assistant attorney general, declared that "as a matter of politics and as a matter of policy," Gonzales' personal tale "will counteract any specific questions that are legitimately asked."
Now, I think Gonzales deserves to be confirmed. But if you're qualified for the job, it shouldn't matter if you're father was Bill Gates. And if you're unqualified, it shouldn't matter if you're papa was a rolling stone.
These were only the opening acts for the passion play, during the hearings, about Gonzales' "support" for torture.
In 2002, the CIA and others asked Gonzales to clarify what constitutes torture. In turn, Gonzales asked the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel to brief him on the DOJ's position. The OLC came back with a memo that defined torture as, well, torture. That is, inflicting pain that was tantamount to organ failure and the like. Further, it said, Congress had given the executive branch the authority to use torturous methods if it deemed them necessary. DOJ scaled back that opinion at the end of December, broadening the definition of torture to include lasting mental suffering and simply physical suffering.
Now, I'm not sure why I'm even telling you all of this, because the facts don't seem to matter. At least not to Senate Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, who all but accused Gonzales of favoring the mandatory disembowelment and relentless teasing of every POW everywhere. His policies, Ted Kennedy intoned, "have been used by the administration, the military and the CIA to justify torture and Geneva Convention violations by military and civilian personnel." Even Republican Lindsey Graham fretted that America had lost "the moral high ground" because of events at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. And the lament was endlessly raised that we were turning our backs on the Geneva Conventions.
As befits the funhouse logic of such hearings, a number of issues are being confused, conflated and confounded. First of all, most of the things that are being called torture are something a bit shy of torture. Being forced to sit in a cramped area until you give up valuable intelligence is rough, but this ain't beanbag. Being draped with an Israeli flag or even being "waterboarded" - where a detainee's face is surrounded with a wet blanket and he's made to feel like he's drowning isn't torture either. Our own cadets at the Air Force Academy have been water-boarded in training. The war against torture should begin at home!
Second, much of the stuff that does qualify as unacceptable treatment is not condoned by the White House or the Pentagon. The Pentagon is prosecuting the Abu Ghraib offenses, not defending them, and it has always said the Geneva Convention would apply in Iraq.
As for the Geneva Convention and Al-Qaida, you'd have to be higher than a moonbat to treat them as signatories to it. Everything they do is a violation of the convention. It may be fun to mug for the cameras and criticize Gonzales for saying that the Geneva Convention is "outdated" when it comes to Al-Qaida. But unless you think Khaleed Sheikh Mohammed deserves an allowance in Swiss francs that he can spend at the local canteen, you have to concede Gonzales is right.
Lastly, Gonzales' response to Graham speaks for itself: "I reject your suggestion that we are becoming like our enemy. We are nothing compared to our enemy."
I just doubt anyone heard it over the din of pious bloviation.