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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Bush followers distort history to justify their radical changes

(updated below)

In order to justify a complete overhaul of the legal framework and value system which the United States has embraced since at least the end of World War II, Bush followers have been insisting -- by necessity -- that the threat we face now is unprecedented and the enemy is more barbaric and dishonorable than any we previously confronted. Thus, they argue, all of those conventions of the past, such as the Geneva Conventions and FISA, were from a now-obsolete era of relative peace and tranquility, where the only enemies we fought abided by the noble rules of war.

As both Andrew Sullivan and Charles Pierce noted, John Yoo actually claimed in his Op-Ed in the NYT yesterday (my analysis of that Op-Ed is here) that "the changes of the 1970’s occurred largely because we had no serious national security threats to United States soil, but plenty of paranoia." That would come as a great surprise to Ronald Reagan, who warned on March 31, 1976 -- the time Yoo claims we "had no serious national security threats":

But there is one problem which must be solved or everything else is meaningless. I am speaking of the problem of our national security. Our nation is in danger, and the danger grows greater with each passing day. Like an echo from the past, the voice of Winston Churchill’s grandson was heard recently in Britain’s House of Commons warning that the spread of totalitarianism threatens the world once again and the democracies are wandering without aim.

And yet FISA was enacted a mere two years later, and President Reagan abided by it -- and never complained about it or contested its validity -- even as he confronted and defended the country against a threat which, in 1983, he characterized as follows: "The Soviet Union is acquiring what can only be considered an offensive military force. . . .They're spreading their military influence in ways that can directly challenge our vital interests and those of our allies."

The notion that long-standing American principles embodied by the Geneva Conventions and FISA are a by-product of a peaceful past is just rank historical revisionism. And the fact that these fictions come from those who revere Ronald Reagan and his dramatic warnings of the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union leave little choice other than to conclude that this is deliberate deceit. We adhered to and embraced -- and, indeed, enacted -- the Geneva Conventions and FISA when we were constantly told that we faced great peril from a mortal, unprecedented enemy, not when we were in some bucolic time of peace with threats posed only by noble and upstanding enemies.

Even worse is the attempt to suggest that Al Qaeda's tactics are unparalleled in their barbarism and evil and therefore we must fundamentally change the way we conduct ourselves as a nation if we have any chance of defeating that threat. Andrew McCarthy, in his National Review article advocating the Bush-desired repudiation of the Geneva Conventions (which the clownish Hugh Hewitt patronizingly insisted in an interview with Lindsey Graham that Graham read because McCarthy's article would single-handedly make Graham see the Light on the virtues of torture), actually argued that John McCain's experiences as a POW in North Vietnam are worthless for the current debates because the enemy we fought in the past was fundamentally different than Al Qaeda.

With that premise, Andrew McCarthy presents the Noble, Upstanding North Vietnamese soldiers whom we confronted back then:

The universal, reciprocal chivalry that guided warriors, and nation-states, when young John McCain’s unflinching valor blazed its legend on the honor-roll of American heroes no longer obtains. Now, the enemy is barbaric, and the only weapon is intelligence.

So the North Vietnamese were chivalrous warriors -- just like everyone else we fought until we encountered the Whole New Barbaric Al Qaeda threat -- and therefore the Honor Code that obtained then is no longer valid.

But everything that the Bush administration and its followers are claiming now about Al Qaeda and The Terrorist Threat generally was said about the North Vietnamese, and every other enemy that we have faced. Demonizing The Enemy as a Unique, Unprecedented Threat is routine. It is a tool used by every Government to justify every war. Here is Lyndon Johnson in his 1965 speech at Johns Hopkins University, talking about the unique evil of the North Vietnamese:

And it is a war of unparalleled brutality. Simple farmers are the targets of assassination and kidnapping. Women and children are strangled in the night because their men are loyal to their government. And helpless villages are ravaged by sneak attacks. Large-scale raids are conducted on towns, and terror strikes in the heart of cities.

And here is Johnson in his State of the Union Speech of 1967, emphasizing the terrorist tactics used by the North Vietnamese:

This war -- like the war in Vietnam -- is not a simple one. There is no single battleline which you can plot each day on a chart. The enemy is not easy to perceive, or to isolate, or to destroy. There are mistakes and there are setbacks. But we are moving, and our direction is forward. . .

I think I reveal no secret when I tell you that we are dealing with a stubborn adversary who is committed to the use of force and terror to settle political questions. . . .

Our South Vietnamese allies are also being tested tonight. Because they must provide real security to the people living in the countryside. And this means reducing the terrorism and the armed attacks which kidnapped and killed 26,900 civilians in the last 32 months, to levels where they can be successfully controlled by the regular South Vietnamese security forces. . . .

And -- and as I've documented previously -- if one reads any speech by Lyndon Johnson regarding Vietnam, it is just so striking how identical its reasoning is -- both in terms of why we have to fight there and why we are winning -- to the speeches President Bush has been giving for three straight years about Iraq. As just one example, from Johnson's speech at Johns Hopkins:

We are also there because there are great stakes in the balance. Let no one think for a moment that retreat from Viet-Nam would bring an end to conflict. The battle would be renewed in one country and then another. The central lesson of our time is that the appetite of aggression is never satisfied. To withdraw from one battlefield means only to prepare for the next. We must say in southeast Asia--as we did in Europe--in the words of the Bible: "Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.

And from his State of the Union speech in 1966: "Support of national independence -- the right of each people to govern themselves -- and to shape their own institutions. For a peaceful world order will be possible only when each country walks the way that it has chosen to walk for itself."

Claims that the enemy we face poses a unprecedented, mortal threat -- and that they operate beyond all bounds of decency, humanity, and civilized norms -- is something that we have heard (often accurately) about all sorts of enemies over the last 100 years, and especially since the end of World War II -- exactly during the time we enacted, among other things, the laws of war, FISA and other safeguards. The nature of the enemy is not new, nor is the threat unprecedented.

The only difference is that, for the first time, we have a President who claims that America is too weak and ineffective to defeat those enemies while adhering to our defining values and a superior set of civilized norms. George Bush is the first President, certainly since World War II, if not ever, to claim that we have to become the enemy and to descend to their barbarism in order to protect ourselves. What is new and unprecedented is not the enemy we face, but the fundamental and depraved changes to our national character which the President insists we much accept in order to win.

UPDATE: Mona has more on Andy McCarthy's chivarlous North Vietnamese warriors who -- unlike the never-before-encoutered Al Qaeda brutes -- reciprocated the protections of the warrior honor code to those Americans whom they captured.

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