Implication for the Long Run: Developments Last Week

John Turner

Official Pronunciamentos

When Defense Secretary Robert Gates tells reporters that the United States is going to maintain military forces in the Persian Gulf region for a long time, exactly what kind of statement is he making?

Is it a prediction? A promise? A national decree, or what?

Why is it that a current government official has the authority to proclaim what his country's policy is going to be in the future? Does that negate the authority of Congress to decide that maybe stationing military forces all over the Middle East is not a good thing?

I have never been a fan of national doctrines, not even the most venerable ones. I suppose it's all right for an official to say that in his opinion his government will continue to do such and such, and offer historical evidence for his belief. But to go beyond that, and to enunciate as though he were the representative of a deathless emperor is not only silly, it's harmful. It's an attempt to intimidate the future, and to levy a charge of disloyalty against any changes that don't consort with current policy.

Goodness knows our policy lately has not been marked by deathless wisdom. If we can't change it just because somebody like Mr. Gates says we can't, we're in deep trouble.


John Burns of the New York Times tells us that another hanging has gone "awry." It seems that our allies, in a return to justice in Iraq, ripped off the head of Barzan Ibrahim, Saddam's half-brother. They didn't rip off the head of Awad Hamad al-Bandar, who was killed at the same time. So, I guess we have to say that the ceremony was only half dignified.

Dignity in carrying out these acts has been of great concern to Condi Rice. She, evidently, is adamantly against head ripping off. Her position bespeaks the eminent humanity of the government of the United States.

The Iraqis say they consulted a number of humanitarian organization about the proper way to kill Barzan Ibrahim and were really trying to do it right. So, the head ripping off was really just a bit of misfortune. I guess we have to admit that bad things happen to the best of people.

Some in Iraq are proclaiming that it was God who ripped off Barzan's head out of divine wrath. But, then, others say it was a grisly act of Shia revenge. So, who are you going to believe?

The United States, thankfully, didn't have anything to do with it, except to hold Barzan and Awad in prison for years and deliver them to the place of head ripping. Thank God, our dignity hasn't been compromised.

No Limits

Dahlia Lithwick, writing for Slate and for the Washington Post, points out that the reason the Bush administration continues to prosecute Jose Padilla and to hold the prisoners at Guantanamo has nothing to do with suspicions that they pose any danger to the United States. Rather, they remain in captivity to preserve the president's claim that his powers, as commander in chief, are limitless.

We can't warn too often that Mr. Bush says he has the authority to seize any U.S. citizen and keep him locked up forever, without ever bringing any charges against him or delivering him to the jurisdiction of any court. If this is not absolute, dictatorial power, it's pretty close. And this authority is claimed by a person who regularly describes himself as a champion of freedom.

Over the course of U.S. history we have had many abuses of government power we've subsequently come to regret. The one that has got most attention lately is the internment of Japanese American citizens during the course of the Second World War. Bad as that was, it is minor compared to what the Bush administration has done. This political generation will be shamed forever for letting it happen. That is unless Mr. Bush has his way, in which case nothing the government does can ever be described as shameful. The unlimited commander in chief will see to it that nothing of that sort is ever said.


I just watched portions of a long interview Robert Scheer conducted with Susan McDougal, the woman Kenneth Starr threw into jail for twenty-one months because she wouldn't give testimony against Bill and Hillary Clinton. She published a book detailing her experiences titled The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk, which is as much about the conditions women face in prison as it is about her own travail.

Those who want to argue there's not much difference between Democrats and Republicans should watch the interview and then ask themselves whether their opinion is justified.

There have been, in my opinion, a number of world class political villains operating in the United States over the past several decades. But if I had to say who heads the list, I think I'd still name Kenneth Starr. What he did to Susan McDougal in order to try to coerce testimony out of her ought to become one of the signal stories of American history, taught to schoolchildren as thoroughly as tales of Washington and Jefferson.

The American people would do well to recognize that we have a so-called criminal justice system that is riddled with arbitrary power and viciousness. And if they want to understand how bad it can be, they need to learn and internalize the story of Susan McDougal.

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Harvard Square Commentary, Jaunuary 22, 2007