The Bush administration still has its eye on military action against Iran, and is holding out for the impact of its policy in decades ahead.
Conciliatory statements now are aimed only at impacting the mid-term elections. So contends Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Seymour Hersh, who addressed a capacity crowd in Washington last month. He headlined an event sponsored by the Alliance for Justice on “The Bush Administration’s Unbridled Use of Executive Power.”
The room was almost exclusively filled by university students from across the country who listened attentively to what would be an hour long exposition of the Bush administration and the techniques it has used in fighting the so-called War on Terror.
In what was part history lesson, part personal biography, Hersh covered an array of topics, including contemporary reflections on the role of American forces in Iraq and his accounts of the Vietnam War, which he covered as an Associated Press reporter in the 1960s.
As expected, traversing this broad swath of history prompted some interesting comparisons and astute judgments about American action and perceptions around the world. Additionally, Hersh attempted to bring to light the importance of the press in cataloguing not only events but rhetoric, and how journalists have catastrophically failed to uphold this responsibility since the 9/11 attacks.
At the outset of his remarks, Hersh made it a point to note the United States’ recent transition in Afghanistan, handing over day to day military operations to British, Romanian, and NATO forces after four and a half years of military activity.
In Iraq, however, troops are continuing dealing with violence and chaos that has gradually escalated since May 2003, when the infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner was unfurled on the USS Abraham Lincoln. As a consequence, Hersh maintained, there has been a necessary and perceptible change in the way American forces are fighting in the new Iraqi Republic.
Hersh recalled, for instance, several personal accounts of intelligence footage reviewed by the military before the invasion of Baghdad three years ago. It projected that many street corners would be fortified with sandbags and machine guns, equipped for Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard to begin battling invading forces.
What American troops encountered upon entering the city, however, was something very different: a street grid devoid of people, much less those same military fortifications.
What this suggests to Hersh is that Saddam never planned to fight a major battle over Baghdad. Instead, Baathist bureaucrats and armed forces took refuge across the country, preparing for guerilla warfare.
In many ways, regardless of intent, Hersh has been vindicated by the unexpected and dynamic manifestation of Iraqi resistance. While many have blamed ethnic tensions and factionalism for the increase in violence and insurgency, there is no doubt that attacks on American troops and Iraqi civilians are becoming increasingly sophisticated.
In other words, the attacks are not only more powerful and deadly, but highly coordinated.
Hersh noted the use of code in communications between insurgents, which has proven difficult to break by American intelligence personnel.
What this unforeseen landscape has meant for American military tactics has been apparent, if not well publicized. Increased frustration with the insurgency has precipitated the adoption of “new, tougher” techniques of interrogation. Abu Ghraib has been but one instance of these alterations.
After the Abu Ghraib story broke, both President Bush and Secretary of State Rice vehemently denied ever condoning some of those torturous techniques as viable method of interrogation. Much of this military malpractice has since been written off as a breakdown in the chain of command, and the onus of blame has been squarely placed on prison guards for allowing themselves to morally deteriorate into committing these acts.
“You will not change Iraq, Iraq will change you,” Hersh said.
He underscored Abu Ghraib as a perfect example of the media’s failure to follow up on the exact details of this story.
He pointed to an interview with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld where he states that President Bush was informed of these tactical shifts in January 2004, around the time of the Abu Ghraib infractions.
Hersh recounted an exchange he had with a friend in the Israeli military while he was stationed in Europe. The soldier, privy to much of the conflict in the Middle East in past decades, could hardly believe the things guards had done to Iraqi prisoners. Though he had certainly seen his share of violent interrogation tactics, he emphasized that the sexual nature of some of these acts would be particularly astonishing and provocative to many Arabs.
How this has affected the war effort is quite clear: violence has continued to rise, and there is hardly a dearth of recruits for the insurgency. And while the use of torture has been lightly debated by American policymakers, the international consensus is nearly unanimously opposed to such techniques, not only because they are largely ineffective but often garner inaccurate information.
Yet the gross mismanagement of the American war effort, including expenditures and services for military personnel, has been only superficially covered, Hersh believes.
After concluding his remarks, Hersh took questions from the crowd. Most questions centered on the media’s role in effectively condoning the Bush administrations tactics and misdeeds.
He responded to one such inquiry with a story from the USSR. After Stalin’s death, Khrushchev came into power and made a speech denouncing the authoritarian leader’s use of violence and repression. One member of the audience blurted out “Where were you when the people were suffering?” Upon hearing this Khrushchev pounded his fist on the podium and yelled wildly, asking the speaker to show himself. Nobody took credit for the question, and Khrushchev responded to the silence by saying “That’s where I was.”
The upshot of the story, Hersh said, was that there is often no guarantee that reporters or informants will be viewed as heroes for their divulgences. Ambassador Joseph Wilson would certainly concur with that analysis.
Hersh went on to say that, despite the failure of the media to hold elected officials accountable for their failures, there is also a responsibility for all citizens to make themselves aware of what’s going on in their government.
President Bush, despite low approval ratings and significant controversy during the later half of his administration, believes that his actions in will be justified several decades down the road. Any recent conciliatory comments are being made only because of their possible effect on the upcoming midterm elections, Hersh said.
He assured the audience, however, there were other contemporary events to monitor, including “the Iran Plans,” and fraud in the Mexican elections.