Torture’s out. Now they call it abuse

“Prevail” is the “in” word in America just now. We are not going to “win” in Iraq – because we did that in 2003, didn’t we, when we stormed up to Baghdad and toppled Saddam? Then George Bush declared “Mission Accomplished”. So now we must “prevail”. That’s what F J “Bing” West, ex-soldier and former assistant secretary for International Security Affairs in the Reagan administration said this week. Plugging his new book – No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah – he gave a frightening outline of what lies in store for the Sunni Muslims of Iraq.

I was sitting a few feet from Bing – plugging my own book – as he explained to the great and the good of New York how General Casey was imposing curfews on the Sunni cities of Iraq, one after the other, how if the Sunnis did not accept democracy they would be “occupied” (he used that word) by Iraqi troops until they did accept democracy. He talked about the “valour” of American troops – there was no word of Iraq’s monstrous suffering – and insisted that America must “prevail” because a “Jihadist” victory was unthinkable. I applied the Duke of Wellington’s Waterloo remark about his soldiers to Bing. I don’t know if he frightened the enemy, I told the audience, but by God Bing frightened me.

Our appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations – housed in a 58th Street townhouse of deep sofas and fearfully strong air conditioning (it was early November for God’s sake) – was part of a series entitled “Iraq: The Way Forward”. Forward, I asked myself? Iraq is a catastrophe. Bing might believe he was going to “prevail” over his “Jihadists” but all I could say was that the American project in Iraq was over, that it was a colossal tragedy for the Iraqis dying in Baghdad alone at the rate of 1,000 a month, that the Americans must leave if peace was to be restored and that the sooner they left the better.

Many in the audience were clearly of the same mind. One elderly gentleman quietly demolished Bing’s presentation by describing the massive damage to Fallujah when it was “liberated” by the Americans for the third time last November. I gently outlined the folk that Bing’s soldiers and diplomats would have to talk to if they were to disentangle themselves from this mess – I included Iraqi ex-officers who were leaders of the non-suicidal part of the insurgency and to whom would fall the task of dealing with the “Jihadists” once Bing’s lads left Iraq. To get out, I said, the Americans would need the help of Iran and Syria, countries which the Bush administration is currently (and not without reason) vilifying. Silence greeted this observation.

It was a strange week to be in America. In Washington, Ahmed Chalabi, one of Iraq’s three deputy prime ministers, turned up to show how clean his hands were. I had to remind myself constantly that Chalabi was convicted in absentia in Jordan of massive bank fraud. It was Chalabi who supplied New York Times reporter Judith Miller with all the false information about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. It was Chalabi’s fellow defectors who persuaded the Bush administration that these weapons existed. It was Chalabi who was accused only last year of giving American intelligence secrets to Iran. It is Chalabi who is still being investigated by the FBI.

But Chalabi spoke to the right-wing American Enterprise Institute in Washington, refused to make the slightest apology to the United States, and then went on – wait for it – to meetings with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley. Vice-President Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also agreed to see him.

By contrast, Chalabi’s gullible conservative dupe was subjected to a truly vicious interview in The Washington Post after she resigned from her paper over the Libby “Plame-Gate” leak. A “parade of Judys” appeared at her interview, Post reporter Lynne Duke wrote. “Outraged Judy. Saddened Judy. Charming Judy. Conspiratorial Judy. Judy, the star New York Times reporter turned beleaguered victim of the gossip-mongers …” proclaiming her intention to make no apologies for writing about threats to the United States, Miller did so “emphatically almost frantically, her crusading eyes brimming with tears”. Ouch.

I can only reflect on how strange the response of the American media has become to the folly and collapse and anarchy of Iraq. It’s Judy’s old mate Chalabi who should be getting this treatment but no, he’s back to his old tricks of spinning and manipulating the Bush administration while the American press tears one of its reporters apart for compensation.

It’s like living in a prism in New York and Washington these days. “Torture” is out. No one tortures in Iraq or Afghanistan or Guantanamo. What Americans do to their prisoners is “abuse” and there was a wonderful moment this week when Amy Goodman, who is every leftist’s dream, showed a clip from Pontecorvo’s wonderful 1965 movie The Battle of Algiers on her Democracy Now programme. “Colonel Mathieu” – the film is semi-fictional – was shown explaining why torture was necessary to safeguard French lives. Then up popped Mr Bush’s real spokesman, Scott McClellan, to say that while he would not discuss interrogation methods, the primary aim of the administration was to safeguard American lives.

American journalists now refer to “abuse laws” rather than torture laws. Yes, abuse sounds so much better, doesn’t it? No screaming, no cries of agony when you’re abused. No shrieks of pain. No discussion of the state of mind of the animals perpetrating this abuse on our behalf. And its as well to remember that the government of Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara has decided it’s quite all right to use information gleaned from this sadism. Even Jack Straw agrees with this.

So it was a relief to drive down to the US National Archives in Maryland to research America’s attempts to produce an Arab democracy after the First World War, one giant modern Arab state from the Turkish border to the Atlantic coast of Morocco. US soldiers and diplomats tried to bring this about in one brief, shining moment of American history in the Middle East. Alas, President Woodrow Wilson died; America became isolationist, and the British and French victors chopped up the Middle East for their own ends and produced the tragedy with which we are confronted today. Prevail, indeed.
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Middle East correspondent for London's Independent, often outspoken and out of step with the rest of the mainstream media