It is only through the work of historians that history seems linear to us living here in the present. The scholars are the ones who from a different time discern grand patterns or take large meaning from small things. Trying to understand the links between cause and effect in our own time, of course, is usually a bit less satisfying.
That's why the confluence of three important scholarly works just emerging into print is so extraordinary. The pieces - two books and a brilliant magazine story - aren't just individually significant. Together they give us a rare, contemporary, linear view of the Bush administration's interrogation policies, the horrible practices they spawned and what good might have happened, earlier, had those in power not pushed to implement misguided.
First comes The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration, an insider's critical account of the reckless disregard for tradition and legal precedent which seeped into the White House and Justice Department during the years immediately following the terror attacks on America. Written by Jack Goldsmith, a former head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, the book focuses upon people like David Addington, who is now the vice president's chief of staff.
Addington, otherwise known as "Cheney's Cheney," is the man who famously uttered the phrase that may end up as an epitaph of the executive branch's disdain for a responsible separation of powers: "We're going to push and push until some larger force makes us stop." What he meant was that the White House would secretly allow warrantless domestic surveillance that violated federal law and interrogation policies that any reasonable person would consider torture.
Goldsmith positions himself as the good guy in the story; a man who ultimately aligned himself with the rule of law instead of with the forces pushing for even more excess in presidential power. But David Cole, the Georgetown law professor who has been a forceful critic of the government's anti-terror policies, and who has gone to court to stop some of them, this past week wrote that Goldsmith's self-professed heroics were far less significant than he claims: the government's interrogation policies could have been even worse, Cole writes.
But they were bad enough. How do we know? Because of Tara McKelvey's simply-written book, Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War. If Goldsmith's book identifies the "how" and the "why" of our terror policies, McKelvey's book offers ample evidence of the effect those policies caused; upon Iraqis and our own troops. Chapter by grisly chapter, McKelvey chronicles the episodes of torture, and worse, that our troops and civilian contractors inflicted upon Iraqis, guilty and innocent, following Saddam Hussein's fall.
The link between Addington's policies and what happened at Abu Ghraib is incontrovertible. And McKelvey also does us a favor by destroying the government-sponsored myth that rogue soldiers and contractors were responsible for the abuse. There is a paper trail that leads directly from Addington and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld right down to the ground in downtown Baghdad. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote: "The government is the potent, omnipresent teacher. For good or ill it teaches the whole people by example… To declare that the end justifies the means - to declare that the government may commit crimes - would bring terrible retribution."
The "terrible retribution" we earned for our nation's interrogation policies wasn't just the exposure of abuse at Abu Ghraib and the worldwide condemnation it brought us. It was the way Iraqis reacted to the news about the abuse. As McKelvey points out, Iraqis who before Abu Ghraib chose not to fight the Americans were incensed by the way their "liberators" were treating them at the prison. This caused many of them to take up arms against U.S. soldiers and other American personnel. And our troops and their families and friends have paid an awful price for that.
Would it have happened anyway? Would the Iraqis have begun to mortally resent us if the scandal at Abu Ghraib had never occurred? What would Iraq be like today if our government had not chosen to unleash its interrogation hounds against Iraqi civilians? We will never know for sure. But, remarkably, we can find some pretty significant clues about an answer in The New Yorker magazine about the American "surge" in Iraq.
Anderson details the ways in which the new strategic initiative in Iraq is succeeding - and why. And in doing so, he helps prove what might have occurred had the Americans treated intelligence-gathering in Iraq with more carrots and fewer electric sticks. To the extent that the surge is working, Anderson suggests, it is because U.S. troops on the ground are far more attuned to the nuances of the relationships between and among Iraqis and have learned how to exploit those relationships to their advantage.
It's not a softer and gentler American presence - it's called a surge, after all. But it is a smarter one. And it is one that has emerged since the interrogation and torture directives penned by Addington and Company have been supplanted by more humane (and perhaps legal) ones. So there you have it all in a week's worth of reading: the cause of our doomed and twisted interrogation policies, the effect those policies had upon Real World Baghdad, and how things could have been, should have been different. It's a first-draft of history that is likely to hold up well with the passage of time.