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Bush Jeopardy

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Message Lynne Glasner
The Bush PR machine has been particularly adept at responding to criticism by changing the subject and dodging responsibility. The problem the Administration has now is that there are so many scandals to choose from, changing the subject risks focusing on another land mine and controlling the message gets harder.

The Bush spin is like the game of Jeopardy. When the Administration controls the questioning, they only have to answer easy questions. When the stakes get higher with harder questions, their usual response is to essentially pass by pleading the Fifth; invoking national security and/or the war on terror is part of the Bush constitution. But the public has started to tune in and is beginning to realize they've been gamed. The weakened ability to change the subject is leaving many Republicans visibly nervous about jeopardizing their turn in the next election.

As the category for the question goes back to torture, tough questions could put the whole Administration in real jeopardy. The torture issue puts the Defense Department on high alert. Recent lawsuits filed against Rumsfeld questioning his liability and culpability in the torture schemes, coupled with a rebellion within the military establishment, may make Bush's defense of "heck of a job Brownie" look like a cakewalk. Bush could wind up eating the words he used to so vigorously defend Rummy as the provider of "energetic and steady leadership [that] is exactly what is needed at this critical period" (April 14, 2006). The Bush Doctrine, though engineered by Cheney, has largely been executed by Rumsfeld. If Rummy has to go, he'll be a very tough act to follow, which may not be a bad thing for the country, but it doesn't bode well for a President whose style is to delegate even major decisions to others in his loyal inner circle. How Bush ducks his own liability remains to be seen.

Torture is a crime against humanity that even this Administration doesn't try to deny. Their approach to defending the accusation has been layered and nuanced. After much legal wrangling over the release of the Abu Ghraib photos, the first layer of the Bush defense was that Bush claimed not to know anything about such terrible behavior and declared that those responsible would be punished to the full extent of the law. The pattern is clear, however; from leaks to torture to hurricanes to Abramoff's lobby deals, Bush is always conveniently out of the loop until prior testimony to the contrary becomes public.

When the subject of torture wouldn't die a natural death, the Administration continued their public admonitions of the lowly, depraved soldiers while deftly renaming the crime from torture to abuse. The evidence at once became less incendiary; after all, Americans were used to seeing abuse - just turn on the TV. But the public was still uneasy at least while the horrific pictures from Abu Ghraib were being splashed in the media, and Congress was having trouble defending it. Even Rummy claimed to be "stunned" by the pictures. So the Administration apologists simply took their strategy to the next level and redefined what constitutes torture. The Bush legal team laboriously dove into action and came up with an arcane explanation. Torture in Bushspeak excludes any act "short of death or organ failure"; so long as the result is not death or organ failure, it's not torture. After all, the dead can't testify and anyone else wasn't tortured by definition. By tying up the problem in legalese and then changing the subject to jurisdictional arguments, they effectively blunted the issue, at least for a while. Coupled with criticism of the media for continuing to show the images, the pictures faded into the background of public scrutiny.

When the subject came up again, Bush used a different defense and innocently explained that he was just doing what other presidents have done. This line was an attempt to equate lies about conducting secret torture sanctioned by Bush & Co. and condoned by an ex post facto reinterpretation of the language to the Clinton lies about conducting secret sex sanctioned by two consenting adults, but also condoned by stretching English as we know it. In case that message was too subtle, the Bush spin machine went all out to bolster the "I was following precedent" defense, plying the public with incomplete and often misleading information about rendition policies under Clinton. The subtle change of subject from torture to rendition once again avoided the more basic questions. Eventually, the point was scored: Clinton did it too. It didn't take long for the press to move on and the public to lose interest.

Although the photos from Abu Ghraib made their first public appearance in April 2004, the Administration hasn't been successful at making the subject go away completely. Over a year later in November 2005, Bush felt compelled to publicly pronounce, "We don't torture." The irony was not only in the words themselves but in the setting: Panama, the Bush model for Iraq and the neocon object lesson for success. Bush Sr. invaded Panama in 1989, wiping out the former ally turned evil dictator, Noriega, who was tried, convicted and jailed. Panama was also the original home of the School of the Americas, founded in the 1940s as a base from which the U.S. trained and taught combat tactics and strategy to Latin American soldiers. Accused of launching some of the worst human rights abuses, the organization was criticized for being a "school for assassins." Noriega was a graduate.

The legacy of the School of Americas, in spite of Bush's words to the contrary in its original backyard, is still with us. The words of denial may come back to haunt the President as another example of stretching the language not to mention the powers of the presidency. In the case of torture, there was a there there, that is, until rendition took the victims from one there to another more secret there so Bush & Co. could say there was no there there anymore. The ultimate question for the public is which is worse: President Clinton's tortured truth-telling about Monica or President Bush's straight-faced lies about torture?

The torture scandal is one of the more egregious examples of the Bush Doctrine gone awry. Our U.S. military is now sufficiently trained in modern torture techniques that it is training the Iraqis to take over the job. The Bush team still claims to believe that they are exporting democracy, but what they've been doing all along is outsourcing torture. How long the torture scandal will remain in the public eye may turn on which allies condoned the rendition, which ones, if any, participated in it, and how many other military VIPs find a conscience. Meanwhile, with much gravitas, the Administration continues the trial of Saddam Hussein, who stands accused of torturing "his own people"; at the same time, they continue blocking any real investigation of those accused of torturing "other" people.

When we hear the "freedom is on the rise" refrain again, we have to ask just whose freedom Bush is talking about. Bush and the inner circle are still free from accountability. What seems to be rising is the level of protest both on the streets and from within the ranks of the military. Try as they might, changing the category to change the questions doesn't seem to be working as well as it used to. The questions are getting harder to answer and the stakes are getting higher. Jeopardy is setting in.
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Lynne Glasner is a freelance writer/editor based in New York City. She has edited numerous books, fiction and nonfiction, many on political subjects. Her essays have appeared in Commondreams, MediaChannel.org, and Huffington Post as well as OpEd (more...)
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