On Torture: Can Andrew Sullivan move George W. Bush’s certain heart?

Ostensibly, Andrew Sullivan is trying to appeal to George W. Bush in the October Atlantic by flattering him. Or thinking like him. Or something. But what an ugly spectacle that is. Or, as another Bush offshoot once said, “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind.”
In an open letter to Bush, Sullivan tries to convince the former president to take responsibility for the torture he approved because “only you can fix the damage,” having forgotten, it seems, eight agonizing years that demonstrated Bush’s commitment to irresponsibility.
Some open letters are best left closed. Sullivan begins with this admission: “I guess I should start by saying I supported your presidential campaign in 2000…”
Guess again. Now that we’ve gotten rid of Bush and a ring of henchmen whose names–Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz–drip with menace, maybe we should confiscate the driver’s licenses of those Americans who voted for them in 2000. Because they must be as blind as Sullivan.
It was obvious in 2000 that George W. Bush was a bumbling menace, that he was, as the same issue of The Atlantic describes him a few pages away, “part scamp and part bumbler, a timeless fraternity boy and heedless cutup, a weekday gym rat and a weekend napster.” Not the sort, in other words, to take responsibility.
It was obvious that Bush was out to serve his own interests and those of his friends in oil and defense contracting.
It was obvious that he wanted to use America’s military-industrial complex to avenge Saddam Hussein’s plan to assassinate his father (“He tried to kill my dad.”) It was obvious that a President George W. Bush would attack Iraq, if he only found an excuse. Not only was it predictable in 2000, it was openly predicted, secretly planned, and mentioned in the Republican platform.
This is a man who, during a presidential debate in 2000, giggled about the death penalty.
Is it a surprise that he went on to torture? That he lied to start a war? That he killed tens of thousands of people? Should we be surprised that he failed to guard the physical and economic security of the United States? The attack on the World Trade Center enabled his misdeeds. Our economy is still paying for them.
Take full responsibility? He doesn’t care. He accomplished what he wanted to accomplish, America be damned.
Sullivan writes to Bush, “Your Sept. 20, 2001, address to Congress really was one of the finest in modern times.” And why does Sullivan think so? “Your immediate grasp of the import of 9/11–a declaration of war–was correct.” I can’t think of anyone on 9/20 who didn’t grasp the import of 9/11. Grasping the obvious may have been a personal accomplishment for Bush, but as presidents go, it doesn’t rank him among the finest. War had been declared decades earlier. Bush changed the date because he wanted to declare war–on the wrong country.
“Your core judgment,” Sullivan continues, “that religious fanaticism allied with weapons of mass destruction represents a unique and new threat to the West–was and is dead on.” Munich in 1972… the World Trade Center bombing in 1993… the only thing unique and new about 9/11 was the astonishing success of the attack, for which Bush also bears some responsibility.
Sullivan goes on to make many worthy points, which have been made before, about the harm of torture, but his open-letter strategy, which gives this article its reason for being, is deeply flawed. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s not as naive as he seems to be, that he’s trying to flatter his way into Bush’s certain heart: Does he think flattery will get him somewhere? That Bush will read his essay? Be swayed by it? In Bush’s black and white world, East Coast and European intellectuals like Sullivan are themselves part of the Axis of Evil.
And even if Bush were swayed by Sullivan, would it matter? Would verbal responsibility give back what was taken from those who were tortured? Or would it restore Ali Ismael Abbas‘s arms, legs, or family?
Sullivan considers his letter “conciliatory,” but some crimes can’t be reconciled. No one can fix the damage. We should admit as much, look forward, and never let it happen again.

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