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Wednesday, June 22, 2005
Durbin's mea culpa
In political communications training, you learn that the best way to get out from under a negative story you created, is to apologize quickly and move on. Looks like Dick Durbin learned that the hard way this week and finally issued his apology on Tuesday. Although I think it was the right thing to do given the outcry, I'm still with Andrew Sullivan and others who say the reaction to his comments was out of proportion to their actual content and meaning. (Here's a link to Sullivan's original post on the matter -- I frequently disagree with him, but on this he's spot on). From Tuesday:

"If Durbin had said, as Amnesty unfortunately did, that Gitmo was another Gulag, I'd be dismayed and critical, as I was with Amnesty. There's no comparison in any way between the scale, intent and context of the Soviet gulags and Gitmo. If Durbin had said that what was being done there in the aggregate was comparable to Auschwitz or Siberian death camps, the same would be true. But Durbin said something subtler. Now I know subtlety is not something that plays well on talk radio. But in this case, it matters. Durbin focused on one very credible account of inhumane treatment and abuse of detainees ... and asked an important question:

"If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime--Pol Pot or others--that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners."

So go ahead: answer his implied question. If you had been told that prisoners had been found in this state in one of Saddam's or Stalin's jails, would you have believed it? Of course, you would. In fact, I spent much time and effort before the war documenting the cruel and inhumane conduct of the regime we were trying to
destroy - a regime whose cruelty encompassed low-level inhumanity like Gitmos - and, of course, unimaginably worse.

Let's be real, here. No one can seriously believe that the United States Senator from Illinois likens American troops to Nazi or Soviet storm troopers -- he was criticizing a specific account of poor detainee treatment to make a larger point about the Bush administration's overall policies on detainees, and the way those policies have stained America's reputation.

The point -- and this is of no use to those who simply want to use Durbin's misstep for GOP political gain -- is that the picture painted in that FBI memo would never have been believable as an account of American behavior, even ten years ago. But it is believable now, and not because of our troops -- but rather because of the shoddy policies of their civilian leaders. I'll say it again -- I cringed initially when I heard Durbin's statement, because I know a number of men and women in uniform, and tend to believe that our troops are 99 percent good people doing their jobs in very tough circumstances. I can even understand that when put under the kind of pressure they're under, some will behave badly. But I'm with the late, great Col. Hackworth, who spent the last years of his life documenting the ineptitude and carelessness of the civilian leaders (and in some cases, the uniformed leadership) that is putting our military, and our country's reputation, at risk.

The interrogators at Guantanamo Bay are under enormous pressure to get useful intelligence, and they can only do what they are permitted to do by their commanders, and ultimately by the Pentagon. They are acting under the Rumsfeld Rules, not the Geneva Convention, and that ultimately undermines America's case around the world.

Durbin did a poor job making that point because he lashed out in frustration. And he was ultimately right to apologize, from both a P.R. standpoint and a sociopolitical one. But he isn't the first Senator to invoke the Nazi comparison. Wasn't it Rick Santorum of nearby PA who called Democrats Nazis for wanting to preserve the fillibuster?

No matter, Durbin finally gave up the ghost and did a full-on mea culpa (Hill version) Tuesday, apparently in part due to a nudge from John McCain. Here's a link to the full text, and a clip:

“Mr. President, I have come to understand that was a very poor choice of words. I tried to make this very clear last Friday that I understood to those analogies to the Nazis, Soviets and others were poorly chosen. I issued a release which I thought made my intentions and my inner-most feeling as clear as I possibly could.”

“Let me read to you what I said. ‘I have learned from my statement that historical parallels can be misused and misunderstood. I sincerely regret if what I said causes anybody to misunderstand my true feelings. Our soldiers around the world and their families at home deserve our respect, admiration and total support.’”

“Mr. President, it is very clear that even though I thought I had said something that clarified the situation, to many people it was still unclear. I'm sorry if anything that I said caused any offense or pain to those who have such bitter memories of the Holocaust, the greatest moral tragedy of our time. Nothing, nothing should ever be said to demean or diminish that moral tragedy.”

“I'm also sorry if anything I said in any way cast a negative light on our fine men and women in the military. I went to Iraq just a few months ago with Senator Harry Reid and a bipartisan Senate delegation. When you look in the eyes of the soldiers you see your son and daughter. They are the best. I never, ever intended any disrespect for them.”

“Some may believe that my remarks crossed a line. To them, I extend my heartfelt apologies.”

Will that end it? Probably not. Not with Rumsfeld and his friends at Fox News and elsewhere out there comparing Durbin to Hanoi Jane... not with folks like John Hinderaker of Powerline actually assertingthings like "Americans heart Gitmo" -- in apparent defense of the tactics authorized by the Pentagon (tactics I assume they stipulate to being real and not made up by Dan Rather) -- no matter how unworthy of America's traditions and values those tactics may be (althought there's always hope) -- and certainly not when it comes time for him to seek reelection. Which is a shame.
posted by JReid @ 12:31 AM  
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"I am for enhanced interrogation. I don't believe waterboarding is torture... I'll do it. I'll do it for charity." -- Sean Hannity
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