Tortuous Waffling, Abroad and At Home

Condoleezza Rice goes abroad, political magazines debate torture and Ken Auletta subjects the publisher of the New York Times to an interrogation of his own.

This past week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice toured Europe, where she faced question after question about the U.S military’s treatment of prisoners and the Bush administration’s policy on torture. Time magazine was there, and, it reports this week, there were so many concerns raised along the way that some U.S. diplomats began referring to Rice’s trip as the “Secret Prisons Tour.”

“After months of relative silence from the Bush Administration on the topic of torture, Rice declared before taking off that the U.S. ‘does not permit, tolerate or condone torture under any circumstances,’” reported Time. “In so doing, Rice appeared to accept a more restrictive standard than Vice President Dick Cheney, who has been trying — so far in vain — to get an exemption for CIA officers in the legislation that Arizona Senator John McCain has pushed to ban torture and other inhumane treatment.”

Elsewhere in the world according to newsweeklies, the editors at U.S. News & World Report saw Rice’s statements not as a step away from Cheney, but rather as a step toward … Bill Clinton.

“Lately, the president and his aides have appeared uncharacteristically Clintonesque, employing carefully crafted denials that appear intended to provide little clarity — and lots of wiggle room,” reported U.S. News. “Both Bush and Rice, for example, insist that the United States does not torture, but each declines to define what is — and is not — torture.”

Call it denial. Or call it a small step in a new direction. Either way, the editors at the Economist were less than impressed.

“It is hard to know which is worse: an administration that cannot understand that something is wrong, or one that grasps the problem but thinks it can fiddle its way through,” reported the Economist. “The Bush administration seems torn between these approaches when it comes to the issue of torture.”

Last week, writing in The Weekly Standard, Charles Krauthammer dispensed with the Clintonesque euphemisms and came out squarely in favor of torture.

“Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it?” asked Krauthammer. “Now, on most issues regarding torture, I confess tentativeness and uncertainty. But on this issue, there can be no uncertainty: Not only is it permissible to hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.”

This week, Andrew Sullivan, writing in the New Republic, offered a rebuttal.

“Let me state for the record that I am second to none in decrying, loathing, and desiring to defeat those who wish to replace freedom with religious tyranny of the most brutal kind — and who have murdered countless innocent civilians in cold blood,” wrote Sullivan. “Their acts are monstrous and barbaric. But I differ from Krauthammer by believing that monsters remain human beings. In fact, to reduce them to a subhuman level is to exonerate them of their acts of terrorism and mass murder — just as animals are not deemed morally responsible for killing. Insisting on the humanity of terrorists is, in fact, critical to maintaining their profound responsibility for the evil they commit.”

“And, if they are human, then they must necessarily not be treated in an inhuman fashion,” added Sullivan. “You cannot lower the moral baseline of a terrorist to the subhuman without betraying a fundamental value.”

Finally, no discussion of American journalism and tortuous waffling would be complete without a discussion of goings-on at the New York Times — in particular, the goings-on in the office of Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. In this week’s New Yorker, Ken Auletta gives Sulzberger the same treatment he once gave to former Times editor Howell Raines.

Sizing up Sulzberger in the wake of the Judy Miller fiasco, Auletta writes:

“One often hears it said that Sulzberger lacks sufficient gravitas for a man in his position, which is perhaps another way of saying that he is still more a prince than a mature king. Sulzberger’s hair has begun to turn gray and to recede, and yet, like Tom Hanks in the movie ‘Big,’ he seems to be only impersonating an older man. He is often known as Young Arthur, and, behind his back, people still call him Pinch, in contrast to his father, Punch. He tends to draw attention to himself with a loud cackle or an awkwardly offhand remark.”

Ouch. But it could have been worse. At least, Auletta didn’t compare Sulzberger to Tom Hanks in another role that comes to mind — specifically, Hanks as Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities.

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.