Undoing the damage

A diabolical plot has been uncovered to severely damage America’s once-proud image as a global superpower that is also a beacon of civility and humanity.

And it looks like our best (and maybe only) chance for halting the damage-doers before they shatter what is left of America’s global image is to hope that the nation’s most patriotic conservative hard-liners will be so outraged that they will rush into battle.

These conservatives are our best hope because the leaders of the damage-doers are their ideological kin — a trio that has apparently confused being hard-line with being hardheaded: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the men he works for, President Bush and Vice President Cheney.

The Los Angeles Times reported this week that the Defense Department has decided that the new edition of the U.S. Army Field Manual detainee policies will no longer contain a key passage that adheres to the Geneva Conventions’ ban on “humiliating and degrading treatment.” The newspaper attributed its report to “knowledgeable military officials” and noted that omitting the Geneva protections was “a step that would mark a further, potentially permanent, shift away from strict adherence to international human-rights standards.”

The Pentagon decision must be put into the context of our times. Since 1949, the United States and all other law-respecting countries abided by a set of basic standards in the Geneva Conventions for the humane treatment of prisoners of war and other detainees. The Geneva provisions ban torture and cruel treatment of prisoners of war. Article 3 goes further by banning “humiliating and degrading treatment” of all who are detained as unlawful combatants in addition to military personnel who are in the traditional category of prisoners of war. These conventions were adhered to by Republican and Democratic presidents. Through times that were tough, tortuous and threatening, the Geneva standards were the law that applied to all.

That was then; this is now: After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush suspended portions of the Geneva Conventions for detainees suspected of being members of al Qaeda and the Taliban. Then came those photos from inside the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq — U.S. troops degrading prisoners by stripping them naked and piling them on top of each other, putting them on leashes held by a female guard, and so on. The world recoiled in revulsion. Now there are increasingly incriminating reports of a massacre of men, women and children in Haditha. And that ghastly specter, which could be partly attributed to troops who snapped under combat stress, is followed by further revelations that cannot be dismissed: an apparent systematic cover-up by officials who were not in the combat, but well up in the chain of command.

Now this: In April, the Pentagon was supposed to publish its new Army Field Manual that omitted the Geneva provisions. But State Department officials objected strongly, according to the Times.

The Bush administration’s intramural controversy is apparently being appealed to the White House, even as we speak. You will not be shocked to know that Cheney has weighed in, backing the Pentagon version that omits the standards.

The Bush White House is not a place where voices of liberals or middle-roaders resonate. But conservative voices seem to carry well inside the chambers and corridors of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Now and then the clout and counsel of conservatives outside the administration have been known to influence policy.

Washington’s most patriotic and hard-line conservatives in Congress and in the think tanks know well that the biggest war we have to fear is a world war where the epic battle is about hearts and minds. Bush knows this because he created a new top State Department office for public diplomacy and installed his friend Karen Hughes to run it. Now, if the Pentagon manual is printed without the Geneva standards, it will cause so much global damage to America’s image — on top of all the rest that has gone down — that the president might as well tell Hughes to go home to Texas because hers will become a battle that cannot be won.

Conservative hard-liners, being patriots, remember the decades of pride when America was viewed globally as being a superpower that was on the side of civility and humanity. They need to speak up forcefully — now! — to save the president from the hardheadedness that has undone so much of what was once so good about America’s image abroad.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)