As a war correspondent, Mark Danner knows few equals. He writes with a literary flair, and he has an abiding focus on the plight of civilians rather than the strategies of generals. He brought us the death squads of El Salvador, the civil strife of Haiti, and the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia, and he took us on an extensive tour of Iraq’s infamous prison, Abu Ghraib. His work moves seamlessly from the war theater to the work of policy formation and implementation. I put six questions to Danner about his new book, Stripping Bare the Body, in which he surveys American efforts at nation-building from the last twenty-five years.
1. The title of your book comes from former Haitian President Leslie Manigat, and you introduce the volume with a quotation from Plato’s Republic that is obviously related to it. What led you to this epigram, and how do you relate it to your study of violent conflict stretching from Haiti, to the Balkans, to the boundaryless “War on Terror”?
Plato’s famous story about Leontius’ “divided soul”—though he doesn’t want to look at the freshly executed corpses, he finds himself forced to stare—seems to dovetail well with Leslie F. Manigat’s observation that political violence “strips bare the social body,” allowing us “to place the stethoscope and track the real life beneath the skin.” Manigat, who accepted power from the bloody hands of Duvalierist officers in the wake of 1987’s spectacularly violent aborted election, argues, in effect, that this is no bad thing: that Leontius should shed his guilt and look long and hard. For to understand the real workings of a society, one must find a way to see beneath the surface, and the most effective way to do that is through the portal of political violence. It is Manigat’s premise—and the premise of my book—that the interplay of class and power, of soldier and civilian, of history and contemporary struggle, that all of this and more can be seen most clearly during times of great upheaval, of revolution, coup d’état, of open class struggle and war.
Manigat the historian and political scientist showed himself a virtuoso at teasing out these subtle societal contradictions, in understanding the dynamics of Haiti’s “real life beneath the skin.” Alas, when he tried to profit from this knowledge as a practicing politician—when after a few months in the Palace he tried to become something other than a military-installed puppet by playing on the rivalries between the officers, the Duvalierist elite, and the Americans—he lost the game, and was overthrown and exiled in a coup d’état. His calculated risk that after the great bloodbath of the 1987 election the only road to the Palace led through the barracks, turned out to be only half true: Manigat had reached le fauteil—the presidential chair—but his attempt to use it as a tool in attaining true power failed badly. By accepting the Palace from the officers, he had alienated all those who should have been his allies: when the test of strength came and he needed support against the same soldiers and their guns, he had only himself and his own cleverness to draw on, and it was not enough.
2. The last of your essays on Haiti, published at the end of 1989, ends on a well-wrought note that fuses hope and despair: Marc Bazin presents a voice of reason and promise crackling on the radio, while a sudden flash flood reminds us that “when it rains in Haiti, the people have no shelter.” In the years that intervened, Bazin struggled to get 1% of the vote when he ran for president, and Haitians continue to be driven into the mud whenever the country suffers a strong rainstorm, but some observers see progress in Haiti. Has American intervention been futile?
In Haiti, as in other complex societies depicted in this book, American intervention is rarely futile, strictly speaking. It just brings effects quite different from—and sometimes diametrically opposed to—those the Americans had intended. The United States, the richest country on earth, has 300 million people and the world’s most powerful military. Haiti, one of the poorest countries on the planet, has seven million people and a rabble of untrained soldiers. Yet the Americans invaded and occupied Haiti twice in the last century with quite mixed results. The first invasion and the two decades of occupation that followed produced—as U.S. interventions so often do—a surge of nationalism that led, in its expression as noirisme, to the 30-year Duvalier dictatorship.
The second occupation, undertaken by President Bill Clinton, failed to disarm the bad guys, descendents of Duvalier’s Tonton Macoutes, and left the country a crippled ward of the international system. As you suggest, the American focus on Marc Bazin, for example, an impressive, American-trained economist who nonetheless had little popular support, demonstrates vividly American policymakers’ tendency to see what they want to see and ignore the reality in front of them, in this case the Aristide phenomenon.
In Manigat’s terms, the Americans proved an abject failure at “stripping bare the body” and “tracking the true life” beneath Haiti’s ever fascinating political skin. Though the American interventions had important consequences, the power of the United States to alter political dynamics on the ground in any precise way proved relatively limited. This was not only because of Haiti’s complexity and the Americans’ limited understanding of its society and politics but also because of the unavoidable effects of nationalist reaction, which, here as elsewhere, serves as a kind of political “uncertainty principle” frustrating or even reversing American intentions. American power is a sledgehammer, not a scalpel, and thus is in fact much more limited when judged by the only scale that should count: its ability to protect American interests.
3. Your essays on the Balkans present a parade of American delusions about the conflicts and the strength of the institutions that were engaged, ultimately coming down to NATO. In them, we see that broad promises mask missions that are actually far more narrowly drawn, fearing the use of power, even for humanitarian ends. But isn’t it also possible to portray this as a process of strengthening resolve to use force to create the conditions necessary for a lasting peace—feeling out a new role for NATO? In the end, didn’t NATO accomplish its essential mission in the Balkans?
In the Balkans, we saw large-scale forcible “ethnic cleansing”—the term, inaccurate as it is, originated there—the mass rape and murder of civilians, and Europe’s first genocide since World War II, all of it enacted in bright colors on our television screens. Death tolls are disputed, but certainly more than a hundred thousand civilians died in a conflict in which the West, within a year of its triumphant victory over the Soviet Union and its allies, essentially stood by and watched. Or rather, until the Clinton Administration finally took decisive action in 1995, Western nations contented themselves with sending their troops, outfitted in the “blue helmets” of the United Nations, to deliver flour and other staples to starving civilians in Sarajevo and other cities besieged by Serb artillery and snipers. The Bosnians had a name for the policy of the West: “Feeding the dead.”
It is hard to identify, frankly, NATO’s “essential mission in the Balkans.” Originally, James A. Baker III, President George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of State, declared that “we got no dog in this fight.” U.S. interests were thought not to be directly involved; the Europeans would be allowed to “handle” the conflict and let it “burn itself out,” with the Serbs—so it was thought—emerging as the early victors. But the brutality of the war caused political pressure, mostly from Europeans, that forced their governments to take action, however half-hearted; and that intervention in turn helped prevent the expected quick victory. In effect, the half-measures of the West turned the war into a bloody stalemate. The result was more death and a vivid demonstration of Western impotence. It made for a fascinating “stripping bare” of Western pretenses and an exposure of the “new world order” that the first President Bush had pronounced with such optimism only months before, at the close of his great victory in the First Gulf War.
The damage, I think, was quite severe, and not only in numbers of civilians killed and territory cleansed (for the cleansing in large part succeeded). The greater damage was to Western political and military authority, which had to be bolstered, in effect, by the air war launched against Serbia over Kosovo. Secondary consequences were the intervention in Somalia, launched in a redemptive mood by President Bush a month after he’d been defeated by Governor Clinton, which led to the famous “Black Hawk Down” fiasco under Clinton and the consequent refusal by his administration, fearing the dreaded “mission creep,” to take any action itself, or support any action by its allies, to prevent or stop genocide in Rwanda. I believe much of this appalling story could have been prevented by very early and decisive action to prevent the Balkan wars. Of course this could only have followed from a conviction that achieving such a result was a prime U.S. interest, and very few policymakers or sophisticated observers— George F. Kennan was one—believed this at the time.
4. After the Balkans, Afghanistan has become NATO’s new testing grounds. It’s clear that the effort there has been nearly as feckless as in the Balkans, with a mission in retrospect that failed to define and address the threat that the Taliban and its allies presented. Now President Obama is deliberating the first major decision of his presidency in terms of conflict, as General McChrystal recommends a substantial ramp-up of the U.S. military effort. How do you reconcile this with the record of the Balkans, and what does it tell you about NATO’s ability to grapple with these conflicts?
When one talks of “NATO’s ability to grapple with” anything, one must start with the premise that in this alliance the United States is primus inter pares—has far and away the most soldiers and other critical military assets—and that its own commitment and clarity, or lack thereof, dominates. In the Balkans, lack of U.S. leadership was critical. In Afghanistan, we, and Obama’s new administration, are living with the decision of George W. Bush and his administration to turn their eyes very early on from Afghanistan to Iraq. From the beginning the American footprint was to be very small, in part because it was clear by late fall of 2001 that the United States would likely “do Iraq next.” The Europeans were well aware of this. So, of course, were the Afghans, including the Taliban.
This is Obama’s starting point. For him in Afghanistan I think the hour is very late, not only because of the gains the Taliban has made, and the weakness of the Afghan government, but also because American domestic support for the war is eroding with every American casualty. Obama and those around him clearly are intensely aware of this, and one can see their reluctance to jump in feet first, their determination to maintain some sort of viable way out, with every day’s statements. Meanwhile, those in the military seeking a substantial increase in troops to “complete the mission” have now helped to secure a greater commitment from the NATO allies, something Obama has sought—but that also has the effect of limiting his own field of decision. In Afghanistan, I think Obama will choose a “middle course” and try to leave himself some maneuvering room; but the fact is there is no right choice that will bring a clean end to the war, and in the worst of all worlds the conflict’s endless bloody unfolding could undermine his entire presidency. He must be intensely concerned to avoid that.
5. Your essays played an essential role in demonstrating that torture and prisoner abuse occurred as a matter of formal policy of the Bush Administration. In the meantime, the defensive game pursued by figures like Dick Cheney has gone from heaping blame on “bad apples” to accepting ownership of these policies and insisting that they “keep America safe.” Even though Obama promises to “look forward, not back,” this puts the accountability question in sharper focus than before, and the flow of disclosures is relentless. How do you expect to see the accountability question unfold?
Those who thought the Obama Administration would come in with a blazing white sword to bring light and truth to all these terrible policies have been painfully disappointed. We are embarked on a very long story, with no easily charted plot line, no readily identified climax, and no conclusion in sight. All of us, including Barack Obama and his administration, are all still living in “Bush’s State of Exception,” and it is clear by now that the way out will come not by hacking through it with a machete but by finding a pathway through with a compass. This is dismaying and maddening; but it is what it is.
My sense is President Obama may have underestimated the resistance he would encounter on many of these issues—and the political cost of taking the steps he thought he wanted to take. He is confronting two battles, one within the administration, another outside it. I think the former vice president has been extremely effective in terrifying many politicians by reminding them once again how torture can be used as a badge of national security credibility, and how its renunciation can be deployed as a weapon to brand one “soft on national security” who “coddles terrorists.” We knew these arguments well, of course; what is surprising is how effective they can still be in the hands of someone as politically ruthless and aggressive as Cheney.
Some of these problems are immensely complicated and admit of no easy solution. I oppose the idea of prolonged or indefinite detention—but some people I respect support it as the least bad solution to a vexing problem: Could we release someone like Khalid Sheik Mohammed, for example, if we were unable legitimately to convict him? (That “legitimately” is important, I think; for the other path is to alter the existing legal framework to such an extent that it becomes, through what might be criticized as wholesale corruption of the law, much easier to convict him and his alleged colleagues.)
Presumably we will be hearing from Obama’s task forces on this and other issues: we are, as I say, only at the beginning of what may well be a deeply dispiriting journey. For my part, I believe the administration has chosen a more difficult path by ruling out a commission on the 9/11 model, however flawed that might have been, to investigate many of these matters and add vital independent political weight to its conclusions. The “middle path” that has resulted, with the possibility of investigations and even prosecutions of those interrogators who “went beyond” the waterboarding and other harsh techniques that the Bush Administration policymakers and lawyers permitted, risks an outcome similar to the disgrace of Abu Ghraib, where you had obvious lawbreaking by policymakers and other high officials left uninvestigated and unpunished and lower-level people suffering—however repulsive their actions—what was in effect scapegoating. Perhaps the prosecutor’s work will lead inexorably to a more thorough and honest investigation, as some believe; but I fear that, when it comes to accountability, it may leave us in the worst of all worlds.
6. Your final essay looks at the “War on Terror” through the eyes of George Orwell, and particularly his writing at the end of World War II. You cite a passage in an article by Ron Suskind in which he quotes an “unnamed Administration official” widely thought to be Karl Rove: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” To what extent can the experiences the U.S. faced under Bush in both Iraq and Afghanistan be traced directly to this imperial hubris?
A clear theme running through my book is the tendency of our leaders and policymakers to exaggerate the extent and reach of American power, and to misconceive its character. I think this has been true of many but the leaders of the Bush Administration really do stand out. There is no doubt that the United States can bring to bear a vast and unprecedented power to destroy: with our military technology we can obliterate cities, wipe whole countries off the map, if we so choose. But building—somehow constructing a new political order, reconstructing a society: this we very often lack the wisdom and the agility and the resilience to accomplish. We are not smart enough, not subtle enough; we are bewildered by resistance, flummoxed by the nationalist reaction that we ourselves can’t help provoking. When things get difficult and our people begin to grow impatient, we prove reluctant to expend the political capital necessary to convince them to keep going: we don’t have the staying power. The thing exceeds our grasp.
In all this George W. Bush and his colleagues proved only to be the clearest and most dramatic instance of a general phenomenon. In our post-World War II history they were, however, unique among U.S. leaders in their attitudes toward power: their conviction that this so-called “uni-polar moment,” in which the United States was unchallenged in its supremacy, had to be seized and exploited. My favorite quotation from the Bush years comes from the National Security Strategy of 2005: our enemies and rivals, it tells us, “employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes, and terrorism.” This is an extremely radical attitude, suggesting that even international courts and the United Nations are simply stratagems by which weaker states —which is to say, all states—seek to hobble American power. This radical attitude stands directly opposed to the central philosophy that drove, soon after the war, the so-called Wise Men—Truman, Acheson, Marshall, Kennan and the others—in which U.S. power would be vastly increased and made less threatening by embedding it in international institutions. NATO, the UN, the World Bank: these were their simple and powerful answers to the inevitable “realist” conundrum, according to which the dominant state naturally provokes all the other powers to combine their forces to offset it.
The Bush Administration’s unrealistic attitude toward American power led to a great many self-inflicted wounds: here we are way beyond “imperial hubris.” Had the aggressive attitude been combined with clever policymaking, with a president and senior officials who understood how to maximize their resources through a deft hand in planning and execution, the damage of the imperial vision might not have been so great. But under George W. Bush, as Ron Suskind and other writers have shown, the entire interagency process was a disaster. Decisions were made by a tiny group around the president, a group that showed itself contemptuous of the information and analysis coming from below and incompetent in imposing decisions on the national security bureaucracies. Many past administrations have been torn by rivalries among senior officials; but for sheer incompetence in policymaking and execution, the Bush Administration really stands alone.
Now, of course, the American Gaze has moved on. The great spotlight that illuminated Iraq for a half dozen years has moved elsewhere, leaving the ruins we’ve left behind mostly in darkness. And except for the occasional bright flash of the latest act of violence sufficient in scale to rise to our attention, that is how it will remain. This also is an American, if not an imperial, trait: the power to forget. It is a losing battle, but one likes to hope that one writes about these things in part to fight, if only in the smallest way, against it.