In his final months in office, President Bush is desperately trying to improve his place in history. Yet last Saturday, he vetoed a bill that would have banned the CIA's use of interrogation techniques that are not in the Army Field Manual. Ensuring his title as torturer in chief is not as inconsistent with his hopes for history as it might seem, however.
The quest for a positive legacy dictates what the president does these days. His Middle East peace conference in Annapolis in November and his follow up trip in January were designed to showcase his interest in peace. After all, not only did he spend several hours at his one-day conference, but he dedicated a whole week to visiting the region.
The Goal Isn't Peace
His approach to achieving peace, however, is not based on diplomacy but his experience as a cheerleader in college. With a few shouts of encouragement, he left the parties to work things out. They haven't been able to do that for about 60 years, but and have made the most progress when the United States was actively engaged. But then, the goal is not to actually achieve peace, which is beyond the reach of a lame duck with a short attention span. It is to establish Bush's claim of responsibility in the event anything good happens after he leaves office.
Another legacy building effort was his trip to Africa last month. The president made much of the increased aid that has gone to the continent, especially to those who have AIDS. It was not a problem that received his attention in the early years of the administration.
Chance to Proselytize
Then in 2002 the religious right saw an opportunity not just to relieve suffering, but also a chance to proselytize and preach ineffective abstinence programs -- all at government expense. Bush immediately signed on because it allowed him to reward a key constituency and to project a kinder, gentler face in early 2003 as he marched inexorably to war in Iraq.
But that war has put his legacy at risk because it is the accomplishment for which he will be most remembered. Invading a country with no weapons of mass destruction, ties to 9/11 or al Qaeda at a cost that may reach $3 trillion, breaking the armed forces and making America less safe are the fruits of his imperial adventure in Mesopotamia.
It is, therefore, because of Iraq that he had to veto the torture ban. Never mind that a group of religious leaders wrote him calling torture an ''intrinsic evil'' that must be ''absolutely'' rejected or that dozens of generals and admirals have pointed out that how America treats its prisoners will affect how U.S. troops are handled if captured by the enemy.
And it is irrelevant that, as the administration and any trained interrogator knows, intelligence produced by torture is not just inadmissible in court. It is also worthless. As the Field Manual points out: ``torture is a poor technique that yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say what he thinks the collector wants to hear.''
The administration had to endorse torture nonetheless because what matters most is convincing the American people the world is a scary place. So scary that only officials willing to trash what this country supposedly stands for can make us safe. And so scary that invading Iraq was justified.
The politics of fear is nothing new for the regime in power and enjoys the support of a chorus of conservative cowards like Justice Antonin Scalia and much of the right wing media.
It works so well, other politicians are eager to copy the technique.
John McCain, recently seen embracing Bush on the steps of the White House, has made much of his experience as a prisoner of war. And yet he refused to support the ban. His tortured rationale was that a few surprise techniques are necessary to keep the bad guys from training to withstand those that are publicly acknowledged.
But then McCain's prospects for becoming president, like Bush's chances for improving his place in history, depend on scaring Americans enough to paralyze their brains.
Dennis Jett is a former U.S. ambassador to Peru and Mozambique. His book, Why American Foreign Policy Fails, will be published in May.
Copyright 2008 Miami Herald Media Co.