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The Power of Public Opinion
In the past few weeks, we've been reminded that public opinion can constrain the actions of government officials who seek to bring us into conflict with other nations. The Bush Administration's attempt to pressure Congress into granting it immunity to abuse and torture detainees – not only in the future but also for acts committed over the last five years – has been slowed and may be halted.
We can give public opinion in the U.S. and worldwide some credit for that. We can also hope that similarly organized and vocal public opposition will defeat war plans for Iran.
The White House has been trying to get legal immunity for abuses like sexual humiliation and induced hypothermia. They are responding to recent Supreme Court rulings, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and Rasul v. Bush, which declared, in part, that the Geneva Conventions apply to so-called "enemy combatants." Administration officials, CIA interrogators, and military contractors could thus be exposed to prosecution under the War Crimes Act, which outlaws violations of the Geneva Conventions.
If the Administration is successful, such impunity would allow awful abuses of detainees, almost all of whom have not been charged with a crime or allowed a fair hearing. It would also undermine respect for the Geneva Conventions worldwide, putting captured American soldiers at increased risk of torture.
The President's initiative has faced strong opposition that the White House apparently did not anticipate. Last Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved a bill that, while seriously flawed in other respects, rejected the War Crimes Act exemption. (The Senate's bill, like the White House proposal, would still allow the indefinite detention of detainees even after they have been acquitted of all charges, an outrage that deserves more attention and opposition.)
Unfortunately, yesterday the senators reached a "compromise" with the White House that looks more like a surrender. It would largely leave it up to the President to say what is and is not legal under the Geneva Conventions – and he is the one who wants to legalize torture. (To tell the Senate this is not acceptable, go here.)
Still, there are other signs of resistence. On Wednesday, two Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee joined Democrats in voting down a bill containing the White House provision. (The chairman then rounded up two missing Republicans and revoted, passing the bill.) One of the Republicans who joined the Democrats, Congressman Jeff Flake, has expressed doubts that the legislation will pass the floor of the House of Representatives.
U.S. and world public opinion are driving forces behind this Congressional rebellion on a prominent "national security issue." Two-thirds of Americans say torture is never acceptable, even when interrogating terrorism suspects, according to a poll conducted by ABC in May 2004.
That massive public opposition is being channeled to Congress by several grassroots organizations, including Amnesty International, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Act for Change, and the one where I work, Just Foreign Policy.
Like other opponents of the war crimes exemption, former Secretary of State Colin Powell cited world opinion in a public statement against weakening the war crimes law. He said, "The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. To redefine Common Article 3 [of the Geneva Conventions] would add to those doubts."
Meanwhile, with less public and media scrutiny, the Bush Administration is preparing the ground for a military attack on Iran.
The political context surrounding the preparations for military strikes on Iran is different from the run-up to the Iraq invasion. President Bush, rather than coasting on patriotic sentiments following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, is now hugely unpopular due to the horrendous, ongoing violence caused by the occupation of Iraq. A CBS/New York Times poll this week found the President has only a 37 percent approval rating. An ABC poll shows that 57 percent disapprove of his handling of the war. About half think the war was a mistake and more think it has made us less safe.
This public sentiment has a positive effect on the willingness of legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, to break with the President on "national security issues." But passive public opinion is not enough. We must organize and make visible public opinion in order to stop an attack on Iran.
The battle over war crimes impunity should inspire some confidence in the public's ability to constrain the administration, but we should not be complacent. Influential officials in the Bush administration really want a military confrontation with Iran. They are pulling out the stops to convince the public, hyping a non-existent threat. Even the CIA says Iran is five to ten years from even having the capability to make a nuclear bomb, assuming they want to, which the Iranians deny.
Despite the propaganda onslaught, 19 percent believe Iran poses no threat at all to the U.S. and an additional 55 percent of the population believe Iran can be handled diplomatically. This clear opposition to another unnecessary and dangerous war must be organized and mobilized. If we succeed, the ability of the public to constrain its leaders will be strengthened for the future.