Can Walter Russell Mead Walk the US Right Back from Torture?


Walter Russell Mead is an exceptional blogger in IR. If you don’t read him, you should. He can somehow write lengthy, intellectually rich, and sharply incisive posts on foreign policy almost everyday, while at the same time being one of the best diplomatic historians in the US. (Start here.) I am baffled, because my best posts take hours to write, and there is no way I could do my job well and simultaneously blog well every day. Even more amazing for a social science writer, some of his posts are genuinely moving, like this and especially the one I discuss below. Do these guys ever see their families, write even on Christmas morning, go to the movies? I just don’t know where the time comes from…

Perhaps most important politically is his conservatism. Quality conservative punditry was simply decimated by the Bush era. The rise of the Ann Coulter-Rush Limbaugh-Michelle Malkin-Glenn Beck-Sean Hannity set has done terrible damage. Glenn Greenwald has built an entire career just around lampooning and deconstructing this stuff, it’s so prevalent. And Fox News – so relentlessly craven before GOP power, so desirous of  grievance and anger, so aggressively loathesome of academia and learning – has just pushed me over the edge. As an example of the collapse of the intellectually rich conservative movement into partisan hackery, look at the great work of Irving Kristol – one the writers that thrilled my mind and pulled me into the conservative movement back in the 1990s. Then look at how low the son – once so promising as the founder of the Weekly Standard (WS) – has fallen, accusing the Justice Department last week of being the ‘Department of Jihad.’ I remember reading National Review in college, WS when I worked for a GOP congressman in the 90s, and then even Commentary after 9/11. I remember when WS was supposed to be the Right’s equivalent of the New Republic – smart, rooted in learning, not so partisan as to prevent re-consideration and flexibility. I scarcely look at that stuff anymore…

Given the right-wing echo chamber, built around Fox, talk radio, and shock-jock set, Mead plays a critical role, and I hope the pro-torture Right in the US will carefully read this. Money quotes:

The KGB undertook a ruthless and savage repression in Lithuania.  The old Gestapo prison came in handy; the communists tortured and murdered thousands of Lithuanians in padded, soundproofed cells just a few blocks from the city’s cathedral

Today the solitary confinement cells, the cells where prisoners were forced to stand in icy water and beaten brutally when they fell, the holding cells for the condemned and the execution ground are all open for visitors.  Garish and clunky Soviet high tech phones and communications devices are still in the guardrooms. [I am] standing in the cellar of the KGB prison, admiring the ingenuously designed torture cells, retracing the final steps of the prisoners on their journey from the condemned cells to the execution yard.

Visiting places like Lithuania, and seeing sights like the KGB/Gestapo HQ reminds me what the stakes are in American foreign policy.

What we do matters.  Developing American power and reinforcing its economic foundations at home, building alliances, promoting democracy, deterring aggressors: when we do these things well, people thrive.  When we fail, they die miserably, and in droves.

Hear, hear to the notion that US power is generally good for the world! I certainly agree. But maybe the Right will listen to Mead about why the US is a morally good power. It’s not some vague Hegelian metaphysics of ‘American exceptionalism’; it’s because of what we do and not do – like not torturing people like the Gestapo or KGB did, like giving people trials, even though we loathe them. Only willful blindness will allow you to feel the moral power of Mead’s description but not simultaneous sadness over Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo.

Mead’s salvo may be oblique, but it’s important, because he writes for the American Interest. Please tell the Right that torture is not some punchline, but an inversion of America’s moral identity.

1 thought on “Can Walter Russell Mead Walk the US Right Back from Torture?

  1. Pingback: The Normalization of Torture, and, oh yeah, Obama is Probably the Anti-Christ… « Asian Security & US Foreign Relations Blog

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