Playing the heavy

September 17, 2006

President Bush has put his full weight and reputation behind a bill that would overthrow the laws of war and the traditions of this country in the treatment of terrorist suspects held overseas. His pugnacious hourlong news conference Friday made that clear. In the face of a revolt by senators of his own party, he wants a law that will "clarify" techniques of coercion in such a way that they can be described as something other than torture, that will open up the Geneva Conventions to reinterpretation as the administration sees fit, and that will establish a system of military commissions that could convict and sentence detainees without necessarily having to show those detainees the evidence against them.

Just how wrongheaded this all is even the president must vaguely realize. His own logic led him to declare at his news conference that he "would hope" that other nations, with which the United States might someday be at war, "would adopt the same standards we adopt." We bet that's not true. We hope, in fact, that this was an inadvertent remark, because it condones the gross abuse of U.S. soldiers who fall into enemy hands.

This is the crux of the matter, and it's why so many in the military are so horrified by the administration's bill. George Washington told his men to take the high road when dealing with British prisoners, and that has more or less been an American tradition ever since - one that reflects well on the United States, gives it moral stature in the world, and goes a long way toward protecting its own soldiers and sailors. A year ago, Vice President Dick Cheney was the point man in trying to undercut that tradition; he failed, as Congress passed the McCain amendment against torture. Now President Bush himself has taken up the fight against American decency and level-headedness.

Sen. John McCain is in the forefront of the resistance, joined by colleagues John W. Warner and Lindsey Graham. They won in committee and got a powerful assist last week from Colin L. Powell, the secretary of state during Mr. Bush's first term. He wrote Mr. McCain a letter that said, "The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism." Questioned about this, Mr. Bush on Friday lashed out by angrily proclaiming that Americans are more moral than terrorists, which isn't exactly what Mr. Powell was talking about.

This sudden push to get a bad bill through seems to have been concocted as a scheme to embarrass the Democrats before the elections; it's embarrassing the nation instead.

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