By PAUL KORING
Toronto Globe and Mail
November 17, 2005
Much of what the president built - the Patriot Act; secret detention centers in extralegal, if not illegal, twilight zones; "extraordinary renditions" (extraditing suspects across international boundaries without following normal court procedures) - rested on a deep foundation of trust. A shaken U.S. population was willing to accept that extraordinary measures and tactics were needed to safeguard the nation from a new and deadly enemy that didn't play by the old rules of war.
More than four years later, polls show that Americans feel increasingly betrayed by a government that led them to war on what now seem to be false - and perhaps deliberately false - pretenses.
It is a reality that, if he cannot reverse it, leaves the president badly weakened, without the long coattails he might otherwise offer candidates in the midterm election and the next presidential vote.
Nearly six in 10 Americans now say they don't believe the president is telling the truth or has high ethical standards, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released last week.
The tide of doubt rose in the wake of the indictment of the vice president's chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, accused of lying to a grand jury about who leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
That, plus the latest revelations that the United States is likely holding suspects in secret offshore prisons in Eastern Europe, now threatens to engulf the administration as it battles to restore a measure of credibility and leadership.
"There's a sense that the administration is now vulnerable," said Ellen O'Connell, a professor specializing in the law of war at Notre Dame Law School. The indictment of Libby may "have given people the courage to speak out," she added.
With new allegations of beating and torture surfacing almost weekly, the rights of detainees are becoming an issue of surprisingly great public concern, given that few Americans know, or even know much about, any of those detained.
Yet their rights now rank second (only narrowly behind the perennial hot-button topic of abortion) in importance to Americans, according to an extensive survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. And the president has been forced to insist to an increasingly disbelieving public that: "We do not torture."
Bush's key allies in the war on terror, who have buttressed his case in the past, are also under attack.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair's package of new tough anti-terrorist measures that would have stripped suspects of many civil rights was bluntly defeated by Parliament, a stunning rebuff to Bush's closest ally. Forty-nine of Blair's own Labor MPs helped kill off the proposed legislation. It was the prime minister's first major defeat in eight years in office.
It's the same in Australia, where Prime Minister John Howard, another stalwart partner in the so-called war against terror, had to scrap plans to legislate sweeping new police powers in suspected terrorism cases because he faced a similar revolt in Parliament. Public opinion polls showed that most Australians did not support the measures.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court said it would review whether the Bush administration has the power to create military tribunals to conduct war-crimes trials of terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay. It will be a key test of the administration's policy in the war on terrorism.
In the Republican-controlled Congress, there are growing fears that an unfettered anti-terrorist campaign is too open to abuse, and that it defeats the larger aim of winning hearts and minds across the Muslim world.
The Senate voted this week to allow terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay to appeal to federal courts their verdicts by military tribunals, even as senators sustained an earlier vote to otherwise curb the prisoners' rights. The Guantanamo amendment was added to a bill authorizing defense policies that also had language to bar torture and require humane treatment of detainees in U.S. custody in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.
So grim and ironic is the debate over torture that one of the president's staunchest allies on the war in Iraq, Sen. John McCain, who was tortured for years as a prisoner in Vietnam, is tacking an amendment - a provocative ban on "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" - to all legislation.
Vice President Dick Cheney, meanwhile, is seeking a specific exemption for the CIA, saying the agency shouldn't be bound by any congressional rules outlawing torture, thereby reinforcing deep suspicions that torture, or near-torture, is not just an illegal exception.
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