Pro-Torture Warmongers Attack Donald Trump for Going Overboard

Some of Trump's critics have no standing to criticize him, given their own history of supporting the same kinds of things they're attacking him for.

Walter Skold of Freeport, Maine, holds a "Dump Trump" sign at a campaign stop for the Republican presidential candidate, Thursday, March 3, 2016, in Portland, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Walter Skold of Freeport, Maine, holds a "Dump Trump" sign at a campaign stop for the Republican presidential candidate, Thursday, March 3, 2016, in Portland, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) Photo: Robert F. Bukaty/AP

Over 90 “members of the Republican national security community” have now signed an open letter to express their united opposition to a Donald Trump presidency. The letter makes many reasonable criticisms of Trump for his “military adventurism,” “embrace of the expansive use of torture,” and “admiration for foreign dictators such as Vladimir Putin.”

But some of Trump’s critics have no standing here, given that they’ve publicly supported or even directly participated in the same kinds of things for which they are now criticizing him.

To begin with, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was the definition of military adventurism. Yet it was fervently applauded by many of the letter’s signatories, such as:

  • Eliot Cohen, co-organizer of the letter and a top official at the State Department during the last two years of George W. Bush’s presidency. Cohen was a prominent supporter of the Project for a New American Century, a key think tank in the push for regime change in Iraq, and a member of the advisory board of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. Among his stated reasons that the U.S. should attack Iraq was the fantasy that “Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of the 9/11 terrorists, met with Iraqi intelligence in Prague.” (After 9/11, Cohen also called for regime change in Iran, though it was unclear whether he believed this necessitated a U.S. invasion.)
  • Robert Joseph, member of Bush’s National Security Council during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Joseph played a key role in the inclusion in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address of the notorious claim that “Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
  • Philip Zelikow, member of Bush’s transition team and the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, and later executive director of the 9/11 Commission. In the summer of 2002, Zelikow said about Iraq, “We can’t wait for these folks to deliver the weapons of mass destruction and see what they do with them before we act.”
  • Niall Ferguson, prominent Harvard historian. Ferguson proudly wrote soon after the invasion of Iraq that “I am a fully paid-up member of the neoimperialist gang. Twelve years ago — when it was not at all fashionable to say so — I was already arguing that it would be ‘desirable for the United States to depose’ tyrants like Saddam Hussein.”

While the letter states, “We have disagreed with one another on many issues, including the Iraq War,” I have not been able to find evidence that any of the signatories publicly opposed the war before it began. (If you’re aware of such evidence, please send it to me.) Asked about this section of the letter, Cohen said, “Without going back through everybody’s history, I think some of the signatories were against the war, period.”

As for torture, Trump has in fact said that as president he would authorize its use by U.S. forces. During a February debate, he proclaimed: “I would bring back waterboarding, and I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”

But several of the signatories have expressed support for torture as well:

  • Robert Blackwill, National Security Council deputy for Iraq from 2003 to 2004. Blackwill said in 2005, “Of course torture should not be widespread and of course there should be extraordinarily stringent top-down requirements in this respect. But never? … I wouldn’t say never. … I’m not an absolutist in this regard.”
  • Michael Chertoff, former head of the Justice Department’s criminal division and secretary of homeland security during the Bush administration. According to the New York Times, while at the Justice Department, Chertoff advised the Central Intelligence Agency on the legality of various abusive interrogation techniques. Among the methods that Chertoff said would not trigger prosecution was strapping a subject down and making him experience a feeling of drowning.
  • Max Boot, journalist. Boot wrote after the recent release of the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture that he believed it was probable that “the use of torture was related to the success in defending our homeland from follow-up attacks.”
  • Reuel Marc Gerecht, former director of the Middle East Initiative at the Project for the New American Century. In 2008, Gerecht called waterboarding an “ugly but defensible act” if U.S. officials believe it to be “required to save Americans from another 9/11.”

Asked whether the critique of Trump’s “embrace of the expansive use of torture” was worded so that advocates of less expansive torture like Blackwill would be comfortable signing, Cohen responded, “I don’t think Bob would say that he advocates torture. … I differ on waterboarding with some of my former Bush administration colleagues (I’m against it, and firmly so), but I think they honestly do not consider it torture.” As noted above, Blackwill specified that he did not categorically object to “torture.”

As for Putin, it’s true that Trump and the Russian president seem to have formed a peculiar mutual admiration society. But signatories of the anti-Trump letter don’t just admire foreign dictatorships, they get paid by them:

  • Robert Blackwill. After retiring from his position with the Bush administration, Blackwill went on to become president of the lobbying firm Barbour Griffith & Rogers, International. During this period, BGR represented Eritrea, the private equity firm of Dubai’s emir, and Blackwill’s personal client, Iraqi strongman Ayad Allawi. Eritrea has been ruled since 1993 by the same dictator, with widespread torture of political prisoners and some of the worst restrictions on speech on earth. Dubai is a hereditary monarchy that brutalizes migrant workers. And Allawi, Iraq’s interim prime minister from 2004 to 2005, is widely rumored to have personally murdered several prisoners at a Baghdad police station just before taking office.
  • Dov Zakheim, undersecretary of defense during the Bush administration. After leaving government, Zakheim was a senior vice president at the giant security contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, which counts Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as top clients.

In the end, then, the anti-Trump letter comes across a little like Reggie Bush criticizing Cam Newton for showboating. They’re simply unhappy that Trump is taking their own policies a bit too far.

Additional reporting: Zaid Jilani.

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