It is not yet clear whether George W Bush is planning to cross the Atlantic to flog us his memoirs, but if I were his PR people I would urge caution. As book tours go, this one would be an absolute corker. It is not just that every European capital would be brought to a standstill, as book-signings turned into anti-war riots. The real trouble – from the Bush point of view – is that he might never see Texas again.
One moment he might be holding forth to a great perspiring tent at Hay-on-Wye. The next moment, click, some embarrassed member of the Welsh constabulary could walk on stage, place some handcuffs on the former leader of the Free World, and take him away to be charged. Of course, we are told this scenario is unlikely. Dubya is the former leader of a friendly power, with whom this country is determined to have good relations. But that is what torture-authorising Augusto Pinochet thought. And unlike Pinochet, Mr Bush is making no bones about what he has done.
Unless the 43rd president of the United States has been grievously misrepresented, he has admitted to authorising and sponsoring the use of torture. Asked whether he approved of “waterboarding” in three specific cases, he told his interviewer that “damn right” he did, and that this practice had saved lives in America and Britain. It is hard to overstate the enormity of this admission.
“Waterboarding” is a disgusting practice by which the victim is deliberately made to think that he is drowning. It is not some cunning new psych-ops technique conceived by the CIA. It has been used in the dungeons of dictators for centuries. It is not compatible either with the US constitution or the UN convention against torture. It is deemed to be torture in this country, and above all there is no evidence whatever that it has ever succeeded in doing what Mr Bush claimed. It does not work.
It does not produce much valuable information – and therefore it does not save lives. Of course we are all tempted, from time to time, by the utilitarian argument. We might become reluctant supporters of “extreme interrogation techniques” if we could really persuade ourselves that half an hour of waterboarding could really save a hundred lives – or indeed a single life. In reality, no such calculus is possible. When people are tortured, they will generally say anything to bring the agony to an end – which is why any such evidence is inadmissible in court.
In the case of the three men waterboarded on Bush’s orders, British ministers are not aware of any valuable information they gave about plots against Heathrow, Canary Wharf or anywhere else. All the policy has achieved is to degrade America in the eyes of the world, and to allow America’s enemies to utter great whoops of vindication. It is not good enough for Dubya now to claim that what he did was OK, because “the lawyers said it was legal”. The lawyers in question were Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee and his deputy, John Yoo, and after a good deal of political cattle-prodding from Rumsfeld et al, they produced a totally barmy attempt to redefine torture so as to allow waterboarding.