Reviewed by Darren A. Wheeler, Department of Political Science, Ball State University. Email: dawheeler [at] bsu.edu
Perhaps no other area of Bush administration War on Terror (WOT) policy received as much sustained and withering criticism as its interrogation policies. There were assertions that U.S. government officials had committed war crimes, lawsuits on behalf of detainees, and investigations into the scandals at the detention facilities in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Professor Tracy Lightcap’s The Politics of Torture represents one of the more recent attempts to make sense of the hyperbole surrounding the Bush administration and the use of torture. Many have asked how the use of torture developed in the WOT. Lightcap examines this, but he also conducts a broader inquiry designed to assess what political and institutional forces cause the use of torture to develop in some countries and in some contexts, but not others.
As a starting point, it is worth noting that this is not a book that examines the debate about whether Bush administration interrogation policies constituted torture. Nor does it exhaustively review these policies, the public outcries, and the subsequent investigations. Lightcap concludes that what happened was indeed torture and that its use was unjustified and undesirable. But rather than pointing fingers at “bad apples” in the field or placing blame squarely on the Bush administration (and thereby viewing the resulting torture as a mere aberration which would disappear with the exit of a president), Lightcap offers a thesis that seeks to explain the use of torture by a regime as a “systemic and institutional” problem. Using three case studies – the WOT under the Bush administration, the Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule, and the U.S. during the Mexican War under the presidency of James Polk – Lightcap argues that the resulting interrogation policies (widespread torture in the Bush and Stalin cases, but not under Polk) were a result of the significant challenges to the leadership narratives of the regimes in question. The key in Lightcap’s analysis comes when the leadership narrative is subject to a serious threat. If the threat is serious enough, leaders can respond by weakening institutional controls and allowing the emergence of informal institutions which permit torture to proliferate and become widely used in defense of the regime’s leadership narrative. In the WOT case study Lightcap concludes that the turmoil surrounding the post-invasion reconstruction of Iraq posed this sort of serious threat to the Bush administration’s national security narrative, and prompted the loosening of official controls over interrogation policy resulting in widespread torture.
Perhaps sensitive to common methodological criticisms directed at case studies more generally, Lightcap devotes considerable energies to clearly [*488] outlining his research design in Chapter Two: “Questions, Designs, and Mechanisms.” While this is certainly not the most riveting part of the book, Lightcap should be commended for the painstaking steps he takes to select a sound theoretical base for his analysis, address questions in a systematic manner, consider alternative hypotheses, and confront issues of bias in his research design. Indeed, at each stage of his research design Lightcap does a wonderful job of considering and addressing alternative approaches and interpretations so that one feels comfortable that he has given sober consideration to the myriad of related issues that could lead such a project down any number of side paths and detract from the central questions he outlines in the book. His review of the various bodies of scholarly literature that touch on this topic is excellent. His use of Stephen Skowronek’s (1997) “political time” framework in this comparative context is an especially intriguing component of his explanation as to why seemingly different leaders and political systems can confront similar challenges and respond in similar ways.
Similarly, Lightcap’s choice of cases here will inevitably raise many eyebrows upon initial inspection. No, Lightcap is not making a moral comparison about the scope and severity of torture in the Soviet Union under Stalin and the WOT under Bush. As deplorable as the Bush interrogation policies may have been we did not see the death of millions of people as a result of them. Instead the focus is on the institutional dynamics and similarities in two very different political systems at two very different points in history. Lightcap’s third case study, the Polk administration’s actions during the Mexican War, is designed to illustrate that challenges to the regime’s leadership narrative don’t inevitably lead to torture-promoting informal institutions. In fact, one of Lightcap’s points in using this third case study is to make the case that the severity of the challenge to the leadership regime’s narrative is a key element in determining whether conditions become ripe for the use of torture.
Lightcap clearly views the torture that occurred during the Bush administration not as a simple aberration, but as something which could easily occur again given the right combination of political circumstances. This is especially true given the extent that torture was used in the War on Terror and the extensive legal defense offered for the administration’s policies. He correctly notes that of the problems surrounding the rise of informal torture institutions in the U.S. stems in significant part from the wide degree of executive discretion claimed or accorded presidents as commander-in-chief. This complicates efforts to design legal structures that would prevent the future use of torture in similar circumstances.
Lightcap calls for updating and amending the anti-torture statute, legislation that specifically bans extraordinary rendition, and revisiting statutes that allow victims of torture to seek civil remedies in court. More importantly, Lightcap argues that we should vigorously confront the leadership narratives and justifications that led to the rise of informal torture institutions. These actions should be roundly, forcefully, and publicly condemned. Lightcap is certainly not [*488] the first to suggest a public accounting for Bush administration interrogation practices. Nevertheless, it’s a somewhat disappointing prescription, not for want of merit, but rather for the fact that it’s highly unlikely to find political traction given the Obama administration’s willingness to revisit many of the Bush administration’s interrogation practices with any sort of “truth commission”-type of investigation. On the other hand, Lightcap perceptively recognizes that the problem has both political and legal dimensions. As a result, building legal barriers to prevent the future use of torture (e.g., revising statutes) only addresses some of the issues. Reducing the political incentives to use torture – even in dangerous times – is also key.
Lightcap’s audience appears to primarily be an academic one and the book would certainly have appeal to a broad spectrum of sub-fields within the discipline of Political Science. It could easily be incorporated into a variety of courses in comparative politics, international relations or American politics. The length is suitable for a supplemental text in upper division or graduate courses. In fact, this a book that is probably better suited to graduate and upper-level undergraduate students. Lightcap’s meticulous attention to detail in his research design and underlying theories, his heavy use of political history, and his prose would collectively make this book a more difficult read for many undergraduate students and lay persons. The book would also be of interest to scholars who focus on the institutional and structural mechanisms of government and how these can be used (and abused) in the formation and implementation of public policy. Scholars with a particular interest in the judiciary’s role in these matters should be advised that Lightcap’s treatment of the role of the judiciary in the book is minimal. While there are some cursory discussions of the Supreme Court’s detainee decisions in the WOT there is no broader discussion of how the judiciary might help serve as a check to prevent the formation of these informal torture regimes.
For all of the methodological disputes that permeate the discipline of political science the singular common thread needed in all research is rigor. Whether one agrees with Lightcap’s selection of cases, his application of Stephen Skowronek’s (1997) concept of “political time”, or his conclusions, his work is clearly well thought out and, above all, rigorous. While rigorous academic work should be valued in all areas it is especially welcome in a subject area – torture – where accusations, anecdotes, ideology, and partisanship all too frequently substitute for reasoned, empirical analysis. Lightcap is to be commended for his contribution to the discussion of how and when governments employ terrorism. This is especially true since, as he notes, future regimes will face the temptation to use terrorism as a tool of governing. Lightcap’s book helps explain when and why terrorism emerges within particular regimes, but not others. Knowing this not only helps interpret past events, it helps us prevent future abuses as well.
Stephen Skowronek. 1997. The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John [*489] Adams to Bill Clinton. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Copyright 2012 by the Author, Darren Wheeler.