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A tap dance on torture

EVEN BEFORE Condoleezza Rice's Air Force jet left Andrews Air Force Base this week, it was clear that her important journey to Europe would be a flop -- not as photogenic theater, in which she indulges too frequently, but as foreign policy.

Defending the indefensible is often part of the portfolio for a secretary of state, and watching diplomats dance is always entertaining, but in Rice's case the extra measure of entertainment is the conflict between her ambition and her boss's requirements.

Rice's challenge was going to be to find some words to soften the impact of The Washington Post's disclosure last month that the United States has been stashing Al Qaeda people secretly in European clinks where they are, to use a Bush administration phrase, aggressively questioned.

It didn't take long -- about a day -- for the human rights community to come up with Poland and Romania as the most likely venues. The question naturally occurred as to how Rice was going to deal with this explosive topic on her trip. It also hadn't taken long for public opinion to turn nasty in Europe, as the European Union mobilized to let relatively new member Poland, aspiring member Romania, and every other country on the continent know that complicity in human rights violations is frowned upon over there.

To make matters worse, Rice's trip was marred before it even started by the surfacing of more stories about the outrageous habit the United States has had ever since 9/11 of grabbing people off the streets abroad and spiriting them off to be held in secret for months, only to be quietly released when it turned out we had grabbed innocent people as well as people involved in terrorism.

Two stories, one involving Germany and the other Italy, added to the foul atmosphere surrounding Rice's journey, with added spice from disclosures about the United States buying favorable Iraqi press coverage, the activities of Shi'ite death squads, and the continuing carnage from the war. Europe did not seem to have paid attention to President Bush's poll-driven oration on the war at Annapolis last week and his poll-driven use of the word ''victory" a couple of dozen times in his latest effort to turn around negative US public opinion.

By the time Rice got to Europe, the media were filled with rumors of prisoners being secretly hauled off to new locations so they could continue to be ''aggressively questioned."

The European Union wanted clarification, but what Rice offered was political spin and the kind of genteel in-your-faceism she used to peddle as Bush's national security adviser when she was warning with a straight face before the invasion that no one wanted the smoking-gun proof of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction to be a mushroom cloud.

The day before she left, the White House whip cracked and ''senior administration officials" passed the word that instead of being meek or apologetic, she would ''go on the offensive" in Europe and remind our friends that we are all in this war on terrorism together and that solidarity in times of stress is required.

Deconstructing a misbehaving secretary of state is challenging because the people who work for them are very smart, but what was odd about Rice's defense was how transparently silly it was.

Part one of her spin insists that the United States has never, not once, ''authorized" or ''condoned" the torture of any detainee anywhere. It sounds strong until you simply ask what the United States means by ''torture." It turns out that it is not torture to dunk people's heads in water until they almost drown, to stage fake executions of prisoners, or to come within an hour or so of freezing them to death. The late Pat Moynihan called this defining deviancy down.

Part two of the case is her assurance that American behavior is ''consistent" with its obligation under international law that bans torture. Once again, that sounds clear until you simply inquire what behavior is in fact consistent with those obligations. It turns out that anything goes as long as it occurs outside the United States -- be that a secret prison abroad or a facility on rented land at Guantanamo Bay. That is why we hold ''suspects" on foreign soil or spirit them off to countries known to torture people -- a practice with the 1984 title of ''rendition," which Rice claimed is central to the war on terrorism.

Naturally, this mumbo-jumbo has failed all week. There was one delicious moment on Tuesday, when the new German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said Rice had acknowledged that one particularly ugly abduction of an innocent German had been a mistake. Not so, the spin doctors quickly claimed. She had only said the United States would respond appropriately ''if" any mistakes had been made.

It made me proud to be an American.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is

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