In purely political terms, President Bush's announcement on Wednesday that 14 leading terrorists have been transferred to Guantanamo Bay for trial was a masterstroke. He used a defeat - last summer's Supreme Court decision that Congress, not the White House, should decide the format of the military tribunals to try suspects, and its ruling that the existing format violated US and international standards - to wrongfoot his opponents and frame the debate before November's mid-term elections.
Mr Bush's announcement, and the simultaneous publication by the Pentagon of amended rules for prisoner interrogation, would appear to "normalise" US treatment of suspects. Briefly at least, the President has shifted the focus away from an ever-more unpopular war in Iraq back to 9/11 and the original "war on terror", an issue on which he still retains considerable support. He has challenged Congress to act swiftly on his proposals for revamped military commissions to try the terrorists. Democrats who drag their feet will thus be accused of being weak on national security, and of paying no heed to the safety of the American people. This is just what Karl Rove and the other masterminds in the White House believe offers Republicans their best chance of avoiding defeat in November.
But anyone concerned with international law and the example set by the world's most powerful country should be deeply alarmed by what the President had to say. Yes, the Pentagon has issued its new regulations, outlawing some of the most vile methods of questioning, and Mr Bush proclaims that the US does not engage in torture. But what precisely is torture? And what exactly were those "alternative procedures" - absolutely legal, we are told - that were used to get Abu Zubaydah (the first major al-Qa'ida figure to be captured) to spill the beans? Instead, Mr Bush made clear he will continue to do "whatever it takes" to extract information from suspected terrorists. We should not be reassured.
What is more, the notorious foreign camps run by the CIA will continue to exist, albeit shorn of their most famous prisoners. But Abu Zubaydah, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed and the rest should have been sent to Guantanamo long ago. If that appalling institution has any function, it is as home for genuine, top-level terrorists - not for most of the 445 small fry held there, some of whom have been awaiting their moment in court for more than four years. And the trial they do receive, if Congress goes along with Mr Bush's proposals, will leave much to be desired. Hearsay evidence and evidence obtained under coercion will be permitted, while other evidence may be kept secret. If Mr Bush wants to restore his country's lost reputation, this week he failed to do so.Reuse content