Q&A: Philippe Sands

Philippe Sands, author of Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values, on the first days of the next presidency.

Mother Jones: Of all the things the Bush administration leaves behind, what’s the hardest one to fix?

Philippe Sands: The undermining of America’s authority and reputation around the world.

MJ: What’s the easiest one to fix?

PS:Changing the personnel at the top.

MJ: What have been the president’s most notable policy failures?

PS: Undermining US security by abandoning America’s commitment to the international rule of law.

MJ: Is that damage irreparable?

PS: No. I have great hopes for Sen. Obama and his team. His foreign policy advisers, like Samantha Powers, recognize America’s special role and responsibility, and have it in them to transform perceptions around the world.

MJ: Which problem created by the Bush administration most urgently needs addressing?

PS: I asked former President Jimmy Carter what he thinks the next US president might have to do in his first 100 days. He said it would take 10 minutes, not 100 days. I can do no better than paraphrase his reply: ‘My country will never again torture a prisoner. We will never again attack another country unless our security is directly threatened. Human rights will be the foundation of our foreign policy. We will act on global warming. We will honor international agreements. We will bring security and peace to Israel and all its neighbors and treat them all on an equal basis.’

MJ: What lessons about leadership should the next president glean from the past eight years?

PS: Consult, listen, take something from history, reconnect to the rule of law and to the values that have guided the country so well and for so long.

MJ: What advice would you give the next president on how to go about undoing the deeds of the Bush administration?

PS: Don’t wait. What you do in the first days will set the scene for everything.

MJ: What legacy of the Bush administration will still be felt 50 years from now?

PS: Hopefully it will be seen as a momentary error. I fear that is unlikely, and that we may come back to look on this as the moment America pulled itself off its pedestal, a result of ideology, incompetence, and hubris.