The Open Mind IV: Synthesis Reaffirmed

Shrinkwrapped offers his response to my rebuttal. Comments are closed here, and should be made at ShrinkWrapped.

The Open Mind IV: Synthesis Reaffirmed

After some initial concern that there would be little distance between us, Jay found enough to dispute in Synthesis to fill out a post.  In the structure we have established, I now get to have the last word.

I realize that, as per his protestations, Jay is a poor representative of the modern liberal.  He has shown himself to be a marginal figure by signing the Euston Manifesto, which marks him as a principled and honest liberal, a rare breed these days.  (The true test of such a position can only be evaluated in extremis, ie when the liberal is forced by his conscience to oppose the corruption of those on “his side”; historically those who have failed to adhere to the “no enemy on the left” line have been excommunicated by the left.  Time will tell if the Euston signatories will face that fate.)  Nonetheless, he does offer the liberal position in response to my attempted Synthesis.

In his Riposte, Jay offers a brief synopsis of the War on Terror as conceived by Bush and Obama and sees little daylight between their approaches.  He doubts a speech by Obama as outlined in Synthesis would have much value, and I tend to agree with him, absent any change in emphasis or policy by the President.  However these are quibbles.  From my reading Jay and I are in broad agreement (which I highlight in the following passage), with some disagreement on emphasis:

President Bush went astray in the War on Terror with Iraq. It led, after the initial victory, to a misconceived and misconducted war in Afghanistan, and he never enlisted the engagement of the American people in the war in any specific and concrete way. However, President Obama cannot now start all over again to compensate for Bush’s failures. For that reason, the speech that ShrinkWrapped proposes, outside of a specific identifiable context – which I fear would be only another significant successful attack – would be offered without focused effect. The statement Obama gave on Wednesday about the Christmas security failures, in which he said unequivocally, “We are at war,” is the closest circumstance allows. What Obama can do is pursue the war – a very complex challenge in which we are as likely, often, to be wrong in our choices as right – with greater clarity and to greater effect. His decision to remain in Afghanistan with renewed but focused commitment, and not, at the same time, to stray from Pakistan – the greatest threat of all – is just such a clear pursuit.

Of ShrinkWrapped’s closing recommendations that I have not already addressed, I agree that we should aggressively develop alternative energy sources in order to end a foreign oil dependence that funds our enemies. I would even agree, for a period, to suspending some environmental concerns if and only if such suspensions were tied to an explicit plan, with bipartisan support, to truly end that foreign dependence. And it would be a great boon to our economy.

Jay agrees that we need to profile, with ethnicity and religion being part of the necessary metrics included in any profiling, and he also agrees that “true Muslim moderates and reformers should be aggressively enlisted and promoted in the public discourse.”

“There are two specific areas in which  Jay takes exception.  First he addresses torture (which I explicitly oppose) and insists that water-boarding qualifies as torture.  As I mentioned, I do not think this is resolvable, nor is it relevant to the actual question of treating terror suspects as criminal defendants, an approach that disarms us in the War Jay agrees we are fighting.  Part of my suggestion in Synthesis was to determine an agreed upon protocol for the use of coercive techniques short of torture, to be used only in extremis.  In the real world, if we come into possession of a high ranking terrorist with knowledge of a mass casualty attack and the President refuses to authorize coercive interrogation, the ramifications would be dramatic; a subsequent successful attack, beyond the horror of mass deaths, could well lead to impeachment for dereliction of duty and much more problematic abrogations of our civil liberties.

In his objection to torture Jay also makes an error that has become so commonplace as to escape deserved notice:

Conservatives*, who invoke the name and legacy of the founders, and also of what has become forever known as “the greatest generation,” more often and more effectively than do liberals, should recall the lesson of those generations on this subject as well. ShrinkWrapped argues, “We should reserve the right to use coercive techniques when in possession of terrorists, enemy combatants, who may have information about current capabilities and future attacks.” Any American paratrooper captured in Normandy on the eve of D-Day might reasonably have been presumed by the Germans to possess some knowledge of crucial operational orders that were part of a pending continental invasion. Any Japanese soldier captured on Guadalcanal or Iwo Jima might have been presumed knowledgeable of the deeply entrenched fortifications on those islands that made victory so costly to American marines. Any Viet Cong combatant captured in South Vietnam probably had crucial knowledge of entrances and command post positions in the Củ Chi tunnels that U.S. forces were never able to destroy. We confront nothing new when we conceive terrorists to possess life and death information. We depart from our forbearers when we resort so quickly and readily to inhumane policies they foreswore because we have been, by pursuit of those policies, effectively terrorized.

*[I consider myself more a libertarian than a conservative, but labels never do us justice.]

Jay likens a captured al Qaeda terrorist to a captured Japanese or German soldier in WWII.  This shows a striking misunderstanding of the nature of “civilized” warfare and the intent of the Geneva Conventions which sought to regulate warfare.  The Geneva Conventions were set up expressly to protect innocent non-combatants.  In order to do so a clear demarcation between soldiers and civilians was deemed necessary.  Uniformed soldiers of Geneva signatory nations were to be accorded all the rights and protections of the Geneva Conventions.  We were determined to protect German civilians, as much as practicable, and to secure the safety of captured German soldiers, with the knowledge that this offered a modicum of protection to our soldiers and civilians.  There was never any expectation that irregular fighters, including spies, were deserving or eligible to be treated as prisoners of war.  To do so would have been to undermine the very rationale of the Conventions.  Al Qaeda fighters do not wear uniforms, make every attempt to kill unarmed non-combatants, refuse Red Cross visits to prisoners, use their prisoners for propaganda purposes, and murder and torture their prisoners in grotesque ways.  Does Jay really believe that if we are nice to al Qaeda prisoners they will be more humane when they capture Western soldiers?  If anyone believes such nonsense, there is a bridge to Brooklyn that I would be happy to sell them.

One more detail for those who insist upon countenancing every possible legalistic interpretation: al Qaeda has never signed the Geneva Conventions.

According to the Geneva Conventions, when a non-uniformed fighter is captured, especially in the act of committing war crimes, summary execution is permissible.  We do not do that for many reasons, not least because we are more civilized than our enemies.  The other reason is that in a War which depends so heavily on intelligence gathering and dot connecting, there are a limited number of ways in which such dots can be collected.

We can intercept electronic communications.

We can infiltrate agents into our opponent’s organization.

We can interrogate prisoners.

The first method has limited utility for detecting specific threats, in part because al Qaeda uses methods that protect their communications (though we are constantly working on ways to break through their protections.)  Often we only hear “chatter” and by the time actionable intelligence is obtained, it is too late.

The second method is difficult and problematic; exhibit one is the recent terrible carnage and loss of life of our agents in Afghanistan by an al Qaeda triple agent.  Penetrating al Qaeda, indeed penetrating any terrorist organization, is extremely difficult and fraught with danger.

If the first and second methods are problematic we end up much more dependent on the third method, and here the Christmas bomber is instructive.  When caught he was quite talkative, up until the moment he was assigned a lawyer and advised to stop talking.  We had not even confronted the question of coercive techniques with this man, and there is no evidence such techniques would have been necessary.  Unfortunately, after his initial claim that many more just like him were on the way, we allowed him to “lawyer up” when elaborating on his claim might have been useful.

Islamic terror cannot by itself defeat the West.  In order for them to win victories they need our assistance.  We surrender inch by inch when we cede our free speech rights and when we disavow those very methods by which we might protect ourselves.  The single greatest threat to our rights remains a successful mass casualty attack.  The recent failed attack was followed by a poll suggesting that well over 50% of Americans would have been willing to water-board the bomber.  Imagine the outraged emotions, impossible for any President or politician to control, should a mass casualty attack occur.  At that point valuing abstract legalistic principles over American lives would be a non-viable stance for any American President.

Finally, Jay does not believe we need a Synthesis essentially because he believes we now have one.  I would suggest that in his refusal to countenance any positives for the Bush administration, Obama has continued to use the language of the far left to describe his approach (including offering trials to KSM and Abdullmutallab) which effectively disarms the intelligence agencies and makes a future successful attempt more likely.  One mention of War while behaving as if that war is a criminal affair is not dispositive.  Obama’s approach is foolish and dangerous and risks not only hamstringing his own administration but re-opening a furiously contentious discourse with a new administration in the future.  I would be more comfortable with a reformulation of our approach to the treatment of prisoners of this terror war if there were a good faith effort made by the Obama administration to propose it openly and with adequate discussion.  Without such a formalized approach, all the questions are left unresolved; when the next attack occurs we will again be faced with formulating a response under duress with all the attendant problems our lack of consensus have engendered.

*Update [from AJA]: I have offered a clarifying comment at ShrinkWrapped.