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Monday, September 18, 2006

The Terror War's Ugly, Slow Death in the Steamy Jungles of Realpolitik

Bush's War on Terror has been checked by a potent combination of limitations. For the first time in the President's reign, the Administration has been put in a position where policy must be changed in order to work.

Legal limits have been exceeded. Congressional politics and constraints on public image have shut down the Administration's ability to pursue its War on Terror. Military issues and geopolitical realities prevent the US government from achieving its objectives as they've been framed. Together, these forces create an unmovable box around the aims of the Administration in its War on Terror.

The Geneva Framework

The consequences of ignoring Geneva have come home to roost. In an article on the Geneva Convention, as well as in posts, I've warned that ignoring Geneva could result in far worse consequences for the Occupying Power than the Occupied. The architects of the Global War on Terror have completely ignored the benefits of treaty compliance to their own detriment as the number of detainees languishing in US custody grows.

The Conventions are designed to restore order; for believers in the power of the Conventions, it's no coincidence that the US faces such disorder in Iraq. Geneva and treaties like it are designed to make tribunals work, and to do so the Occupier must be prevented from changing the laws of the country it invades. Otherwise, as we see in Iraq, the justice system alienates the people it serves.

The US appears to have totally ignored this threat; the Coalition Provisional Authority's meddling in the Iraqi legal system has weakened it. Ths sheer case volume Iraq's underdeveloped legal system now faces makes processing the detainees an American obligation, extending its Occupation and creating another legal issue.

The trial process needs to reflect the re-establishment of order and an independent, functional legal system, which must be protected from the arbitrary exercise of total authority by the Occupier.

In creating the Convention, European powers knew from experience that a war's after-effects could sow much bigger problems. De-stabilization threatened to broaden the war; in feud-heavy Europe a single two-party conflict could grow into a conflagration if not contained. The Occupied nation would become a threat to all its neighbors if order weren't re-established.

The US has been accused of formenting sectarian divisions in Iraq, in order to continue the Occupation. Establishing a united Iraq would ease the Occupation's burdens and set the stage for withdrawal, which at this point has to be considered in the US' best interest considering the violence it faces.

Actually the Geneva Conventions want a state of order to emerge out of the chaos of war. If the defeated country is incapable of self-rule, the Occupation has to go on.

Re-establishing an independent judiciary in Iraq would be a way forward, but the numbers of detainees and status of the Iraqi courts makes the process incumbent upon the Occupier. An established military tribunal system would work under Geneva, not Bush's substitute, the "enemy combatant" system, whose tribunals as proposed by Bush have been ruled illegal.

One problem has been created by moving detainees out of the country where they were captured, which is specifically illegal under the Conventions. The "black sites" run by the CIA are excellent examples. Sure, anything could go and brutal treatment could theoretically result in new intelligence, but how to manage the so-called terrorists after they've been squeezed for all they know?

The questionable origins of evidence present a daunting challenge to processing the detainees, a problem which could have been avoided had their interrogations complied with Geneva.

Legal Limits

The indefinite detentions have arisen not out of the need to lock the enemy combatants away, but out of an absence of lawfully procured evidence to try detainees.

The trials themselves may prove unwinnable under current laws, as torture appears to have been used to extract confessions, including the case of American citizen Jose Padilla, accused of a "dirty bomb" plot. His case may be the tip of a iceberg of weak cases built on extralegal interrogations. Hundreds of other cases may be unwinnable because evidentiary procedure forbids the use of unlawfully obtained confessions.

Our government has invested a great deal of its credibility in information extracted through illegal means, from people it arbitrarily labelled terrorists and beyond Geneva's protection. Put succinctly, our military and civil legal structure prevents us from successfully prosecuting terrorists. This explains why there have been so few trials and why Guantanamo has devolved into a holding tank. A recent AP article stated that the US has 14,000 people imprisoned in overseas facilities, which is indicative of a failed processing system.

The rhetoric coming from US military is that every detainee is detained because he poses a security threat. Yet this presumes that the US military is infallible which may be soothing to the military's ego but is hardly accurate. Holding an AP photographer for 5 months (Link)and arbitrarily arresting and indefinitely detaining shopkeepers and others who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time is hardly evidence of a functional detention process.

Honestly, the US doesn't need the hassle of holding every suspect indefinitely. Yet Bush and his allies are prisoners of their own rhetoric and must appear to be hard on terror. So the word came down from Rumsfeld OK'ing harsh interrogation tactics. The logjam of detainees may have emerged as an unintended consequence, in light of the dimished potential for successful prosecutions.

What was done to the detainees is illegal under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Geneva Conventions, and U.S. law. Judging by the Administration's effort to head off criminal liability, there's been a clear effort to retroactively excuse acts of torture.

Buried in laws under consideration are obstructions to victims pursuing justice as a result of torture. According to WaPo, CIA officials have been signing up for government-paid torture insurance, so there must be fear of civil and criminal liability.

The Bush Adminstration is trying to change the rules. On September 6th, "the Pentagon issued a new interrogation manual banning forced nakedness, hooding, stress positions, and other abusive techniques", according to the AP article. I guess this is an effort to "clarify" the former rules by specifically prohibiting these acts of torture, as if they hadn't previously considered torture under Geneva. At least the new restictions will cut down on the number of unprosecutable cases going forward.

In the face of a courageous court ruling by a Federal judge, Bush turned to Congress to rewrite domestic laws restricting "cruel and inhumane treatment," although Geneva they can't touch. An alternative to their rejected trial process is being sought, one which would lead to convictions by retroactively de-criminalizing the treatment of detainees and thereby sanitizing illegally acquired confessions.

The political cost of losing cases is simply too high, as the Administration has wrapped its political future in the cloak of national security. Trapped in its rhetoric, the White House cannot appear to be failing in the War on Terror, for every "terrorist" exonerated comes across as a victory for "the terrorists."

Legislative Politics

Bush is facing a revolt, according to the Media. Colin Powell was joined by Republican senators McCain, Graham, and Warner, in opposing the Administration on its planned trial system for detainees and attempted "clarification" of the Geneva Convention's covenant against torture. Apparently, the Graham/Warner bill may be hardly the opposite of the Administration's, despite its billing as some kind of rebellion against Bush's preferred tribunal system. For details on the "alternative" legislation, see Obsidian Wings.

The Revolt of the Three Senators (+ Colin) is representative of the larger issue in Congress, which is the decline of influence associated with the full flowering of the Unitary Executive under the War on Terror. Bush treats Congress as his poodle on a leash; the notion that the President sees Congress as little more than a debating society like the UN has yet to be dispelled.

Bush may now see the enemies he has created in Congress gathering before him. It is unclear whether the Senators and Congress are a little upset or firmly drawing the line. Perhaps a Congressional inquiry into the Plame leak scandal could put some real fear into 1700 Pennslyvania.

Congress holds the purse strings we see, but in its haste to avoid looking weak against the threat (Goering) they've basically greenlighted everything Bush wants. So why would Bush respect them now? He can simply claim the need for funding to continue the War on Terror. Congress must cave in to Executive demands on the war or appear weak against the enemy (Georing.)

The flip side of this subservience is the inevitable insertion of pork alongside desperately needed war funding. I remember Eli Lilly getting retroactive legal protections for their vaccine preservative Thimersal (linked to autism) out of the PATRIOT Act. The favorable addition to the bill was framed by Frist as vital for the makers of vaccines in their efforts to protect us from WMD. (I'm still waiting for the vaccines.) The opportunistic channeling of war support is symptomatic of politicization, which is thought to be the reason we lost Vietnam.

The net cost to America for its recent wars is reaching into the stratosphere. As a logical question--not political--we must ask ourselves, "Do we have enough to cover Medicare as our population ages?" Funding for Medicare is already being cut. Our government must spend according to Congress, and thus it borrows even more.

The debt ceiling may be reset, but Congress will be held accountable eventually if we burn through our available credit and just start printing money. Unfortunately, Congress' control over the military began to erode once Bush began the War on Terror, in the case of yet another undeclared and thus un-Constitutional war.

Military Limits

Success in the War on Terror demands visible results, especially with the President's self-declared central front against terror in Baghdad not yielding much good news. Just recently thousands of soldiers were deployed to the Iraqi capital, where there are apparently efforts to build a ditch around the circumference of the city so bad is the disorder there (Link).

Israeli's attack on Lebanon reinforced the dangers of insurgency warfare. It showed how military force alone was incapable of ending a threat, or that Israel was far underprepared and/or Hezbollah far more capable. In the afterglow of Israeli bombing, Hezbollah has a chance to shine by financially supporting the victims of Israeli aggression, who as civilians make juicy propaganda plums for the cause of formenting radicalism.

Iraq is the enigma. Like jokers in some pop-out-and-hammer-em-down arcade game, the redeployment from districts outside Bagdad to the capital has weakened the US in outlying regions, particularly Anbar Province. The call has been increasing for more hammers (troops) in order to quell the jokers (insurgents).

Even hammered down, the jokers pop back up somewhere else or in the same box. This unpredictability requires occupation forces to be spread thin in anticipation of an insurgent strike anywhere, even in areas thought to be sanitized like Fallujah. Sound familiar? It should. Overextending the enemy is a vital element of insurgent tactics right out of Sun-Tzu.

Ruminations abound of Al Qaeda actually controlling Anbar, Iraq's large restive western province. It may not be clear who's in charge there because there is simply no one in charge, which is the real deficiency which deforms the democratization process: anarchy. Too many are dying. We cannot stop this state of anarchy, whether it is in civil war or on the "brink" of it, through military force alone. This isn't to say military force isn't needed or insufficient force adequate.

If Iraq weren't so unpopular, Britain might be willing to contribute more. Yet Afghanistan is drawing in more and more NATO forces. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan was the war we had to fight--assuming OBL did do 9/11. The future success of the Afghan Occupation can hardly be called likely, unless of course NATO thinks of itself as the next Alexander, who was the last occupier able to conquer the country.

The Administration can't apply sufficient military force to win. Predictably, waging two wars simultaneously has led to a shortfall of active troops (none of the Army's combat brigades are available for deployment at present). Equipment has also faltered in the sands of Iraq. A future war with Iran would be militarily suicidal.


Larger foreign policy goals have been undermined by the failure of military policy to achieve results in Iraq. The Iraq conflict lengthens and Afghanistan worsens as popular support declines. Pursuing further policy objectives in the War on Terror through the use of force against Iran has become rhetorically significant but unacheivable without a draft. An attack on Iran would lead to a collapse of US credibility as well as raise grave security threats to the flow of oil out of the Persian Gulf, as well as with oil-rich Venezuela and Russia, who have treaties with Iran. Syria would also be drawn in.

Recent press has supported the notion that Bush's foreign policy options are limited abroad. Internationally, the world community has turned against the American government, meaning global support vital to sustaining the War on Terror has all but disappeared. The stout English have tromped off to Iraq with us. Now Blair sits wounded in 10 Downing, waiting for his government to fall after ministers abandon him en masse. Europe on the whole is basically waiting for Bush to end.

Iran has extended its influence over Iraq to the point the US is now indirectly supporting an expansion of the Iran sphere of political and spiritual influence through rabid, resistance-emboldening US and Israeli militarism. So from a geopolitical perspective, we can only help the Iranians and their proxies in Iraq by stabilizing their surrogate's rule in Baghdad.

We must meanwhile keep our balance in dealing with the Sunni and not let al Qaeda dominate the Sunnis. This may unfortunately require us to let some more homegrown Sunni terrorist organization succeed in capturing the bulk of anti-American support. Now if anti-American sentiment is to continue to grow, al-Qaeda is positioned perfectly to capture it and expand its influence, like Hezbollah did through the polarization process created by the Israeli firestorm.

Lebanon's wounds have done enough to expand Hezbollah's influence. Oddly, the Sunnis in Syria seem esconced in their anti-Israeli status alongside the Shia. Just last week they interrupted an attack on the American Embassy, raising the very troubling question of which side of the terror fence the Syrians stand on. It is clear that Syria would have been accused of direct participation in the attack had it succeeded, out of an ongoing American political effort to isolate the regime and punish it for supporting Hezbollah.

Pakistan is accused of harboring Bin Laden. Its intelligence services supported the Taliban before 9/11; the Taliban have hardly disappeared. Recently, NATO deployed thousands along its border with Afghanistan to cope with the threat. Pakistan continues to host a swath of brutally anti-American madrasses and other indocrination centers for extremists. How can we call it an ally in the War on Terror? We do not ally ourselves with Pakistan out of a conviction doing so will further the spread of democracy; we do it because the alternative to Musharraf is the rise of fundamentalism there, as is the case in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Islamic revolutions in those countries are held in check only through repression, repression which only feeds covert support for radical Islamic fundamentalism.


The picture of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malikiand and Iranian President Ahmadinejad together hand-in-hand must have seriously crimped neocon policy supporters. Prime Minister al-Maliki had visited Teheran to request help in controlling the security environment.

Supported by Republicans, al-Maliki addressed a joint session for Congress on July 26th, despite resistance from Democrats. The effort to build credibility for al-Maliki appears to have backfired, and could become a source of attack to be used in the Fall's midterm elections against Repulican incumbents, assuming they can't disassociate themselves from Bush's policies.

Prior to the address, House Democrats sent a prescient letter to Majority Leader Hastert saying, "...if the Iraqi leader's positions are at odds with U.S. foreign policy goals then he should not be given the honor of giving an address..."

The letter goes on:
"In recent months there have been extensive reports indicating that al-Maliki and many in the Iraqi leadership are increasingly influenced by the government in Iran. Further, they have expressed support of terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, the latter of which was responsible for the death of 241 United States Marines in Beirut. The House should not allow an address from any world leader who has taken such action..."

That from Fox News.

Image does make an impact. When our supposed friends in Iraq end up talking to our supposed enemies, the entire Bush gospel of spreading democracy sounds hollow. Alliances and back-stabbing are nothing new to the Arabs, who possess far more political cynicism than do Americans, who are content to believe in their President, at least until it's apparent he's been lying all along. Only then they will demonize him.

The flow of American casualties really does force even the most ardent war supporter to wonder who we are fighting for over there. Like Vietnam there will clearly be supporters of the war effort simply by virtue of the effort being made. Still, unlike Vietnam where over 50% of Americans supported it, support for Iraq is at 39%. Images of flag-draped coffins have been suppressed. Coupled with more adequate coverage of the antiwar movement in the MSM, popular support could go down even more.


Surely the situation we are in can be remedied. It does however, require one crucial ingredient: conviction based on the truth. As it is, the Bush school of thought declares that Americans will be safer down the road by eliminating support for terror, ostensibly through democratic means. But the truth is Lebanon and the Palestinians have been ruthlessly punished as the result of democratic advances, while inert, autocratic regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan are rewarded. To expect new democracies to fight terror in their midst requires help, yet this has not been forthcoming. Moderates have been pushed out; the Israelis even imprisoning legitimately elected members of the Palestinian parliament.

Congress must face down Bush on the tribunals and refuse to rewrite the law to accomodate violations of Geneva. This isn't an issue of security, as torture (inhumane and degrading treatment are defined as such under Geneva Convention General Article III) has yet to be proven effective in gathering information. The crude example of torturing to intercept an impending terrorist attack avoids real debate over the ethics of torture, and ignores the world opinion and the geopolitical consequences of losing face.

Justifying torture is on par with the Cut-and-Run label. Both ignore the alternatives available. Jingoistic, they appeal to the lowest common denominator, which in the American body-politic is not too low a target, not by a longshot. Worse, hardcore Republicans have been calling any who doubt the President's policies terrorist sympathizers. While scoring well again on a Rovian-style inverted scale of ethics in politics, this partisanship can hardly lead to compromise or alternatives.

Back to solutions. First, we must be able to make choices. As much as Bush would like to ride a magical carpet of rhetorical falseifications to victory, we are limited by geopolitics in what we can do. The Middle East is a scary and unpredictable place. This is a fundamental statement of fact, as Colin Powell and others warned the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld axis.

Bush's Administration wouldn't be the first to lose its credibility or authority through mistakes in the Mideast. Unfortunately, in America we can't hold new elections, so it looks like the incompetence which sabotaged our foreign policy will steer an unchanging course ahead. Lacking the political will to accept the possibility of failure, we can probably count on Bush to make the wrong decisions going forward.

Hopefully the war's supporters have learned the very first lesson, which is that the Middle East is a scary and unpredictable place. It's been an expensive lesson, having taken 2700 American lives. Beyond that, we can assume the Administration knows or has learned nothing, as they've shown themselves predisposed towards favoring their own rhetoric at the expense of reality. It's now clear the truth is showing and that there is little we can do to get out, save getting out.

Until the pain of going on is more than the price of admitting change is necessary, we will keep doing as we have (a borrowed analogy). Bush's Iraq policy is not succeeding and will require an increased troop commitment, which will stir up more anti-American sentiment not only in Iraq but around the world. Anti-Americanism will translate into a larger resistance and thus require more troops, perpetuating the cycle, who's conclusion must at some point be a realization that we cannot win by force of arms. That realization must be followed by the stern conviction that leaving Iraq is the right thing to do, which can translate into withdrawal.

The desire to get out has already been articulated by the American public. Those in power have a different idea of what we should do--stay the course. This disparity presents a contradiction of the democratic will; the war in Iraq could endanger our own country as resistance hardens and divisiveness ensues domestically, culminating in internal discord on par with Vietnam. This civil disobedience would be greatly exaggerated by a draft, which would be necessary if Iran were attacked.

Additional Sources
See this article, "Bush defends demands for CIA 'torture' power", by Rupert Cornwell of the Independent.

Article on Bush's approach to "defending torture" by Sidney Blumenthal here.



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