I can understand the difficulty of Fareed Zakaria in writing a hyper-sensitive issue like the desecration of Quran by Guantamo prison official. He likes walking on a tight rope, so to speak. He should be a patriotic Americans first, and objectivity or advocacy on his religion should come second if necessary; because the Americans will never understand if he does otherwise.
Uncle Sam: Jekyll or Hyde?
War is a hellish business, but when you release prisoners today, they don’t just return quietly to their villages. They hire lawyers.
By Fareed Zakaria
NewsweekJune 6 issue – I have resisted the temptation to write something on the Qur’an-abuse story. But since the controversy continues, here goes. I think that the Bush administration has a Jekyll-and-Hyde problem—a contradictory attitude toward the war on terror. On the one hand it has wholeheartedly embraced the view that America must change its image in the Muslim world. It wants to stop being seen as the supporter of Muslim tyrants and instead become the champion of Muslim freedoms. President Bush and his secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, are transforming American policy in this realm, and while some of the implementation has been spotty, the general thrust is clear and laudable. For this they deserve more credit than they have generally been given, perhaps because of the polarization of politics these days, perhaps because the topic inevitably gets mixed up with the botched occupation of Iraq.
But while Dr. Jekyll makes speeches by day on Arab liberty, some nights he turns into Mr. Hyde. There is within the Bush administration another impulse, a warrior ethos that believes in beating up bad guys without much regard for such niceties as international law. Excessive concern for such matters would be a sign of weakness, the kind of thing liberals do. Men like Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld see themselves above all else as tough guys.
The historian Walter Russell Mead has argued that the Bush administration fits into the “Jacksonian tradition” in American politics. One of this tradition’s core beliefs is that normal rules of warfare are suspended when dealing with “dishonorable enemies.” Mead gives the example of the Indian wars in which American soldiers, enraged by Indian fighting tactics, waged battle ruthlessly and with no holds barred.
It is surely this sense of toughness that made Alberto Gonzales (then White House counsel) and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld assert in 2002 that the Geneva Conventions did not really apply, in Rumsfeld’s phrase, to today’s “set of facts.” It is this sense of toughness that led Rumsfeld to authorize various forms of coercive interrogation that were designed to humiliate prisoners by offending their faith. These included shaving prisoners’ beards, stripping and setting dogs on them—all religious and cultural taboos. The action memo on interrogation in Guantanamo authorized the removal of “comfort items (including religious items).” That procedure, as well as several others, was rescinded in a memo in January 2003. But in reading even subsequent memos on the treatment of prisoners, now declassified, it’s often slightly unclear—at least to me—whether the Geneva Conventions were to be followed precisely.
I have some sympathy for the Jacksonian view. War is hell and Al Qaeda is as dishonorable an enemy as there has ever been. The trouble is, in today’s world, militarily effective methods can generate huge political costs.
There was a moment in Rumsfeld’s appearance at the Senate Armed Services Committee after Abu Ghraib that was utterly revealing. Rumsfeld explained that while he knew about the investigation, he was blindsided by the photographs and their impact. He simply couldn’t get over the fact that the guards had been taking snapshots with their miniature digital cameras. With a mixture of amazement and frustration, he wondered how to fight a war in “the information age where people are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise, when they had not even arrived in the Pentagon.”
That’s the problem. Tough tactics in a darkened room in Abu Ghraib are not going to stay dark in a world of tiny cameras and recorders. And it’s not just technology that’s different, it’s human attitudes. Today, when you release prisoners from Guantanamo, they don’t return quietly to their villages in Waziristan. They hire lawyers, talk to human-rights organizations and organize public protests. And in a war for hearts and minds, the benefits of the intelligence gained might well be outweighed by the cost to America’s image. Dr. Jekyll needs to explain this to Mr. Cheney, I mean Mr. Hyde. American soldiers operate with high moral standards, something often forgotten by the rest of the world because of the intense scrutiny they are subjected to by both domestic and foreign media. (How many front-page stories have there been on the Russian Army’s behavior in Chechnya or the French Army’s assistance to the Hutus in Rwanda?) Remember that it was the uniformed services and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell who argued against Gonzales’s cavalier attitude toward the Geneva Conventions. But when there are lapses, the Pentagon needs to get much better at admitting them, investigating them and taking responsibility for them.
Some of these new pressures are unfair, all are costly, but in the open, globalized world we live in, they’re inevitable and that’s not going to change. Tough guys should understand that.
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© 2005 Newsweek, Inc
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