The Guantanamo Peril

Death is typically a moment of truth. But the occasion of three suicides at the Guantánamo Bay-where almost 500 men and boys have been held without trial for up to four years now-have only proved how poorly the Administration grasps the facts of today's terrorism challenge. And it only showed how deeply ineffectual and counterproductive U.S. counter-terrorism policy becomes when based on flawed assumptions.

June 19, 2006

Cross posted from TomPaine

Death is typically a moment of truth. But the occasion of three suicides at the Guantánamo Bay-where almost 500 men and boys have been held without trial for up to four years now-have only proved how poorly the Administration grasps the facts of today's terrorism challenge. And it only showed how deeply ineffectual and counterproductive U.S. counter-terrorism policy becomes when based on flawed assumptions.

The U.S. response revealed how little it has learned since it first launched its "global war on terror" five years ago. The camp's commander Rear Admiral Harry B. Harris described  the detainees' decision as "an act of asymmetrical warfare." The Deputy Assistant of State Colleen Graffy classed the deaths as "a good PR move." And Southcom commander General Bantz J. Craddock commented that, "This may be an attempt to influence the judicial proceedings" of a case now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court about the President's ad hoc military commissions. 

Here are the facts: Ali Adbullah Ahmed; Mani Shaman Turki al-Habardi al-Utaybi; Yasser Talal al-Zahrani were three men that were alive two weeks ago  in the "care" of the administration and now are dead. Ahmed had a lawyer. No one told him. Al-Utaybi was slated for transfer out of Guantánamo. No one told him. Harris, Craddock, and Graffy just could not see how the possibility of detention without family, without end, without hope, saps the will to live. They could not see how this very kind of detention is itself a blight on humanity. And they could not see how people around the world would recoil in disgust at their thoughtless and cruel incapacity to see such elementary moral facts.

The comments of the Bush administration officials are, in one respect, difficult to explain since their wholly predictably consequence was to trigger repugnance across the globe. European newspapers of the left and right roundly condemned their abysmal insensitivity.

Even in America, only the Wall Street Journal took the administration's side. With wondrous disdain for logic, the Journal declared the men "irredeemable jihadists" -and then condemned "anti-U.S. activists" for opposing the military's efforts to try the men in the deeply unfair system of military commissions. Apparently the Journal has inside information the rest of us lack considering  the detainees were never tried for any of their alleged crimes. If the omniscient Journal editorial board knows the men to be guilty-and "irredeemably" so-before any trials, it's hard to see why any delay in kangaroo proceedings should be cause for complaint.

It would not have been hard for Harris, Craddock, and Graffy to predict these reactions. In fact, in their comments all three focused on the expected backlash against the United States as the suicides became public. All three seemed to recognize-as President George W. Bush's March 16, 2006, National Security Strategy recognized-the centrality of "champion[ing] aspirations for human dignity" and strengthening alliances to overcome terrorism. Yet the administration officials then proceeded to make comments that inevitably and predictably made that international backlash worse. This all happened in the same week that the Pew Global Attitudes Project found "America's global image has again been slipping and support for the war on terrorism [sic] has declined even among close U.S. allies like Japan."  What explains the fact that presumably intelligent people uniformly recognize a problem of America's declining public image-even among those who support this administration-but then go and exacerbate the situation unnecessarily?

This administration's fraught relationship with facts and consequences seems to result from ideological commitments untethered from any appraisal of the real world. In the counter-terrorism sphere, policies appear motivated not so much by a need to respond intelligently to a current crisis. Instead, there is an overwhelming urge to maximize the administration's options for the exercise of brute power by refusing to recognize any legal, ethical, or political constraint. The constraint being resisted most strenuously is the laws of war, in particular the Geneva Conventions.

The population of Guantánamo thus includes a substantial number of men and boys with only a tangential (if any) relationship to the Taliban or al-Qaida. I have argued before on this site that the fundamental problem of Guantánamo is the fact that the military made pivotal errors in detaining and categorizing captives, and then never admitted its need to face up to those mistakes. Most importantly, the military appears to have followed the Justice Department's advice that it could categorize everyone picked up around the Afghan conflict as an "enemy combatant." This was a naked effort to avoid recognizing the constraints of the Geneva Conventions.

The comments of Harris, Craddock and Graffy show the administration's utter incapacity to admit its own errors. These officials assumed that those detained at Guantánamo are, by definition, the worst of the worst. When viewed that way, the detainees' every act must therefore be part of a malicious plot. With such operating assumptions, is it surprising that Guantánamo remains full? When even taking one's life is taken as "an act of asymmetrical warfare," how can any detainee prove his innocence? The administration makes much of the fact it gives the detainees an annual opportunity to state their case and seek release. But last week's comments unmasks this cynical exercise-for if even in killing oneself, a detainee's credibility of feeling and truthfulness can be scorned, how can a detainee possibly convince an Annual Review Board that he speaks the truth when he proclaims this innocence?

Incapable of admitting error, locked into viewing the detainees as "irredeemable jihadists" Harris, Craddock and Graffy simply vented their inevitable and logical interpretation of the suicides. They were trapped by their own logic. Even knowing the importance of the U.S. effort for hearts and minds, they still slapped the face of world opinion with palm flatly open.

This inability to acknowledge error is a deeply worrying trend. It shows an inflexibility-and a pride in that inflexibility-that today is clearly a danger to the national security. It's an inflexibility all too visible in other areas of counter-terrorism, such as the development of "extraordinary rendition," or transfers to torture. But what kind of policy-maker, especially one in a field as complex and unpredictable as counter-terrorism, assumes that she is right on the facts all the time?  And how do we better our chances of prevailing against bin Laden and his allies when we cannot even retain sufficient dignity or self-regard to stand tall among the nations of the world?
The first casualty of war is often the truthful governance of the tongue. Yet without the chastising discipline of facts-and facts aired and tested by the scourge of public opinion-policy decisions easily go awry. The administration's incapacity to deal with facts, and its efforts to suppress them, serve the nation poorly. The Wall Street Journal labeled the opponents of military commissions "anti-U.S." But then, irony isn't the Journal's strong point. It's rather the fecklessness of the administration-and the recklessness of its apologists-that inflicts tremendous setbacks on counter-terrorism efforts by alienating allies and fuelling the jihadi flames.

Aziz Huq: "The Guantanamo Peril" (PDF)