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Thinking Beyond Violence

  • Aziz Huq
Published: September 11, 2006
Monday, September 11, 2006

Thinking Beyond the Violence
By Aziz Huq

On September 17, 2001, American foreign policy entered a dark age. On that day, President George W. Bush signed a classified presidential directive expanding CIA authority to kill, capture and detain terrorism suspects around the world. The CIA forged new connections with intelligence services in Syria and Egypt, allies all too eager to use the kind of brutal physical interrogation tactics that U.S. law formally forbade. It was the first of a series of presidential decisions to treat the world as battlefield without limits in time or space, to disregard the rule of law globallyand to replace it with the tide of war.
The practice of extraordinary rendition has left a trail of broken lives in its wake. The Canadian citizen Mahar Arar and the German citizen Khaled Masri are but the two most well-known examples. Worse, extraordinary rendition inflicts incalculable harm on countries that cooperate with the United States. It strengthens undemocratic, brutal Middle Eastern dictatorships, including, ironically, some of the regimes that first spawned the cancer of transnational jihadism. Islamists such as Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, precursors to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, were reactions to those regimes repressive policies. Americas continued support of undemocratic regimes, and its failure to support real democracies, is today tilling the soil once more for a new crop of jihadists.

In other regards, the Bush administration assumes violence is the sole tool against terrorism. In so doing, it illustrates the tactical limits to violence. The evidence shows that we need a thorough rethink of the administrations counter-terrorism as global war strategy. Instead, we must be thinking of counter-terrorism as an effort to establish the Global Rule of Law.

Both the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions illustrate the problems with the present approach. Widely seen as a success, Afghanistan in fact has been a strategic failure. Our first post-9/11 intervention failed to net either of al-Qaidas ringleaders. It failed to establish a working state (largely because the administration didnt believe in providing needed security for state-building). It also left in place the worlds largest supplier of opium. So the next time terrorists hide out in the valleys of Uruzgan or Paktia, they will have a ready source of cashand connections to transnational Russian mafias to boot. Behind the blustering about whether we should “stay or go, Iraq is already a massive global counter-terrorism failure. Peter Bergen and Alec Reynolds point out that Iraq is recruiting poster, training ground and networking hotspot for tomorrows terrorists. Difficult strategic decisions today, now the United States is knee-deep in quagmire, should not obscure the fact that the Iraq invasion was an unmitigated strategic disaster: It has enflamed the Middle East against us. It gave unwarranted flesh to the bones of bin Ladens raving, paranoid fantasies. And it has trained a new generation of jihadi leaders. President Bushs facile rhetoric that we will fight the terrorists overseas so we do not have to face them here at home, has things precisely backwards: By fighting terrorists in Iraq, we have multiplied their legions around the world.

The global reach of war has not preserved the safety or improved the security of the United States. Violence has bred insecurity, which in turn brings new violence. Worse, this cycle compromises the safety of our children and their children by inciting new violence.

Yet with stubborn monomania, the administrations hews to its reckless course. Last week, its hubristic vision of total war came home (again) in a proposed counter-terrorism bill. Despite being presented as a response to the Supreme Courts decision on military commissions, the proposal is largely a grab-bag of loosely connected horrors. It would permit the president to designate any one who has ever aided any group that has ever engaged in hostilities against the United States as an unlawful enemy combatantfor endless and process-free detention. Perhaps Donald Rumsfelds famous handshake with Saddam Hussein is grounds for his indefinite lock-up. And since the definition sweeps in all international terrorist organizations,u201D if you ever marched for Nelson Mandelas freedom, watch out: The African National Congress was once a terrorist group too.

This startling provision on unlawful enemy combatants is unlikely to become lawbut it is a sign of this administrations overweening ambitions. It is also a sign these ambitions are impervious to rebuke from either Congress or the Supreme Court. Moreover, other provisions in the proposal may very well be passed. Additional provisions suspend the right to habeas corpus for Guantnamo detainees, confining tens or perhaps hundreds of detainees to hopeless limbo. Some provisions authorize torture litea description of the CIAs alternative set of procedures, which include water-boarding, sleep deprivation for 40 hours plus and stress positions. Yet others look back to grant retroactive immunity for the host of past crimesall while disclosed number of tortured innocents grows ever higher.

This bill, which would be a de facto open license for the holding facility at Guantnamo, is a mark of failure. It shows the administration has no strategy beyond force. It has no way of sorting the real terrorists from the innocent, and then it has no way of dealing fairly with those caught in the crossfire.

Take the 450 Guantnamo detainees. It seems likely that many of them are in fact innocent of any culpable conduct. But many of their home countries, such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi20Arabia, are deeply undemocratic and deeply unjust. They are failures of the rule of law; fear and violence grow in place of stable, orderly, and predictable rules. Sending back some of these detainees may very well put them at risk of torture.

A solution to the terrible and tragic Guantnamo conundrum means stabilizing and building the rule of law worldwide. It means building a global rule of lawa key to a broader counter-terrorism strategy that might work instead of yielding repeated disasters.

This entails encouraging not merely democracy, but orderly and stable states that rule by consent and not sheer violence. It involves ceasing to support brutal and anti-democratic dictators and their ruthless secret services. It demands the creation of democratic channels of expression in countries that originally produced transnational jihadists, taking the sting out of al-Qaidas critiques.

In practice, it also requires wholesale reform of the manner in which intelligence cooperation is conducted. It means the strengthening of above-board police cooperation on shared intelligence and evidence. And it means ceasing to ignore the malfeasance of so-called allies, in favor of rigorous attention to the rule of law.

By promoting stable, strong states that can provide true human security, rather than leaving its citizens literally stranded in the face of crisis, we make the world safer and short-circuit the cycle of violence and counter-violence from which terrorists draw succor.

Utopian? Of course. But much of the administrations power comes from the breathtaking sweep of its ambitions. Progressivesand everyone else who cares about a safer, better worldmust respond to the challenge and think in equally grand terms. And while the goal may be distant, its without doubt worth setting as an ideal: A world in which every state operates with stable, predictable, and generally just rules. A world in which terrorists find few takers for their fanciful condemnations and inhumane violence. And a world in which the sickness that is al-Qaida is but a terrible but increasingly distant memory.

Aziz Huq directs the Liberty and National Project at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is co-author of Unchecked and Unbalanced: Presidential Power in Times of Terror (New Press, 2007), and recipient of a 2006 Carnegie Scholars Fellowship.