Five Years Later: a National Strategy on Terror, Tribunal Rules, and Managing an Image

Five years later and the anniversary of 9/11 is here and gone and yet the Bush Administration still doesn’t ‘get it’. The President makes speeches, the Vice President and Secretaries of State and Defense go forth and speak, and policies are published emphasizing an invigorated strategy. Nevermind the disjunction between words and policies, that simply complicates reality. 

Three years have passed since the White House published its last ‘strategy’ for countering terrorism. This past week, in the run up to the 9/11 anniversary today and, undoubtedly to get in front of polls for upcoming elections, the White House issued a revised National Strategy for Countering Terrorism (NSCT). The NSCT focuses on the need to deny sanctuary, disrupt and eliminate social and financial and logistical support networks using ‘freedom and human dignity’ as positive weapons:

Not only do we fight our terrorist enemies on the battlefield, we promote freedom and human dignity as alternatives to the terrorists’ perverse vision of oppression and totalitarian rule.

The problem is this Administration fails to grasp the value of information in the modern world. Perhaps the strongest point of the Bush White House is the innate ability to feed ammunition to the ‘Islamo-fascists’ (almost an odd selection considering the Catholic heritage of the word, but that’s too intellectual). Consider, for example, the second-guessing of military, cultural, political, and regional experts on what to expect in Iraq before, during, and after ‘major combat operations’ continues today as the Occupation of Iraq has become a self-fulfilling prophecy (see Rumsfeld’s rejection of Peace & Stability Op ‘Phase IV’ planning in Iraq at Arm Chair Generalist).

To counter this threat, the Administration says we must “promote freedom and human dignity as alternatives to the terrorists’ perverse vision of oppression and totalitarian rule.” To this end we must “[a]dvance effective democracies as the long-term antidote to the ideology of terrorism”. And yet, even today, the Administration rejects this.

In response to new and ‘revised’ tribunal rules published by the White House, the military lawyers took issue. A Staff Judge Advocate of the Marines responds to the proposed tribunal rules the Administration put forward after releasing the NSCT:

"I am not aware of any situation in the world where there is a system of jurisprudence that is recognized by civilized people where an individual can be tried and convicted without seeing the evidence against him," said Brigadier Gen. James C. Walker, staff judge advocate to the Marine Corps commandant.

NPR had good coverage of the Congressional hearing. I’m particularly interested in what (Air Force Deputy JAG) Major General Charles Dunlap, Jr. said, the same Dunlap who wrote a short piece about how the military overthrows the civilian leadership in the interest of the Constitution. He doubted the Supreme Court would uphold death penalty convictions based on the unconstitutional (my words) evidentiary process the White House is proposing.

The lack of the big picture was clear when the White House lawyer was asked if the conditions for evidence for ‘terror suspects’ would be acceptable if applied to American military personnel captured in the future. The response was: “Probably not”.  What if it were applied to American civilians captured? That wasn’t asked.

So why propose these rules? Because the Administration is ‘tough on terrorism’. Well that and the upcoming elections.

What about the new Detainee and Interrogation policies?

The NSTC highlights the centrality of the “very principles of liberty and human dignity” as key to winning. Do we lead by example or do we accept that we’re inherently soft and must conform to the standards of the ‘enemy’?

From the New York Times on the interrogation rules:

But legal experts say it adds up to an apparently unique interpretation of the Geneva Conventions, one that could allow C.I.A. operatives and others to use many of the very techniques disavowed by the Pentagon, including stress positions, sleep deprivation and extreme temperatures….

The net effect of the new legislation in the interrogation context, Professor Yoo said, is to allow the C.I.A. flexibility of the sort that the revisions to the Army Field Manual have denied to the Pentagon. The bill lets the C.I.A. “operate with a freer hand” than the Defense Department “in that space between the Army Field Manual and the McCain amendment,” he said.

Dean Koh said the administration’s new interpretation of the Geneva Conventions would further isolate the United States from the rest of the world.

“Making U.S. ratification of Common Article 3 narrower and more conditional than everyone else’s,” he said, “by its very nature suggests that we are not prepared to make the same commitment that every other nation has made.”

This is on one-level a fascinating attempt by the Executive to make an(other) end-run around both the Judicial and Legislative and on the other, simply preposterous. The military generally likes to have rules, but John Yoo and the Administration only want their own rules.

“There is a rejection of what the court did in Hamdan,” [John C. Yoo, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former Justice Department official who helped develop the administration’s early legal response to the terrorist threa] said, “which is to try to judicially enforce the Geneva Conventions, which no court had ever tried to do before.”

…Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions bars, among other things, “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment.” The administration says that language is too vague.

…The proposed legislation in any event represents a further retreat from international legal standards by an administration already hostile to them, some scholars said. “It’s strong evidence that this administration doesn’t accept international legal processes,’’ said Peter J. Spiro, a law professor at Temple University.

(If you want to read more on the various documents in the interrogation policy, see Secrecy News’ post, including why the publications are public and not classified.)

Back to the NSTC, how does this legal condition that does not conform to our legal standards, yet the Administration promotes, help in “[t]he creation of a global environment inhospitable to violent extremists and all who support them”? Consider Joe Galloway’s article, Military Leaders Want New Iraq Strategy:

Most of the officers, however, agreed that the administration has relied too heavily on the military and shortchanged economic and political efforts in Iraq….

"Our national strategy must include policies that assist our cause, not those of the insurgents and terrorists by reinforcing their exaggerated views of American behavior and intentions," [retired Marine Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold, who resigned as the director of operations for the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff on the eve of the invasion of Iraq] said.

Newbold agreed that the United States must focus its primary effort in the economic and political realms in Iraq, and he said that so far the other agencies of the U.S. government haven't come close to the intensity and commitment of the military engagement. "To borrow a phrase: It's the economy, Stupid!" he said.

The State Department and other agencies need to stop staffing the U.S. Embassy and U.S. advisory teams to the Iraqi government ministries with inexperienced, short-term Generation X staffers, agreed a senior general. Stop making duty in Baghdad strictly a volunteer affair, he said: Assign your best and most experienced staffers to this vital work.

The senior officer [who has] served multiple tours in Iraq said one goal should be to establish an Iraqi rule of law (police, judges/courts, prisons) with a degree of due process appropriate to the security situation. He said the United States also should empower local governments, giving them the capability to provide basic services and address local grievances.

"Everything we are doing brings Iran and Syria closer together when we ought to be doing everything we can to split them apart," said the senior general. "We need a U.S. ambassador in Syria. (The Bush administration recalled the U.S. ambassador, who hasn't returned.) It would help in Iraq and have spin-off benefits in Lebanon. You can't exert influence if you are not there. We need to be talking to the Syrians. Hell, we need to be talking to the Iranians. This whole axis of evil thing is bull! All it did was drive our enemies closer together."

[Retired Army Col. Larry Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Gen. Colin Powell at the State Department in President Bush's first term] said the administration should "bring in the surrounding states, not just Iran, though it is the most important one, and get them to share the load money-wise and diplomatically. The Bedouins have got to stop putting their money on all sides, hoping that one will win. They must put their money exclusively on the government in Baghdad. They have to understand that the U.S. is not leaving until the situation is stable."

Basically, are actions are doing something else than create the inhospitable environment. It is almost ironic the NSTC says the following in contrast the comments from senior military officers above:

In place of alienation, democracy offers an ownership stake in society, a chance to shape one’s own future.

  • In place of festering grievances, democracy offers the rule of law, the peaceful resolution of disputes, and the habits of advancing interests through compromise.
  • In place of a culture of conspiracy and misinformation, democracy offers freedom of speech, independent media, and the marketplace of ideas, which can expose and discredit falsehoods, prejudices, and dishonest propaganda.
  • In place of an ideology that justifies murder, democracy offers a respect for human dignity that abhors the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians.

“Democracies are not immune to terrorism” is correct, in fact it is Democracies that are most susceptible. And in that, the focus of the NSTC, by focusing on AQAM (al-Qaeda and Associated Movements) and “Islamo-Fascism”, ignores opportunistic and non-religious terrorist acts by Kurdish separatists, Tamil Tigers, and others. But that could be excused since, afterall, the Kurds are killing Turks and how many white people in the US know where Sri Lanka is and how that matters to the Tamil Tigers? To paraphrase someone: American’s learn geography through war. In this case the Tigers aren’t our war.

More interestingly, God forbid the NSTC says the “Islamo-Fascist” crowd is a bunch of Born-Agains, as Marc Sageman convincingly argues (see presentation at JHU APL here). That might not play well in the White House, though. Just a hunch.

To close, the 9/11 Five Years later retrospective of sorts does have a nice plug for public diplomacy

Success in this ideological struggle demands that we explain more effectively our values, ideals, policies, and actions internationally and support moderate voices willing to confront extremists and discredit radicals.

  • We must employ all elements of U.S. national power, including public diplomacy, development, and democracy-building programs, to address the conditions which terrorists exploit and to counter extremist propaganda and recruiting.

It is sad that five years later, our policies still fail to be in sync with our actions. Isn’t this supposed to be a mission of Karen Hughes? I remember debating somebody last year about how there was no way Karen Hughes was going to impact American policy. I was shot down and told she sits at the table and we’ll see. Seriously.