Monday, April 18, 2005

The "temporary" suspension of civil liberties in a war without end

A key argument that the Bush regime's defenders have made in favor of keeping captured terrorist suspects under indefinite lock and key is that (to quote Richard Samp of the Washington Legal Foundation, which has filed briefs on behalf of the Bush regime), "At the beginning of World War Two nobody knew how long that war might continue. Yet we never decided to allow German POWs to go free simply because they might be serving an indefinite sentence. At some point the war will be over. It will not go on forever."

At "some point" the GWOT will end... but under what circumstances? This is question which has hardly be asked, and certainly has not been answered, not least by those promoting the war. This is a point Steven Bodzin made with devastating wit in this weekend's San Francisco Chronicle:

I wanted to know what constituted the administration's vision of victory in the

So I dug up tens of thousands of pages of strategy objectives from government agencies and think tanks filled with negative goals like "disrupt and destroy terrorist organizations," "conquer this enemy" and "defeat the forces of evil wherever they are."

But a definition of victory was nonexistent. Even the word "victory" was surprisingly rare in the documents of the National Security Council, the CIA, the State Department and the FBI. Dozens of online databases, articles and speeches brought me no closer to discovering the war's goal.

Then, late one night, I thought I had it. Plowing through Acrobat and PowerPoint files in the government's vast network of Web sites, a search for the words "victory" and "war on terror" led me to a 30-page booklet titled "The National Strategy for Combating Terrorism."

It too crackled with negatives: "Interdict and disrupt material support for terrorists." "End the state sponsorship of terrorism."

One tantalizing subsection was labeled "Victory in the War against Terror. " But it proved to be a tease -- just two paragraphs, the first warning that victory would take a long time, the second instructing readers to remain vigilant.

Then, I turned to page 13. That's when I thought I had finished my quest. It was a printout of what looked like three PowerPoint slides bearing the kind of bold arrows used on World War II maps to show troops sweeping toward victory. But rather than marching across a physical landscape, these arrows pushed to decreasing levels of terrorist activity.

The page also included a goal: If all went well in the GWOT, terrorists would become unable to operate across borders, unable to communicate and less able to kill. Al Qaeda would still exist but be rendered "Unorganized. Localized. Non-sponsored." Terrorism would be "returned to the criminal domain."

The caption on this grand endpoint was not "Victory Over Terror." Instead, it was labeled with a term more often seen in hard-drive installation manuals: "Desired Endstate."

As in that great British battleship, Desired Endstate. Or the battle cry, "Desired endstate or death!" As in D-E Day. The diagram was interesting, but I needed to know if this Desired Endstate was official policy and just how "unorganized, localized and non-sponsored" terrorism would have to be for us to celebrate D-E Day. Whoever drew the diagram, I thought, would have the answers.

Bodzin then gets the run-around from the State Department, the NSC, and the CIA, before giving up on the government bureucracy and turning to what you would think would be a better bet, the pro-GWOT pundits.

I found a collection of them at an organization called Americans for Victory Over Terrorism.

Its Web site includes an article by novelist Mark Helprin called "A Strategy for Victory in the War on Terror." Perfect. Except that nowhere in the piece does he provide readers with a vision of our world after the war. Instead, he focuses on process. Steps, then more steps, but no end in sight.

Michael Ledeen, co-founder of Americans for Victory Over Terrorism, is also a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. In his 2002 book "The War Against the Terror Masters," he called for war with Iraq, Iran or any other country that supports terrorism. He often appears on talk shows defending administration policies. If anyone could describe victory, I thought, he could.

I called and explained my quest. He responded with a scoff, "Pfft. The goal? You wouldn't be saying that if you had a daughter in Baghdad." I wasn't quite sure what to make of that, but assured him I wanted terrorists gone as much as anyone. My question was: What would the world look like then?

"There won't be people blowing us up," he said. "They won't have a nation- state supporting them. That's very important."

"How will we know when we're getting close to victory?"

"We'll start seeing defectors," he replied. "It will be all the usual signs when someone's getting ready to lose a war. A drop in morale, recruiting getting more difficult. You'll see their followers throwing down their weapons, giving up."

Have we really burned through our treasury, devastated civil liberties and killed thousands of people to diminish the morale of suicide bombers?

Ledeen told me to look at the president's second inaugural speech. Bush said, "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." So GWOT is valiant and vague. Does Russia count? How about Venezuela?

Bush's inaugural imprecision epitomizes the armchair-warrior class. Sept. 11 inspired brave rhetoric, but the armchair warriors' idea of resolution is as vaporous as their destructive fantasies are cold steel. If they won't tell us what the desired endstate is, there's no way for us to gauge our trajectory to victory.

As many commentators have observed, although the GWOT being represented and to some extent fought as a conventional war, in fact it is a "war" only in the same metaphoric sense that Reagan's "War on Drugs," or Johnson's "War on Poverty" were wars -- in other words, all of these are wars not against an an enemy that can be defeated, but rather against a condition that can never be completely palliated.

One major difference between terror and say, poverty or drug use, however, is that terror is something that can happen to nice rich white folks in the suburbs, even though they do nothing to bring it on themselves. In this sense, the personal fear factor associated with terrorism is for the typical American voter much higher than that associated with poverty or drug use. At the same time, it's precisely this inability to personally ward against terrorism that makes its specter so perfectly designed to create a pemanent siege mentality -- a mentality exploitable by the political powers that be to provide justification for continued rule even as they massively mismanage the economy and the budget, disfigure the environment, and attempt to impose nauseating social mores on the country.

With all that said, I think Bodzin overstates his case. One might reasonably answer "Yes" to his rhetorical question, "Have we really burned through our treasury, devastated civil liberties and killed thousands of people to diminish the morale of suicide bombers?" As Susan Sontag rightly if impoliticly pointed out in the New Yorker just a few days after 9-11, "whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards." With that in mind, attempting to break the morale of America's enemies to the point where they are incapable of actions like 9-11 is an undeniably worthwhile goal for our foreign policy. A better point to make, therefore, is that the tactics that the Bush regime has adopted to achieve this goal have been abysmal failures, if not downright counterproductive.

Then again, Bodzin is right to point out the vagueness (not to say vacuousness, or downright bullshit) of the "goals" set forth in Bush's second inaugural. And this, in turn, brings us back to all these accused terrorists that were are holding indefinitely. If victory is defined as the time at which tyranny has been extinguished from this earth, and if these "detainees formerly known as POWs" are to be held until that time... then does anyone think they will ever be let out? The failure to define unambiguous terms for victory (or defeat) in the GWOT exacerbates the dire civil liberties implications of the Bush regime's prisoner detentions.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Regarding the rhetorical question about diminishing the morale of suicide bombers: the point was that it shouldn't take hundreds of billions of dollars to diminish someone's morale if he's already suicidal. Hell, give me the money and I'll go talk smack about his momma.