Monday, November 22, 2010

The Determinator



"A preventive war is a crime not easily committed by a country that retains any traces of democracy." George Orwell wrote these words in an essay called "Towards European Unity," published in the July-August 1947 Partisan Review. It was at the beginning of the Cold War, when the two superpowers remaining after the destruction of Europe squared off for a conflict that never, thankfully, materialized. Orwell was pessimistic: "If I were a bookmaker, simply calculating the probabilities and leaving my own wishes out of account, I would give odds against the survival of civilization within the next few hundred years."

At the time, the U.S. was in sole possession of the atom bomb - or so everyone thought. When Orwell considered the prospects for future world conflicts, he ruled out the possibility of a preventive attack by the U.S. on Russia. But what Orwell did not foresee was that, even after Russia acquired the bomb, the idea of a preemptive, or preventive, war would become an important feature of nuclear strategy.

During the Cold War, one of the questions on people's minds that could never get a straight answer was: would the U.S. ever consider carrying out a preemptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union? (1) Although there were occasional denials, such an attack could never be realistically eliminated as an option. As a deterrent, it was vital that the Russians understood that it was a possibility. It sounds almost insane to us today, but it was only a part of the general insanity of the nuclear arms race, in which redundancy of power was a factor.

For a man with famously clumsy language skills, George W. Bush has managed to add a number of new terms to the English lexicon, and seriously tested the precise meaning of some old ones. Bush's memoir, Decision Points, was recently published, and many have looked at it with predictable distaste. Bush wrote it, with help (2), with an understanding that in many countries, including his own, he is not held in high esteem. The book is proof that this disapproval bothers him, and that he anxiously wanted to tell his side of the story. One of the most significant passages from the book deals with the nonexistent WMDs in Iraq, which were the primary motivation for our preemptive invasion in 2003. In his interview with Oprah, Bush said "When we didn't find weapons I felt terrible about it, sick about it and still do, because a lot of the case in removing Saddam Hussein was based upon weapons of mass destruction."

The real question is not how we could have gone to war based on such faulty intelligence, but even if those weapons had materialized would they have justified the invasion? (3) Some have argued that a more democratic Iraq (it isn't quite there yet) is a good enough justification - except that it was not what sold the war to the American and British people. Regime change would have been a hard sell, raising questions of legality as much as of morality. Invading another country without a provocative reason would, I believe, have been unacceptable to Americans, even when their bloodthirst was fresh after September 11.

On November 17, 2010, a jury handed down its verdict in the trial of Ahmed Ghailani, who was accused of involvement in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. Of the 285 counts against him in the indictment, he was acquitted of all but one - conspiracy to commit murder.

Ghailani's was the first trial of a former Guantanamo Bay detainee in a civilian court, and opponents of the closure of Gitmo claim that the verdict is some kind of vindication of their opposition and proof that President Obama's insistence on its closure and the abandonment of military-style tribunals is a grievous mistake.

When hundreds of Muslim fighters, or "Islamists," were captured after American forces entered Afghanistan in November 2001, a decision had to be made about what should be done with them. George W. Bush, as the "decider," determined that calling them "prisoners of war" would entitle them to Geneva Convention rights. So he tried to circumvent them by classifying the Islamists as "enemy combatants." (4) These enemy captives were then subjected to the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" techniques in "black" prisons outside U.S. territory, before being "detained" at Guantanamo Bay without being formally charged of anything.

Many of these detainees (enemy captives) have been held at Gitmo for several years. Why has it taken so long to process them through Bush's military tribunals, if they are such great threats to our national security? The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are coming to their sad ends, so a state of war with those countries is about to end as well. The usual thing to do with prisoners of war when the war is over is to repatriate them to their home countries. This has already been done in some cases. There were two particular decision points that distinguished the Bush presidency(5): going to war based on astonishingly mistaken intelligence and submitting prisoners of war to barbaric mistreatment.

I was honorably discharged from the Army in October 2000, with little more to show for my eleven and a half years of service than flat feet and no idea what to do with the rest of my life. I felt no genuine sense of relief that I was out until after 9/11, not because I was afraid of getting shot at in Afghanistan or Iraq, but because I knew that I could not have conscionably taken part in Bush's boondoggles. I was happy that I was out, even if I was sorry that so many good men were going to be called upon to defend the indefensible. To their eternal credit, they fought for one another and not for some ill-conceived and unattainable new order.


(1) By definition, a "preemptive" war is somewhat distinguishable from a "preventive" war in that, according to Wikipedia, "a preventive war is launched to destroy the potential threat of an enemy, when an attack by that party is not imminent or known to be planned, while a preemptive war is launched in anticipation of immediate enemy aggression." I find the difference to be an altogether convenient one as an excuse for armed aggression.
(2) From his former speechwriter Christopher Michel.
(3) Pakistan has genuine WMDs - a nuclear arsenal that the U.S. helped them develop during the Cold War as a regional deterrent to Soviet-backed India.
(4) Despite the fact that they ceased being combatants once they were captured.
(5) Let's put aside Bush's two big indecision points for now - ignoring the intelligence that made September 11 possible and doing nothing while New Orleans drowned.

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