Our divisiveness energizes our adversaries

Posted: Aug 05, 2004 12:00 AM

Complaints mount about the U.S. intervention in Iraq. They fall into two basic categories - about the war generally and about interrogation abuses specifically.

On the war generally, John Kerry's latest line holds that President Bush's prosecution of the entire affair is "inept." Al Gore, Kerry's Democratic predecessor on the campaign trail and a frequent stand-in for Kerry this time around, unloaded the other day, terming Bush a congenital liar who dares not admit the truth about Iraq for political reasons. Other Democrats variously liken Bush and Republicans to the Taliban and Nazis.

And the debate about details of dubious import plods on. First it was about whether the U.N. should have been given more time before the invasion's launch. Then it was about whether WMDs existed in Iraq, which just about everybody this side of the Tigris believed. Most recently it has been about whether mere contacts and "ties," or a more meaningful "collaborative relationship," existed between Al-Qaida and the Saddamite regime.

The unrelenting barrage of negatively driven questions about the administration's motives and practices leads inevitably to two conclusions. The first is that the United States never should have gone into Iraq. Kerry surrogate Gore charged the administration recently with "launching our country into a reckless, discretionary war against a nation that posed no immediate threat to us." Secondly, the United States should immediately withdraw to avoid more ambushes and improvised explosive devices and consequent body bags, to avoid more beheadings, and to avoid more affronts to the higher moral sensitivities of Germany, France et al.

On the contrary, President Bush has insisted "there was a relationship between Iraq and Al-Qaida"; he has termed Saddam "a threat" and "a sworn enemy to the United States." If the president believes that, if the best U.S. and British intelligence is confirming it, and if leaders from Tony Blair to Vladimir Putin are testifying to it, then wouldn't this or any president be negligent in failing to launch the initiatives Bush did?

How long will it be - will it ever happen? - until those so profuse in their blame of Bush publicly embrace the logical alternatives to removing Saddam and setting Iraq on the road to democracy?

On the interrogation abuses, it's a similar maze and there is a way out.

Yes, the attention on Abu Ghraib is important. Abuses of prisoners are never good - not even by reservists who make their civilian way cleaning engine blocks in Pennsylvania and helping manage pizzerias in Virginia. Such abuses are always worse if carried out under the orders or with the acquiescence of civilian or military higher-ups - which is what the hunt for blameworthies now is all about.

And lately there are reports of a death from abusive treatment - covered up. And of the suffocation of an Iraqi general in interrogation. And of a decision not to register a prisoner with the Red Cross because he was believed to have information about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the man now orchestrating attacks and beheadings. Yet in obsessing about U.S. actions at Abu Ghraib, do we risk yawning at the vast horrors of Saddam's regime? As Investor's Business Daily notes in an editorial: In a sense the Establishment Media "have become Holocaust deniers while exaggerating into Holocaust dimensions the claims of abuse at the hands of Americans at Abu Ghraib."

In Iraq, the United States now parallels Israel in suffering and the tasks at hand. Yet Israel, at war far longer, has far longer weighed crucial aspects of interrogation.

Notes reporter Glenn Frankel in The Washington Post: "Many of the questions raised by the Abu Ghraib scandal are the kinds that Israel has been wrestling with for decades. Where is the line in a democracy between coercion and torture? What kinds of interrogation techniques are morally acceptable when dealing with a suspect who may have knowledge of a 'ticking bomb' - an imminent attack? And what about the damage those techniques inflict on relations between an occupying power and its subjects?"

How should the United States proceed - not only regarding interrogations abroad but domestically as well? Abroad, keep reviewing the guidelines, as Israel does, and perhaps set up special military tribunals to oversee interrogation and detention - as well as investigation and prosecution of violators. Michael Chertoff, a judge on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, sees a way out here and possibly at Guantanamo. Is the criminal justice system "suitable as the exclusive avenue to detain terrorists?" he writes.

"There are a host of terrorism-related legal questions that require thought: What should our structure be for incapacitating terror suspects at home? The administration has invoked precedents that allow the president to deal with terrorists within our borders as military combatants. Yet are we comfortable using traditional battlefield rules when we apprehend someone in New York? Or should we explore a third way in dealing with detention of terrorists, such as the English or French models: Should we set up specialized courts to deal with terrorist detentions?"

We have underestimated - perhaps the number of military personnel required, perhaps the extent of guerrilla resistance following formal hostilities. And we have erred, as at Abu Ghraib. But do we have the stomach, the fortitude, the grit to press on in a necessary cause? Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says, "The only way this effort could fail is if people were to be persuaded that the cause is lost, or that it's not worth the pain - or if those who seem to measure progress in Iraq against a more perfect world convince others to throw in the towel."

Or hear Debra Burlingame - the sister of Chic Burlingame, the pilot of the airplane Al-Qaidists crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11 - in the Wall Street Journal. She writes of "this corrosive tendency to tear down our rescuers, our public servants, our heroes" when "Cold War modalities no longer appl[y] to very evil men with apocalyptic delusions operating in adaptive networks with cell phones and laptops and supported by millions of dollars."

"Let's have a debate," Burlingame continues, "but let's stop this self-battering, which is weakening us in the only place where Al-Qaida can never penetrate, the core of who we are. Instead of pulling together at such a crucial time to prevent even more lethal attacks in the future, we are displaying a divisiveness that energizes our adversaries. They know us better than we know them. Their strategic kills in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and beyond are aimed at breaking our resolve to root them out at home and hunt them down abroad before they can do us more harm. We will not win every battle, but we will only prevail in the war on terror when we unite, not as Republicans and Democrats, but as Americans."