Sunday, October 30, 2005

Colin Powell's Promise to Arab Leaders

In the spring of 2004, US-Arab relations were rocked by the Abu Ghraib scandal. Then-Secretary Powell made this assurance to Arab leaders:

But even in the midst of their disappointment, the secretary told the Arab leaders he met to "watch America. Watch how we deal with this. Watch how America will do the right thing. Watch what a nation of values and character, a nation that believes in justice, does to right this kind of wrong. Watch how a nation such as ours will not tolerate such actions."

"I told them that they will see a free press and an independent Congress at work," he continued. "They will see a Defense Department led by Secretary (Donald) Rumsfeld that will launch multiple investigations to get to the facts. Above all, they will see a president -- our president, President Bush -- determined to find out where responsibility and accountability lie. And justice will be done. The world will see that we are still a nation with a moral code that defines our national character."

Iraqis have not been impressed by the US response to Lynndie England's 3-year sentence, or Sabrina Harman's 4 month sentence. But the US government should not be judged solely, or mostly, by how it metes out justice--more important is how its policies and practice of handling of prisoners has changed.

The military has made some substantive procedural changes that are reasonable and humane. They've better codified the boundaries of interrogation and taken some authority away from the interrogator. They've clarified the proper use of police dogs, and instituted a better prisoner tracking system to prevent 'ghost detainees'--the poorly documented ones that are most likely to be abused.

At the higher echelons, the story is less rosy. This is highlighted by recent political battles over banning torture.

While I think that the legal argument that combatants without a national affiliation do not have the right to claim Geneva Convention protection has some merits (based on the text of the Conventions themselves, by which non-uniformed fighters are specifically not covered), I also believe that on balance it is in our interest to voluntarily bestow those rights on prisoners the US takes in combat regardless. Doing so has value in strengthening our relationships with allies and with the local population in the countries where we're engaged in counterinsurgency.

However, the administration continues to insist on what amounts to the right to torture detainees, while refusing to call it that.

Over a year and a half after the Abu Ghraib story broke, it is an ongoing mark of shame for America. Colin Powell's early optimism has been thwarted by an incompetent and unprincipled administration that compounded the problem by overestimating the short-term intelligence gains of torture and underestimating its long-term political costs.


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