Another Perspective

Ethics, Law, and War

The Marquis of Queensberry never fought terrorists.

By 10.16.06

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To require American covert intelligence officers not to break international laws is equivalent to restraining a guard dog from attacking an intruder. It goes against the raison d'etre of their respective training and mission.

Secret intelligence operations by definition are activities that involve stealing a nation's classified information, in the course of which suborning treason is a typical method. Attempting to covertly influence a national political process or even training a potential rebel force is hardly to be construed as a "legal" process by a target country. That's why these operations are carried out in such a way as to provide what is called "plausible deniablity" for the government involved.

Interrogation of captured terrorism suspects by intelligence personnel falls into the same category of "illegal" activities as the rest of secret intel operations. Staff and contract officers who are under non-diplomatic cover are not treated under the strict niceties of the Geneva Conventions when they are caught by a target country. What is so special about captured terrorists?

The Geneva Conventions have been and are a device to encourage reasonable and rational actions by warring parties. This entire concept only works if the parties concerned have equal ethical standards. That a country is a signatory to these accords in no way guarantees that its broadly stated provisions will be followed in the same way by different cultures.

The argument is made that just because other nations treat prisoners in an inhumane manner there is no reason for the United States to do the same. The question might be better asked if it questioned how far an official American interrogator should go to gain information that will protect American lives, your family's life, your life?

The truth that no military man wishes to be included into the discussion is that the Geneva Conventions offer only a thin raiment of hoped-for protection against brutality toward captured uniformed soldiers. Those operating in civilian garb, e.g. Special Forces, in practice have no protection at all. It is ludicrous to suggest that in a time of crisis captured terrorists must be treated in the same manner as arrested American civilian felons.

Gen. Colin Powell's published comments not withstanding, the real value of not questioning or redefining the Geneva Conventions lies in the propaganda value internationally. That countries who brutalize their own citizens such as Iran, North Korea, Indonesia, Congo, Sudan, etc. can be expected to treat captured foreigners better is absurd. The fact is that international agreements are useful to point to when arguing a case in the court of world opinion. Such arguments mean little, however, when it comes to POW handling other than as a possible eventual political lever. If that is what Gen. Powell meant, he is right.

The legal arguments regarding what is acceptable in warfare -- of any kind -- break down under the test of the rules of survival perceived in a given circumstance. Therein lies the problem facing the U.S. Administration and the Congress today. Do they, representing the American public, deem the rules of survival in what has been referred to as a "war on terrorism" -- but which is perhaps better defined as "terrorism's war on the U.S." -- justify actions inconsistent with America's own legal and ethical standards.

The debate continues layered with the hypocrisy that lubricates politics. In the field, however, the effort to defend the United States from terrorism's onslaught must proceed within the logic and rationale of survival. The moral rectitude of America's existence has been built on a national self-view. This is how all great nations have come into being and persevered. The ideals of our country have often been the justification of our actions even when our true objectives were simply the maintenance and extension of our power. That is the reality of the world of Realpolitik, and we have been very good at it.

War built on pious pronouncements and judicial definitions has no role in the struggle against jihadi terrorism. The British learned that 150 years ago in India and later in the Sudan. Ignoring history and reality we are still trying to construct Marquis of Queensberry rules for counter-terrorism warfare.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.