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A TNR Online Debate

Should There be a "War on Terror"?

Editor's Note: Today we present the first of a four-part debate between Philip H. Gordon, a senior fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution and the author of Winning the Right War, and Reuel Marc Gerecht, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, about the war on terror.

Dear Reuel,

I hope you've had a chance to read my new book, Winning the Right War, which I sent you last month. As you'll have seen, I argue that for six years now we've been waging the wrong "war on terror," putting too much emphasis on military force, tough talk, and unilateral action, when instead we should be fighting a patient, long-term ideological battle--much in the way we successfully waged a war against Communism during the Cold War. The reason the Cold War is a better analogy than any other (and especially better than the World War II analogy now implied with all the recent talk of "World War III" or "World War IV") is that it wasn't really a war at all. Ultimately we won it not on the battlefield but in the hearts and minds of people all over the world--including our direct adversaries at the time.

I'm sure you'll have plenty of quibbles, but I wonder if you would at least accept my starting point, which is that six years after the start of President Bush's war on terror, the strategy is failing. Iraq is a terrorist recruitment center, Al Qaeda is reorganizing along the Afghan-Pakistan border, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are still at large, America's standing in the world is at an all-time low, Hamas and Hezbollah are growing in strength, Iran is increasingly defiant, and democracy, far from being "on the march," is in retreat. It's true that the U.S. homeland has not been attacked since 2001, which is obviously an important accomplishment and good news--but terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world have been more than twice as numerous in the six years since 9/11 as in the six years preceding it. I think any objective observer would have to agree that the balance sheet for this war so far is pretty dismal.

There are no doubt lots of reasons for our current predicament, but if I had to pick one I would say we have failed to appreciate the central role of morality in the ideological struggle in which we are now engaged. The Bush administration, reacting to a shocking attack on the U.S. homeland, took the view that the wounds America suffered were so grievous and the threat it faced was so great that the United States had to set aside the norms that would otherwise guide its domestic and international actions. It concluded that the stakes were too high to allow our armed forces, intelligence agencies, military interrogators, and political leaders to be constrained in the way they went about dealing with a ruthless foe. In so doing, however, I believe they squandered our moral authority, for which we'll be paying a price for many years to come. More than any other single mistake, this underestimation of the importance of our moral standing has made America less safe and less strong.

Having read your pieces on this issue in The Weekly Standard over the years, I know you're skeptical. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you seem to believe, like Vice President Cheney, that "terrorists only understand force," and that issues like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, secret CIA prisons, detainee abuse, and other such blights on America's moral standing have in fact had very little impact on our success in the fight against terrorism. Do I understand your position correctly? I wonder if you agree with John Yoo, the former Justice Department legal adviser, who minimizes the role of America's global standing by asking "What president would put America's image in the United Nations above the protection of innocent civilian lives?"

You see, Reuel, I think that "America's image" is in many ways what this fight is all about. It is not a question of simply being liked by others, or even doing the right thing for our own peace of mind, but of pursing national self-interest by not providing fodder for those who are prepared to resort to violence because of America's "image." It is true that core Al Qaeda members can not be mollified by a U.S. commitment to implement the Geneva Conventions. But it is also true that in a political war of ideas, millions of people around the world are judging U.S. actions to determine whether they want to be on America's side, fight against it, or sit on the fence. There is no doubt that Muslim anger over Iraq or the treatment of detainees is sometimes manufactured, manipulated, and exaggerated. But there is also no doubt that some U.S. actions have intensified genuine feelings of antipathy--even violent hatred--of the United States among a wide swath of the world's Muslim population. When pictures and stories from Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and Iraq circulate on jihadist websites, they serve as gifts to al Qaeda recruiters who are fighting a propaganda war against the United States. We need to fight and win that war, too, not deny that it is taking place--or inadvertently work for the other side.

The case for treating prisoners humanely--and implicitly the case against the administration's track record--is made persuasively in the U.S. Army counterinsurgency manual, drafted by General David Petraeus. The manual emphasizes that "any human rights abuses or legal violations committed by U.S. forces quickly become known throughout the local populace and eventually around the world," and therefore that such abuses "undermine both long-term and short-term [counterinsurgency] efforts." By making this point, Petraeus is echoing the lessons identified more than forty years ago in David Galula's classic book Counterinsurgency Warfare, which drew on the author's experience with the French army in Algeria. Galula argued that the most effective way to demoralize enemy forces was not through abuse or torture, but rather "by employing a policy of leniency toward prisoners." Over the long run, he argued, lenient treatment saps the anger of the insurgents and makes it harder for them to bring in new recruits.

The question of America's "image" is also important when it comes to winning allied support for the fight against terrorism. Allies like Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Jordan's King Abdullah and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan are severely undermined when they have to explain to their people why they should work closely with a country that has a documented reputation for abusing Muslim prisoners. Similarly, when parliaments in Britain, Spain, Italy, South Korea, or Japan vote on whether to send troops to Afghanistan, allow base access for U.S. forces, vote with the United States at the UN, or expand intelligence cooperation, they inevitably take into account their publics' perceptions of America's "image." And it is indisputable that our moral authority is being questioned, even by our closest allies. When even The Economist is calling our policies "unworthy of a nation which has cherished the rule of law from its very birth" you know we've lost a serious amount of credibility among our most reliable supporters.

What can the United States do to restore its damaged moral authority? There are no quick fixes, but here are three steps a new administration should take. (And frankly, at this point, I think it's better to wait for a new administration, because the Bush administration's credibility is unrecoverable.)

One is simply to close the Guantanamo prison, and finally prosecute, transfer, deport, or release its remaining prisoners. Such a step would not be without risk, as the released prisoners might seek to commit terrorist acts, as some of them have reportedly threatened to do. But the advantages of removing this stain on America's reputation outweigh the risks. After five years in isolation in a U.S. prison, the remaining detainees are unlikely to possess any significant intelligence value. Moreover, the most clearly dangerous among the prisoners can be tried by military commissions or even civilian courts and, if found guilty, sentenced to long and legitimate prison terms. Others could be sent back to their home countries and tracked by U.S. or other intelligence services. That tracking would doubtless be imperfect, but as some of the detainees reestablish old contacts it might also produce new intelligence leads (and creative leaks that they had "turned" while in prison could sow suspicions among their cohorts). While the idea of releasing even one person who might turn to terrorism is certainly abhorrent, the sad reality is that there seems to be no shortage of willing, angry, and resentful young Muslim men to serve as operatives for international extremist groups. Indeed, continuing to hold prisoners at Guantanamo probably creates more potential terrorists than would releasing those that remain.

A second essential step will be for the United States to revise its policies on the Geneva Conventions and torture. The next president should declare that the Geneva Conventions will be applied to all detainees and that no detained suspect will be held incommunicado without periodic visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross. This policy would officially rescind George W. Bush's December 2005 "signing statement" after the McCain Amendment, in which Bush effectively said that the as president he did not feel obliged to follow that amendment's provisions, even though they were now the law of the land. I don't know about you, but I don't think that whatever information we may be able to get out of people by mistreating them is reliable enough to compensate for the real costs of crossing that moral line.

Finally, a new administration must commit to a policy of greater transparency, to reassure Americans and non-Americans alike that the era of secret prisons, warrantless wiretaps, and secret financial monitoring programs is over. If it's our policy not to torture, why maintain secret prisons abroad, whose sole purpose would seem to be to preserve the ability to do so? Transparency does not mean that the United States will cease to engage in covert or intelligence activities vital to the nation's security, but simply that it acknowledges and publicly defends the need for those activities. The type of actions the United States is undertaking will be revealed, but the details will not be.

As you know, Reuel, in Winning the Right War I argue that one of the key lessons of the Cold War was that since we couldn't win it on the battlefield at an acceptable cost, the only option was to win over hearts and minds, depriving the enemy of recruits until it ultimately collapsed. Don't you think that lesson applies today? Our greatest weapons in this war are the values that distinguish us from our enemies. Given the mess we're in, don't you think it's high time we deploy those weapons?



By Philip H. Gordon