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Seeing Red

The International Committee of the Red Cross (icrc), the humanitarian organization that monitors compliance with the Geneva Conventions, is an unlikely bogeyman. Yet conservatives have spent the past week lambasting the icrc for having the temerity to do its job. Last Tuesday, The New York Times reported that, over the summer, the icrc found that conditions in the enemy combatant detention facility at Guantnamo Bay--including "use of forced positions" and "some beatings"--were "tantamount to torture." What's more, the icrc report noted that methods at Guantnamo were turning increasingly "more refined and repressive."

For this, conservatives have concluded that the icrc, in the words of Rush Limbaugh, "hates America." Perhaps this was inevitable, given the Bush administration's 2002 designation of Al Qaeda and Taliban captives as "enemy combatants"--a legal invention that the icrc, like most of the world, does not recognize. But the vitriol directed at the world's premier humanitarian organization is impressive. The Wall Street Journal indignantly wrote that the United States should work to revoke the icrc's "special status come future revisions of the Geneva Conventions." On Fox News, Fred Barnes fumed that "there are grounds for telling them to take a hike from and leave Guantnamo." Most offensively, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in an interview last week with Bill O'Reilly, insinuated that the icrc was advocating the "release [of the jihadists] that are alive back into the terrorist movement so that they can kill more people."

It is the height of hypocrisy for Rumsfeld to malign the icrc. His Pentagon has spent nearly three years insisting that the icrc's presence at Guantnamo Bay obviates any need for further human rights monitoring. In November 2002, when asked about disturbing photographs that had been leaked to the press showing hooded and restrained enemy combatants en route to the prison, then- Defense Department spokeswoman Torie Clarke said, "People also know, but should be reminded, we have the International Red Cross ... to ensure that the treatment of the detainees is absolutely appropriate." And, when three British inmates at Guantnamo charged after their release that they were abused, Navy Secretary Gordon England told CNN in August that the charges couldn't be true because "the International Committee of the Red Cross is here regularly. ... I can't imagine that someone would not have reported this to the icrc." On Monday, The Washington Times editorialized that the icrc's report should be ignored "without more concrete and substantiated evidence." But, by making the icrc the only monitor with access to Guantnamo, Rumsfeld has ensured that there can't be any.

In order to maintain access to inmates who need international protection, the icrc's standard procedure is to report any abuses it finds in detention facilities only to the regime responsible for them. Conservatives consider the icrc's apparent abandonment of this policy in the case of Guantnamo an indication that the organization is, as the Journal put it, "unable to distinguish between good guys and bad." But the icrc's confidentiality policy doesn't appear to be absolute. In 1992, for instance, Iranian mullahs expelled an icrc delegation from Iran after charging that the monitors funneled information to a U.N. report that denounced Tehran's appalling human rights record.

More important, it is not the icrc that's blurring the difference between the good guys and the bad. It's President Bush. Just last week, in a case brought by Guantnamo inmates challenging their detention, the administration's lawyers argued that evidence yielded from torture is admissible in a military tribunal. It's not hard to see how this declaration creates an incentive to commit human rights violations.

Incentives like those are part of a pattern established by Bush in his infamous February 7, 2002, determination that detainees should be treated "in a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva"--but only "to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity." Euphemistic and equivocal approaches to human rights deprive the United States of the moral authority necessary to win the war on terrorism. As Senator John McCain recognized in an interview with Fox's Chris Wallace this week, "We are trying to eradicate ... from the earth people who do these kinds of things." Conservatives angry at the icrc are right to insist on the moral superiority of the United States. But they should recognize that their true adversary in this regard is the Bush administration.