This is a guest post by Lawrence B. Wilkerson exclusive to The Washington Note. Wilkerson is the former Chief of Staff at the Department of State during the tenure of Secretary of State Colin Powell, for whom Wilkerson was a 16 year aide. Wilkerson is a member of the Director’s Council of the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program.
The Wrong Instrument
There’s an old saying in my part of the country that if you choose to wrestle with a pig, two things can happen and both are bad: you get dirty and the pig loves it.
First Lady Michelle Obama, appearing on Larry King Live, proved as versatile and smooth as usual by demonstrating that she understands the gist of this saying when she refused to wrestle with Sarah Palin. Michelle simply refused to characterize Palin as the latter had done her husband, the President. Mrs. Obama was correct from another perspective as well: Palin, rapidly becoming with Rush Limbaugh the leader of the kooks in America, would not even make good bacon.
On a much more serious note, Jane Mayer has done the same thing with Dick Cheney, Liz Cheney, Bill Kristol, Michael Goldberg, Mel Sembler and others who have struck up the campaign to denigrate President Obama for his allegedly light touch on terrorism. Ms. Mayer simply destroys them.
Whether listening to her long interview on National Public Radio today (9 February) or reading her devastating indictment of these truly frightening folks in The New Yorker (“The Trial“, 15 February 2010), one cannot escape the clear fact, now well established particularly in the field of torture and abuse–of both people and the law–by the Bush/Cheney team, that Ms. Mayer not only does her homework, she carries a wicked weapon in the form of her pen.
Citing such facts as the Bush administration’s having put 147 of the total 150 terrorists with whom it dealt into the U.S. court system–and not into the military’s courts, tribunals or commissions–and having faired rather well there; of that same administration’s reading of Miranda rights to terrorists; and of its rather consistent failure when it strayed from the rule of law and from the President’s responsibility to be not only commander-in-chief but also the principal enforcer of the nation’s laws, Ms. Mayer deftly spears the Republicans now speaking out against Obama’s policies. They are at best hypocrites and at worst themselves giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
As Ms. Mayer also points out, Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, and Zacarias Moussaoui were both tried and convicted in civil court. Rudolph Guliani, as Ms Mayer records, said of the latter trial: “I was in awe of our system. It does demonstrate that we can give people a fair trial.”
More telling, however, is Ms. Mayer’s almost glancing catalog of crimes committed by the Bush/Cheney team. This, of course, is a subject I know something about. Incompetent battlefield vetting of detainees, murder of detainees at Bagram in Afghanistan, detention of innocent people at Guantánamo, abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib, renditions to secret prisons, and a host of other crimes and mistakes mar significantly the Bush/Cheney record.
Ms. Mayer covers almost in a casual backward glance how such activities ultimately played into the hands of Osama bin Laden and al Qa’ida.
Every time America failed to live up to its own values it gave aid and comfort to the enemy. Truth be told, Dick Cheney may well have represented a greater threat to the long-term security of America than a ragged band of terrorists ever could. Ms. Mayer demonstrates why.
One thing that she misses–through no fault of her own, to be sure–is what I as a soldier cannot help but point out. The instrument of policy to which I devoted my life, war, was the wrong instrument to use against terrorism. Just as “the war on poverty” and “the war on drugs” are illogical distortions for largely partisan political reasons, so is “the war on terror”. But such resorts to the ultimate instrument of policy are also terribly frightening, particularly with respect to terrorism. There are several reasons why I as a soldier of 31 years make these points.
First, wars when undertaken should never be unwinnable from the start. Anyone believing poverty can be eliminated–no matter how laudable the goal–or that drugs can ever be defeated entirely, is naïve to the point of being dangerous, particularly so if in a position of power.
It is the same with terrorism. Terrorism has been with the human race for over 4,000 years; it will be with us for the next 4,000 should we be so fortunate to last that long. The best we can hope to do is what the UK, India, Sri Lanka, Israel, and a host of others have done or are doing: bring terrorism to a manageable level.
If you want to demoralize a military and ultimately destroy it, assign it repeatedly to unwinnable wars.
Some argue, including Dick Cheney, that nuclear weapons have changed all of this, that the potential for a terrorist group to explode such a weapon in a major US city requires the scrapping of our Constitution and a move toward tyranny and permanent war. This is purest hogwash. If we could contend with thirty thousand Soviet missiles aimed at the heart of America without losing our democratic federal republic, how can a band of terrorists succeed in causing it to happen?
These terrorists can achieve such a superhuman feat only if we have decided that Patrick Henry was wrong; that “Give me liberty or give me death” has transmogrified into “Give me security at any cost–including my liberty.” Though I know well we have some amongst us, I refuse to believe we are a nation of such cowards.
Second, when George Bush declared war on terrorists, he elevated them automatically to the status of warriors. That is one reason why there has been so much difficulty with the Geneva Conventions and other aspects of what we in the armed forces call the law of war. More significantly, elevating bin Laden and his group to warrior status gave them precisely what they wanted: holy warrior status, involved in the great fight against the infidels.
Whether we as Americans believe this or not is immaterial. That a sizeable portion of the 1.3 billion Muslims in the world–particularly the young ones–believe it, makes for far too many potential suicide bombers.
Treating terrorists as criminals, on the other hand, gives them just the status such people deserve who kill innocent men, women, and children for political purposes. They are criminals.
Yes, there needed to be military action–not necessarily “war”–against the Taliban in Afghanistan (and any al-Qa’ida that got in the way) because the Taliban represented a state sponsor (yes, we had given diplomatic recognition to the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan before 9/11). But once that action was complete, the military action–other than Special Operations Forces in selective instances–should have slowed down markedly.
Of course Iraq should never have been invaded either; but that is a totally different matter–which, incidentally, had absolutely nothing to do with terrorism.
The terrorists, according to President Obama’s team, are right back where they belong: criminals of the most heinous nature to be tried and convicted in a court of law and punished accordingly.
Now if we could only get our armed forces back where they belong.
— Lawrence B. Wilkerson