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Catfish and Cod
Saturday, May 22, 2004
Penny wise and pound foolish.
(Link path: The Footballs of Rabid Pro-Semitism, National Review Online)

The Footballs links a disturbing piece by Byron York in the National Review, suggesting that Rumsfeld's policy changes to permit greater flexibility in killing, capturing, and interrogating prisoners, was "a good idea". In other words, he argues that the rewards in intelligence and military action outweigh the cost in goodwill, in diplomatic influence, in prestige, and in national morale.

The initial impetus is described by York (paraphrasing Hersh):

As Hersh tells the story, the secretary of defense was "apoplectic" after U.S. forces blew a chance to kill Afghanistan's Mullah Omar because a military lawyer wouldn't approve the strike. "Rumsfeld was apoplectic over what he saw as a self-defeating hesitation to attack that was due to political correctness," Hersh writes. To which many people might say: It's about time. That's precisely the reaction a secretary of defense should have.

And indeed, it was the correct response. The situation was analogous to the problems of British Bomber Command in 1942, when attacks on munitions plants in Germany were held up by legal complaints from British investors, who owned stock in the companies running the plants. There are some things that go out the window in wars.

The disturbing -- nay, shocking -- mentality advanced by York, and applauded at the Footballs, is that most other restraints on warfare should be loosed as well. York similarly lauds the removal of restraints on capturing suspected terrorists (tolerable in some cases), interrogating and torturing suspected terrorists (dishonorable), and the extension of these methods from the fight against al-Qaeda to the fight against Iraqi insurgencies (foolish and strategically unconscionable).

In York's world, the ends justify the means. The Footballs agrees. To this brand of true-believer neocon hawks, nothing -- nothing -- is more important than the defeat of the enemy. They are willing to let us lose our honor, lose our leadership of the world, and endanger our way of life in the process, and do not even count the cost.

Arguments that corrective systems, such as the investigations and court martials at Abu Gharib, are operating as designed do not wash. Nor do arguments that the abuses there did not directly stem from the change in policy. When you direct a part of your organization to do things contrary to your overall purpose (in the case of Iraq, the rule of law and a legitimate government), you get an organization working at cross purposes. The troops work to establish civil justice while the interrogators make people disappear without right of habeas corpus. The torturers violate the Geneva Conventions while the CPA works to establish respect for civil institutions.

And as your organization continues to grind its gears, the sounds of an organization in agony grow louder and louder. This New York Times piece (free and pointless registration required) is just one example. While the President insists that the Geneva Conventions apply to Iraq's prisons, the Pentagon's lawyers draw up contradictory statements. This is not an accident, and it's not an accidental breakdown in the chain of command. It is the result of a deliberate reversal of policy within a section of the military, a situation that is causing some parts of the government to work against their own co-workers. It is as if your left hand were pushing to close a door that is pinning your right wrist.

As Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said, "If we're the good guys, shouldn't we act like the good guys?" To do otherwise jeapordizes not only our standing abroad but our own national morale and willpower. And as I discussed last week, the memetic space is the space in which the war will be won or lost. (I'd link it but permalinks seem to be down. The post is "The only battlefield: II.")

Launching attacks without regard to legal niceties is a sad necessity of war. Grabbing suspected terrorists, likewise, although restitution should be made when we make mistakes. But harsh interrogation and torture are counterproductive, not only in terms of the intelligence received, but in terms of the wider conflict. It is tactically wise and strategically stupid; it is penny wise and pound foolish.