Necessary Roughness

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

As he begins his second term, President Bush has become a victim of his own success in combating Al Qaeda. If shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, Bush had announced a policy of disemboweling captured terrorists, he would have been applauded from Boise to Boston. Heck, John Kerry would probably have volunteered to wield the sword.

More than three years later, the sense of panic has abated and legions of critics are condemning one of the successful steps taken to prevent another 9/11 -- the aggressive interrogation of captured terrorists.

Human Rights Watch has the gall to begin its annual report by singling out for censure two “fundamental threats to human rights” that occurred last year: “the ethnic cleansing in Darfur and the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib.” Are the abuses committed by a few renegade guards at one prison really worth mentioning in the same breath as the murder of 70,000 people in Darfur? Even Human Rights Watch has to concede that “no one would equate the two,” and yet that’s what the group is doing.


I hold no brief for the sickos at Abu Ghraib, who have begun to get the jail time they deserve. Their superiors also deserve to be harshly disciplined. But let’s keep a little perspective, shall we? According to the August 2004 report of an independent panel chaired by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, more than 50,000 individuals have been detained by U.S. forces in the global war on terrorism. Allegations of misconduct have been made in 300 cases -- that’s 0.6% -- and not all of them have been substantiated. (Surprise! Some detainees lie!) For all the sifting of the administration’s legal memorandums, no evidence has emerged that abuses were the result of high-level decisions. “No approved procedure called for or allowed the ... abuses that in fact occurred,” the Schlesinger report concluded.

The Bush administration is hardly blameless. It should have kept a tighter rein on its subordinates and been better prepared to handle large numbers of detainees. But the critics are barking up the wrong tree when they flay the president for refusing to apply the Geneva Convention in Afghanistan. (It is being applied in Iraq -- for all the good that did at Abu Ghraib.) The laws of war are a social contract: Combatants who follow the rules will be given protections if captured. Al Qaeda and its ilk do not abide by such niceties as not targeting civilians and not beheading captives. If they are given all the protections accorded to lawful prisoners of war, what incentive do they have to follow the rules?

We should be clear about what POW status entails. According to the 1949 Geneva Convention, a POW “is bound to give only his surname, first names and rank, date of birth, and army, regimental, personal or serial number.” Any attempt to coax further information is forbidden: “Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.”

Is this really the standard we should apply to Al Qaeda detainees? Many of Bush’s critics think so. Although Human Rights Watch focuses its criticisms on torture, which everyone condemns, it also wants to ban “all forms of coercive interrogation.” Many of these involve no physical coercion. Interrogators employ psychological “stress techniques” such as the good cop/bad cop routine seen on countless TV shows. Other techniques that Human Rights Watch would like to outlaw involve keeping detainees up past their bedtime, making them stand for long periods and yelling at them -- no worse than the treatment meted out to recruits in boot camp.

Rougher methods have been employed on the worst of the worst. It is alleged, for instance, that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was tied to a board and temporarily submerged in water to induce a feeling of drowning. “Waterboarding” may well meet the United Nations’ definition of torture: the infliction of “severe pain and suffering, mental or physical.”

Should this be permitted? I’m not sure. It’s hard to know exactly where to draw the line. But I am sure that I reject the absolutist grandstanding of so many of the president’s critics, who would turn international law into a suicide pact. That such views are now espoused even by some supporters of the war on terrorism is a sign of how complacent we have become. I hope it doesn’t take another 9/11 to alert us to the mortal danger we still face.