According to the media, Republican strategists hope to make the fight against terrorism a "campaign cornerstone" in the run-up to the November elections.
Great idea! If these same strategists had been around in 1932 during the Depression, they'd probably have urged President Hoover to run for reelection on the strength of his economic policies.
Why would the Republicans want to make their record on fighting terrorism a campaign centerpiece? It's been almost five years since the 9/11 attacks, yet a recent bipartisan study found that 84% of the foreign policy experts surveyed disagreed with the president's often-repeated assertion that we're winning the war on terror. Iraq has become a magnet for the world's aspiring terrorists; in Afghanistan, the Taliban is resurgent and security is worsening; Osama bin Laden remains on the lam.
Unless I'm really missing something, the problem is not only that the GOP anti-terror strategy has been largely counterproductive. Much of the time, it also seems impressively unfettered by logic.
Of course, it could just be me. Maybe the strategy is actually devilishly sophisticated and not incoherent at all.
Here are a few examples. You be the judge.
First, naturally enough, we want to kill terrorists. I get that part. But although we are allowed to kill terrorists, terrorists are not allowed to kill themselves. When they kill themselves — as three terror suspects at Guantanamo did recently and more than 25 have attempted in the past — their suicides are part of an unacceptable campaign of "asymmetrical warfare" against us. Go figure! Gotta hope Bin Laden doesn't catch on — if he realizes that self-destruction is the best way to fight us, next thing you know, he'll kill himself too. And then where would we be?
Then there's this: We want to interrogate terror suspects. Who wouldn't? In fact, we want to use "enhanced" interrogation methods (translation: torture) against terror suspects, and when it's inconvenient for us to torture people ourselves, we regularly trundle them off to foreign states that don't mind getting their hands dirty. Yet we don't want to release any of the remaining detainees at Guantanamo because we're worried that their home governments might … torture them!
And another thing: We want to detect terrorist plots and prosecute terrorists for their crimes. That's why we want to undertake ever more sophisticated electronic surveillance and why we want to create military commissions to try suspected bad guys at Guantanamo. But for some reason, the Bush administration prefers to do all this illegally, which I really don't get.
When you're contemplating programs that pose major potential legal problems (to put it charitably), why not get congressional authorization and follow the law? It saves you a big headache down the road — the kind of headache you get when the Supreme Court slaps you down hard, as it did in the June 29 Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld decision, which held that the administration's military tribunals violated both U.S. and international law.
Previous presidents made a fine art of seeking legal loopholes to do things Congress and the American people probably wouldn't approve of. This president has made a fine art of seeking illegal ways to do things Congress and the American people probably would approve of. But then … maybe President Bush thinks that thumbing his nose at our system of checks and balances is a form of asymmetrical warfare against the terrorists. As he's fond of reminding us, terrorists hate us because "they hate our freedoms." And following this weird logic, if the administration throws our freedoms out the window, maybe they'll stop hating us!
I know, I know. Some of you will be shaking your heads now, saying, "Hey, give the Republican anti-terror strategy a little credit here. After all, we haven't had another 9/11-style attack, have we?" True. But if you think the lack of another major terrorist attack means the GOP approach to fighting terror is working, remember the old joke:
A guy is throwing sawdust out the window. Another guy comes along and says, "Why are you throwing sawdust out your window?"
"To keep the elephants away," says the first guy.
"But there are no elephants around here!"
"See? It works!"
But I don't want to be unfair. There's no denying that the Republicans' anti-terror strategy is having a real effect — in one area, at least. In its annual survey of global public opinion, released in June, the Pew Research Center found that people in 13 of the 15 countries surveyed see the U.S. war in Iraq as a greater threat to world peace than Iranian nuclear ambitions. Overall, the study found, "America's global image has again slipped" and "support for the war on terrorism has declined even among close U.S. allies."
Was it something we said?
Rosa Brooks is a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. Her experience includes service as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, as a consultant for the Open Society Institute and Human Rights Watch, as a board member of Amnesty International USA, and as a lecturer at Yale Law School. Brooks has authored articles on international law, human rights, and the law of war, and her book, "Can Might Make Rights? The Rule of Law After Military Interventions" (with Jane Stromseth and David Wippman), will be published in 2006 by Cambridge University Press.
© 2006 Los Angeles Times