Fear can be a strong motivator. It led Franklin Roosevelt to intern tens of thousands of innocent U.S. citizens during World War II; it led to Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt, which ruined the lives of hundreds of Americans. And it led the United States to adopt a policy at the highest levels that condoned and even authorized torture of prisoners in our custody.
Fear is the justification offered for this policy by former CIA Director George Tenet as he promotes his book. Tenet oversaw the secret CIA interrogation program in which torture techniques euphemistically called "waterboarding," "sensory deprivation," "sleep deprivation" and "stress positions" — conduct we used to call war crimes — were used. In defending these abuses, Tenet said: "Everybody forgets one central context of what we lived through: the palpable fear that we felt on the basis of the fact that there was so much we did not know."
We have served in combat; we understand the reality of fear and the havoc it can wreak if left unchecked or fostered. Fear breeds panic, and it can lead people and nations to act in ways inconsistent with their character.
The American people are understandably fearful about another attack like the one we sustained on Sept. 11, 2001. But it is the duty of the commander in chief to lead the country away from the grip of fear, not into its grasp. Regrettably, at a recent presidential debate in South Carolina, several Republican candidates revealed a stunning failure to understand this most basic obligation. Indeed, among the candidates, only John McCain demonstrated that he understands the close connection between our security and our values as a nation.
Tenet insists that the CIA program disrupted terrorist plots and saved lives. It is difficult to refute this claim — not because it is self-evidently true, but because any evidence that might support it remains classified and unknown to all but those who defend the program.
Assertions that "torture works" might reassure a fearful public, but it is a false security. As has happened with every other nation that has tried to engage in a little bit of torture — only for the toughest cases, only when nothing else works — the abuse spread like wildfire, and every captured prisoner became the key to defusing a potential ticking time bomb. Our soldiers in Iraq confront real "ticking time bomb" situations every day, and any degree of "flexibility" about torture at the top drops down the chain of command like a stone — the rare exception fast becoming the rule.
To understand the impact this has had on the ground, look at the military's recent mental health assessment report. The study shows a disturbing level of tolerance for abuse of prisoners in some situations. This underscores what we know as military professionals: Complex situational ethics cannot be applied during the stress of combat. The rules must be firm and absolute; if torture is broached as a possibility, it will become a reality.
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This has been disastrous. Revelations of abuse feed what the Army's new counterinsurgency manual, which was drafted under the command of Gen. David Petraeus, calls the "recuperative power" of the terrorist enemy.
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once wondered whether we were creating more terrorists than we were killing. In counterinsurgency doctrine, that is precisely the right question. Victory comes when the enemy loses legitimacy in the society from which it seeks recruits and thus loses its "recuperative power."
The torture methods that Tenet defends have nurtured the recuperative power of the enemy. This war will be won or lost not on the battlefield but in the minds of potential supporters who have not yet thrown in their lot with the enemy. If we forfeit our values by signaling that they are negotiable in situations of grave or imminent danger, we drive those undecideds into the arms of the enemy. This way lies defeat, and we are well down the road to it.
This is not just a lesson for history. White House lawyers are working up new rules that will govern what CIA interrogators can do to prisoners in secret. Those rules will set the standard not only for the CIA but also for what kind of treatment American soldiers can expect from their captors, now and in future wars. Before the president once again approves a policy of official cruelty, he should reflect on that.
It is time for us to remember who we are and approach this enemy with energy, judgment and confidence that we will prevail. That is the path to security, and back to ourselves.
Krulak was commandant of the Marine Corps from 1995 to 1999. Hoar was commander in chief of U.S. Central Command from 1991 to 1994.
© 2007 The Austin Statesman