he United States boasts a long, honorable history of treating our enemy prisoners humanely. That history begins with General George Washington, who ensured that Hessian troops were not abused. It continues with President Abraham Lincoln, who commissioned Dr. Francis Lieber to draft rules of conduct to regulate the treatment of Confederate prisoners. What became known as the Lieber Code formed the basis for the Hague Conventions and the Geneva Conventions. As we know, the United States was a key champion of the Geneva agreements.
In more recent times, the United States has developed laws and regulations and ratified treaties that prohibit the abuse of prisoners. These include Article 93 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the 1988 Convention Against Torture, and the 1996 War Crimes Act, among others. Heretofore, the position of the United States on the subject of torture has always been crystal clear.
This approach serves us well in several ways. First, our adherence to the law of war protects our troops when they are in harm’s way. We can’t always expect our enemies to follow suit, but, as Senator John McCain argues, even terrorists are moderated to some small degree by the international abhorrence of torture.
Second, the United States will need to rely increasingly on coalitions to fight future wars. The potential allies we will want to fight alongside are repelled by our failure to comply with the Geneva Conventions. Only the outliers whom we disdain will be willing to fight a war that is not conducted in accordance with Geneva.
Third, torture inflicts a corrosive effect on those who perpetrate it. Would you want your son, daughter, or spouse to engage in the brutality of “enhanced interrogations”?
Finally, there is this: Support for the rule of law and human rights is our most effective weapon. Our greatest strength isn’t our military might, it is our ideas and our ideals. That’s how we won the cold war. We don’t have enough bombs or bullets to ensure a military victory over the enemy we now face. Nor can terrorists defeat us militarily.
However, we could commit national suicide by relinquishing our greatest weaponour ideas and ideals. In an asymmetric war, the winning strategy is to match your strength against the enemy’s weakness. This enemy’s weakness is that he is bereft of ideas; all he has is terror. If we discard 225 years of American historyand the core of our identityby engaging in enhanced interrogations, we essentially disarm ourselves.
The world knows that the rule of law does not exist if it is only applied when convenient. Human rights don’t exist if they are applied to some humans and not others. This is not the time to waiver. Plato said, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Indeed, this is not the worst war we have ever fought; it is just the present war. We don’t need to torture prisoners in order to win it. In fact, torturing prisoners is precisely how we can lose it. We must remain true to ourselves and to the heritage earned by the blood, sweat, and dedication of Washington, Lincoln, and Eisenhower.
Let’s be clear about one point: The most aggressive technique that we use is U.S. policy. If the CIA and contractors can undertake enhanced interrogations, that will be U.S. policy regardless of what limitations are imposed on the military. Let’s not delude ourselves into thinking otherwise. We are all in this together.
When historians look back on the halcyon days of America, they will conclude that what made us great wasn’t our economic dominance, but our resolute support of human rights and the rule of law. It’s not an unblemished history, to be sure. We have been imperfect, but we have strived mightily. The next president must return us to those values, lest historians opine that it was in the early years of the twenty-first century that the greatest nation on earth made a fatal miscalculation and started on the path to becoming the next former world power.