In his latest rip-roaring attack on the Bush administration, Al Gore basically called on everyone in the Pentagon’s civilian leadership short of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs William Winkenwerder Jr. to resign. Their list of offenses is myriad, according to Gore, including a charge rarely heard in political debate–”the impending loss of intimacy with one’s soul.” Gore is judge, hangman, and therapist, all in one.
The administration’s gravest alleged misconduct is treating the Geneva Convention with contempt. The abuses at Abu Ghraib were “the natural consequence” of Bush policy, says Gore. He all but accuses President Bush of personally dressing Iraqi detainees in women’s underwear. No respectable Bush critic would dare use Gore’s inflammatory language–he says Bush is running a “gulag,” thus associating him with Josef Stalin–but his essential charge on the Geneva Convention has been repeated even in more serious quarters. If Gore et al. want to scold the Bush administration for ignoring the Geneva Convention, the least they can do is properly understand its purpose and its provisions.
White House counsel Alberto Gonzales has been criticized for a 2002 legal memorandum in which he described parts of the Geneva Convention as “quaint.” He was right. As law-of-war expert David Rivkin points out, the convention regarding treatment of prisoners was originally signed in 1949 with World War II in mind. Prisoners of war were assumed to be conscripts caught up in a war by no fault of their own, and therefore entitled not just to humane treatment, but to “Hogan’s Heroes” treatment.
Under the Third Geneva Convention, POWs must be housed in “dormitories,” and provided a “canteen,” where they can buy “foodstuffs, soap and tobacco and ordinary articles in daily use.” The canteen’s profits must be available for the prisoners’ use, and POW representatives must participate in the canteen’s operation. “The practice of intellectual, educational, and recreational pursuits, sports and games amongst prisoners” must be encouraged.
The Bush administration, rightly, says these provisions don’t apply to al Qaeda prisoners and other “unlawful combatants” with nothing in common with regular soldiers. Gore apparently disagrees. So captured al Qaeda big Abu Zubaida, for instance, should be held in a comfortable dorm setting and perhaps even avail himself of the occasional friendly chess game with a certain former vice president. He shouldn’t be bothered with tough interrogation, from which the Geneva Convention protects POWs–not when he has the operation of the local canteen to worry about. Will the market bear falafels priced at $3 or $5?
Treating Zubaida and other thugs thusly would do more to undermine the Geneva Convention than anything Gore is accusing Bush of. The convention was designed to disadvantage combatants who don’t obey the laws of war by fighting out of uniform, lacking a discernable chain of command or targeting civilians. The distinction is meant to encourage combatants to honor relatively civilized standards of conduct in combat and foreswear such dangerous tactics as hiding among civilians.
Gore’s absurd reinterpretation of the Geneva Convention to protect terrorists makes a huge intellectual concession to al Qaeda, former Baathist fighters, and other criminal groups–that their men are indistinguishable under international law from American GIs. Gore is also willing to kiss off the intelligence gained from the kind of interrogation forbidden of regular soldiers under the Geneva Convention. Intelligence under interrogation has been crucial to the capture of Saddam Hussein and many high-level al Qaeda officials.
“Pvt. Lynndie England,” Gore thundered in his speech, “did not make the decision that the United States would not observe the Geneva Convention.” Put aside the fact that no one in the Bush administration decided to deny Geneva protections to those entitled to them. The suggestion that England’s perverse conduct at Abu Ghraib was influenced one way or the other by Bush’s interpretation of international law is ridiculous. She knows as little about the Geneva Convention as, well, Al Gore.
–Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.