The Corner

Petreaus Does Geneva

Gen. David Petraeus is a briliant military tactician and an impressive man, but I wouldn’t regard him as much of an authority on international law. Apparently, Andrew Sullivan is gleeful because the general has “conced[ed] that the US violated the Geneva Conventions under president Bush.” Though I don’t bother with Sullivan’s meanderings anymore, a number of people have alerted me to this item. Here are Petraeus’s quoted remarks:

What I do support is what has been termed the responsible closure of Gitmo. Gitmo has caused us problems, there’s no question about it. I oversee a region in which the existence of Gitmo has been used by the enemy against us. We have not been without missteps or mistakes in our activity since 9/11 and again Gitmo is a lingering reminder for the use of some in that regard… I don’t think we should be afraid of our values we’re fighting for, what we stand for. And so indeed we need to embrace them and we need to operationalize them in how we carry out what it is we’re doing on the battlefield and everywhere else…

So one has to have some faith, I think, in the legal system. One has to have a degree of confidence that individuals that have conducted such extremist activity would indeed be found guilty in our courts of law. When we have taken steps that have violated the Geneva Conventions, we rightly have been criticized, so as we move forward I think it’s important to again live our values, to live the agreements that we have made in the international justice arena and to practice those.

With due respect to Gen. Petraeus, this is just vapid. To begin with, he doesn’t identify any provision of the Geneva Conventions that we have actually violated — he just repeats the standard talking-point of his current commander-in-chief that we took “steps that have violated the Geneva Conventions” during those bad old Bush days. What steps is he talking about? How about naming one?

Al-Qaeda and its affiliated terrorist entities — including the Taliban — never qualified for Geneva prisoner-of-war status, so denying them POW privileges is not a Geneva violation (indeed, it is a validation of Geneva’s principles since it incentivizes combatants not to target civilians). Detaining terrorists without trial until the conclusion of hostilities is fully consistent with the laws of war. It’s true that five Supreme Court justices (in the 2006 Hamdan case) ultimately found that Geneva’s Common Article 3 (CA3) applies to al-Qaeda insofar as requiring military commmission trials to be authorized by Congress. But to draw that bizarre conclusion, those justices had to torture the language of CA3 (which applies only to civil wars); and, in any event, the ruling only applies to the few prisoners who have been charged with war crimes. It in no way suggests that Geneva bars the detention and interrogation of the Gitmo detainees — and as for military commission trials, the Obama administration is now reinstating them because they are perfectly appropriate under U.S. and international law.

Moreover, even Obama now concedes that Gitmo is Geneva Convention compliant. And at Bagram base in Afghanistan (i.e., under Petraeus’s command) the New York Times reports that we are currently holding nearly three times as many prisoners — “without charges and under spartan conditions” — as are now held at Gitmo. Does Gen. Petraeus think that violates the Geneva Conventions?

Finally, Petraeus says “Gitmo has caused us problems” in the region he oversees because “the existence of Gitmo has been used by the enemy against us” — presumably for propaganda purposes.  But radical Islam (those purveyors of what the general, adopting government’s PC language protocols, calls “extremist activity”) uses against us, for propaganda purposes, everything we do in our self-defense.

We are, for example, currently holding the Blind Sheikh (Omar Abdel Rahman) in U.S. prison on a life-sentence after terrorism convictions. Abdel Rahman is much venerated (including in the region Petraeus oversees), and various terrorist operations — resulting in several deaths — have been carried out in an effort to extort his release. His captivity is a rallying cry that al-Qaeda has used to spur terrorist recruitment. The same is true of other terrorists imprisoned on terrorist convictions. Does General Petraeus think we should release Abdel Rahman and his cohorts to show Muslims how reasonable and humane we are? Does General Petraeus think that if President Obama closed Gitmo today and moved all the detainees into U.S. prisons, al-Qaeda would stop using the imprisonment of jihadists as a recruiting tool? How about trials — does General Petraeus think al-Qaeda would stop using alleged U.S. repression of Muslims as a recruiting tool if we tried terrorists only in civilian courts rather than military commissions?

Gitmo is the new Israel. It’s the silver bullet for any number of smart people who have convinced themselves that radical Islam could be tamed if only Gitmo would just disappear. It’s nice to think that they hate us because of something or other we are doing, rather than because of their ideology; then, we’d just have to stop doing it and all would be well. Too bad it’s not true. Regardless, we are not — and we haven’t been — in violation of our agreements, and we do “live our values” when we defend our nation by holding our wartime enemies in military detention.


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