Tag: torture

Intervention in Libya and Syria Isn’t Humanitarian or Liberal

Proponents of foreign military intervention in Libya argued that giving air support to rebels there would spread liberalism and save Libyan lives. But the success of that revolution has thus far delivered political chaos destructive to both ends. That result is worth noting as backers of the Libya intervention offer it as a model for aiding Syrian rebels in the name of similar goals.

Advocates of both interventions underestimate coercion’s contribution to political order. Autocratic rule in these countries is partially a consequence of state weakness—the absence of strong liberal norms, government institutions, and nationalism. By helping to remove the levers of coercion in places like Libya and Syria, we risk producing anarchy—continual civil war or long-lived violent disorder. Either outcome would likely worsen suffering through widespread murder, a collapse of sanitation and health services, and stunted economic growth conducive to well-being. And the most promising paths to new of forms of unity and order in these states are illiberal: religious rule, war, or new autocrats. The humanitarian and liberal cases for these interventions are unconvincing.

Aside from Qaddafi’s fall, U.S. leaders gave three primary rationales for military intervention Libya (I repeatedly criticized them last spring). One was to show other dictators that the international community would not tolerate the violent suppression of dissenters. That reverse domino theory has obviously failed. If Qaddafi’s fate taught neighboring leaders like Bashar al-Assad anything, it is to brutally nip opposition movements in the bud before they coalesce, attract foreign arms and air support, and kill you, or, if you’re lucky, ship you off to the Hague.

The second rationale was the establishment of liberal democracy. But Libya, like Syria, lacks the traditional building blocks of liberal democracy. And history suggests that foreign military intervention impedes democratization. Whether or not it manages to hold elections, Libya seems unlikely to become a truly liberal state any time soon. As with Syria, any path to that outcome is likely to be long and bloody.

Meanwhile, Libya’s revolution has destabilized Mali. Qaddafi’s fall pushed hundreds of Tuareg tribesmen that fought on his side back to their native Mali, where they promptly reignited an old insurgency. Malian military officers, citing their government’s insufficient vigor against the rebels, mounted a coup, overthrowing democracy that had lasted over twenty years. Thus far, the military intervention in Libya has reduced the number of democracies by one.

The most widely cited rationale for helping Libya’s rebels was to save civilians from the regime. Along with many commentators, President Obama and his aides insisted that Qaddafi promised to slaughter civilians in towns that his forces were poised to retake last March. Thus, intervention saved hundreds of thousands of lives. A minor problem with this claim is that Qaddafi’s speeches actually threatened rebel fighters, not civilians, and he explicitly exempted those rebels that put down arms. More importantly, if Qaddafi intended to massacre civilians, his forces had ample opportunity to do it. They did commit war crimes, using force indiscriminately and executing and torturing prisoners. But the sort of wholesale slaughter that the Obama administration warned of did not occur—maybe because the regime’s forces lacked the organization needed for systematic slaughter.

The limited nature of the regime’s brutality does not itself invalidate humanitarian concerns. It might be worthwhile to stop even a historically mild suppression of rebellion if the cost of doing so is low enough. The trouble with the humanitarian argument for intervention in Libya is instead that the intervention and the chaos it produced may ultimately cause more suffering than the atrocities it prevented. Libya’s rebel leaders have thus far failed to resurrect central authority. Hundreds of militias police cities and occasionally battle. There are many credible reports that militias have unlawfully detained thousands of regime supporters, executed others, driven mistrusted communities from their homes, and engaged in widespread torture.

The looting of Libya’s weapons stockpiles is also likely to contribute to Libya’s misery, in part by arming the militias that obstruct central authority. The weapons depots reportedly included thousands of man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), some of which may still work. It is worth noting that the widely-reported claim that Libya lost 20,000 MANPADS appears exaggerated. That figure comes from Senate testimony last spring by the head of Africa Command, who did not substantiate it (my two requests to Africa’s Command PR people for information on this claim were ignored). A State Department official recently gave the same figure before essentially admitting that we have no idea what the right figure is.

No one can say with certainty whether Libya’s anarchy will produce more suffering than a Qaddafi victory would have. But that argument is plausible. Autocracies tend to serve human well-being better than chaos. That does not make it inherently immoral to help overthrow despots. It simply suggests that such interventions, whether or not they are moral or wise, do not deserve the adjective “humanitarian.”

The same goes for Syria. One need not support its brutal rulers to agree that their fall, like Gaddafi’s, is likely to produce extended illiberal chaos or another set of autocrats. I don’t know what the right U.S. policy is toward the crisis in Syria. But I doubt any policy exists that can avoid sacrificing one of our hopes for another.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Waterboarding, Consent, and Rape

Former Vice President Dick Cheney appeared at AEI today to promote his book and again made the claim that waterboarding detainees is not torture because we use this technique on our own troops. As he put it:

“Another key point that needs to be made was that the techniques that we used were all previously used on Americans,” Cheney went on. “All of them were used in training for a lot of our own specialists in the military. So there wasn’t any technique that we used on any al Qaeda individual that hadn’t been used on our own troops first, just to give you some idea whether or not we were ‘torturing’ the people we captured.”

This isn’t a new argument. Plenty of other folks have argued that, because we subject members of the military to waterboarding in Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) School (the military’s POW prep course), waterboarding detainees is not mistreatment.

It’s also a nonsensical argument.

The difference is consent. What one person consents to in one set of conditions does not make the same treatment, without consent and in other conditions, somehow less invasive or less illegal under domestic and international law. I was not waterboarded when I attended SERE school, but I endured treatment I wouldn’t willingly accept in other circumstances. If you want to waterboard me, you’d best be ready for a fight.

Export Cheney’s logic to sex. Consenting adults have sex and it’s legal, enjoyable, and essential to the survival of the species. If you accept the premise that, because you can have sex with someone with consent, it is always legal and moral to have sex with others, you’ve just declared that rape is not a crime.

Setting aside the issue of consent, waterboarding was clearly recognized as a criminal act by the laws of war and domestic statute well before we interrogated KSM. We prosecuted our own soldiers for using controlled drowning (the “water cure” and waterboarding) in the Spanish-American War and in Vietnam. We prosecuted Japanese soldiers for using waterboarding after World War II. We prosecuted a sheriff in Texas for waterboarding confessions out of prisoners.

I wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times a few months back spelling out how Cheney isn’t arguing with Obama here. He’s reliving a battle he lost within the Bush administration:

The legal framework underlying waterboarding collapsed during President George W. Bush’s tenure. The White House Office of Legal Counsel in 2004 withdrew the memoranda that authorized waterboarding. The Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, sponsored by former POW and torture victim Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), barred “cruel, inhuman, and degrading” treatment of any detainee in military custody. There may be an argument that waterboarding isn’t torture, but there’s no argument that it’s not cruel, inhuman and degrading…

The Supreme Court put the nail in the coffin with its Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld decision in 2006. The real import of the ruling was not that Congress had to authorize military commissions (it quickly did) but that the Geneva Conventions apply to the armed conflict with Al Qaeda. The application of the laws of war, which allow broad power to kill your enemy but provide no authority to mistreat him, brought down the legal house of cards that authorized coercive interrogation. Bush issued an executive order the next year that banned the bulk of enhanced interrogation techniques. Obama followed suit with his own order applying stricter military standards to the intelligence community.

Read the whole thing. Read some more on waterboarding and detainees here, here, and here.

Waterboarding, Again

I have an article in today’s Los Angeles Times pointing out that waterboarding is dead as a tool for U.S. interrogators. So get over it. I also make the point that it died under Bush’s watch, so the next time Dick Cheney trots out a proposal to bring back waterboarding, he’s quarreling mostly with his old boss and not the current commander-in-chief. Over at the Washington Post, Allen McDuffee thinks this is unfair:

It may well be the case that Cheney has unfinished business with Bush over dropping the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, but it is at least a selective reading for Rittgers to suggest that Cheney’s words are not directed at Obama with the hope that they carry political consequences for the administration. It is unlikely that even Cheney himself would make such a suggestion.

Of course Cheney’s comments are directed at Obama, as a rearguard action intended to make it politically impossible to prosecute those that made waterboarding and other coercive interrogation techniques our policy. Mission accomplished.

Waterboarding died in 2004 when the Office of Legal Counsel withdrew the memoranda supporting it, with other nails in the coffin provided by the Detainee Treatment Act and the Hamdan decision. Bush didn’t make these changes by himself. The OLC withdrawal was Jack Goldsmith’s doing, and a signing statement on the DTA showed Bush’s reluctance to accept limits on his power. But accept them he did. On the same day that Bush issued an executive order finessing the Geneva Conventions Common Article 3 as applied to the CIA, his OLC issued legal advice on what enhanced interrogation techniques are still on the table. It’s no human rights wishlist (sleep deprivation, reduced calorie diet, and four slapping/holding techniques), but waterboarding is nowhere to be found.

Yes, Obama restricted the intelligence community to the Army Field Manual. Waterboarding was long gone by that point. It has been resurrected as a talking point in defiance of legal reality, good policy, and core principles, but will not and should not be American policy. Again, get over it.

Monday Links

  • It is false to assume that GM’s earnings report means the auto bailout was a success.
  • It is false that, among other things, failing to raise the debt limit means defaulting on our obligations.
  • It is false that Osama bin Laden’s death means torture is a good idea.
  • It is false that international institutions can deliver what they say they can deliver.
  • It is false that oil speculators are to blame for fluctuating oil prices:


What Not to Learn from bin Laden’s Killing

The tendency to treat Osama bin Laden’s killing as national holiday akin to V-E day is both understandable and unfortunate. Everyone with a sense of justice appreciates the death of mass murderers, particularly the terrorist sort. But celebrating as if we killed Hitler or won a war plays into al Qaeda’s self-serving myth. Paul Pillar put it well:

An unfortunate irony of the huge reaction to the killing of Bin Ladin is that it continues to give him in death what he worked so hard to achieve in life: the status of arch foe of the most powerful nation on earth. It is a status that conforms with Bin Ladin’s narrative of himself as the leader of the Muslim world, protecting that world against the predations of the Judeo-Christian West, the leader of which is the United States.

We should also avoid drawing sweeping conclusions about our counterterrorism policies from Osama bin Laden’s death. We typically overgeneralize about important events. After the September 11 attacks, for example, even defense analysts tended to interpret al Qaeda’s capability largely through the purview of that plot, rather than treating it as a particularly important data point in al Qaeda’s history. The myopic take made al Qaeda seem far more capable than it was. With that in mind, here are several things that bin Laden’s death either cannot tell us much about or will not tell us much about until more information surfaces.

1. The war in Afghanistan. There are many reasons we should draw down in Afghanistan, but the bin Laden raid offers little intellectual ammunition for either side of the war debate. The intelligence that led to Abbottabad came years ago, from prisoners outside Afghanistan and operations in Pakistan. The helicopters flew from a base in Afghanistan, but it didn’t take a decade of war and a massive ground force to get that. The fact that bin Laden was living in an area of Pakistan where the state was relatively strong does nothing to support the idea that we should fight wars trying to build authority in ungoverned regions lest terrorists gain haven there.

But the fact that Sunday’s events do not serve pro-war arguments does not show logically, the correctness of the anti-war position, which is mine. The pro-war argument, flawed as it is, depends on other claims (i.e. terrorists will gain haven in Afghanistan if we draw down) that bin Laden’s death does not affect. That something is not an orange does little to tell you whether it’s a pear. Hopefully, however, bin Laden’s death may make it easier, politically to get out of Afghanistan.

2. Torture. Some intelligence used to find bin Laden came from prisoners, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that were subject to coercive interrogation methods like waterboarding, but it remains unclear whether any of that useful intelligence came via waterboarding. Either way, we can learn little about the efficacy of that and other coercive interrogation methods from this experience. Only the most hackish arguments against torture pretend that it never produces useful intelligence. The real argument against torture’s efficacy is that non-coercive techniques work as well or better. Because you do not know what these guys would have said under standard interrogation—in scientific terms, you have no control—it is hard to draw valid inferences about how well coercion worked.

3. Defense spending. Hawks are already arguing that this raid would not have succeeded given a smaller defense budget.  That is silly, obviously. The capability needed to conduct this raid would be intact after the deep defense cuts I favor, let alone the slowdown in defense spending growth that the president is pushing. The budgets of our intelligence agencies and special operations command together account for roughly fifteen percent of U.S. defense spending. Only a portion of that fraction concerns counterterrorism.

4. Bin Laden’s leadership of al Qaeda. The Washington Times insists that finding communication equipment among bin Laden’s effects shows that he was actually running not only al Qaeda central but also its affiliates. They offer little evidence for that conclusion. The fact that bin Laden communicated does not mean that he commanded. There is little reason to suppose that he could control the far flung and disparate entities that use the name al Qaeda, whatever his intent. The National Journal, meanwhile, makes similar assumptions about bin Laden’s operational control in reporting that American authorities expect “a treasure trove of intelligence” to come from bin Laden’s hideout, in the form of thumb drives, hard drives and papers. Even if bin Laden was still capable of providing substantial intelligence on his associates, it is unlikely that he left it sitting around to be gathered. A guy that survived for over a decade while being hunted by various enemies probably knows enough to regularly destroy documents and files. Maybe he got sloppy, but certainly we should not expect to quickly roll up much of the remaining al Qaeda central leadership based on this event.

5. Pakistan’s relationship with al Qaeda. Prior to bin Laden’s death we knew that Pakistan was not as dedicated to hunting al Qaeda as it could have been. It was reasonable to guess that elements of its security and intelligence apparatus either tolerated (if only by looking the other way) or actively supported al Qaeda members. Today the same is true. That bin Laden was living under the nose of the Pakistani military does not show that he was its official guest. And if bin Laden had the help of some Pakistani intelligence or military personnel, it does not follow that many higher-ups were complicit. Pakistan is a factionalized society with weak civilian control of security agencies. It is hard to know who knows what about what or where lies the line between active complicity and unwillingness to look for things one is not eager to find. To be clear, I am not arguing that no Pakistani official is guilty of harboring bin Laden. The point is rather than no new degree of guilt has become obvious since Sunday. Like number four, this issue should be become clearer as more information comes to light.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

Egypt’s Iraq Connection

Overall, President Obama was right to applaud the Egyptian military for defending (at least for now) rather than killing Egyptian civilians, potentially avoiding  the Arab world’s Tienanmen Square. Whether Obama’s rhetoric could have been more supportive, as we saw with Tunisia, is up for debate. But it appears that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s attempt to shape an orderly transition is running into trouble.

The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reports that Mubarak’s recently appointed Vice President, Omar Suleiman, was “the C.I.A.’s point man in Egypt for renditions—the covert program in which the C.I.A. snatched terror suspects from around the world and returned them to Egypt and elsewhere for interrogation, often under brutal circumstances.” Suleiman used to be head of the Intelligence Services (al-mukhabarat).

According to U.C.S.B. Professor Paul Amar, the mukhabarat, which detains and tortures foreigners more than Egyptians, is less hated than the Interior Ministry’s State Security Investigations (SSI) (mabahith amn al-dawla), and different than the Central Security Services (Amn al-Markazi), “the black uniformed, helmeted men that the media refer to as ‘the police.’” Mayer reports that Suleiman Suleiman was also the C.I.A.’s liaison for the rendition of al Qaeda suspect Ibn Sheikh al-Libi. “The Libi case,” Mayer reports, “is particularly controversial, in large part because it played a role in the building of the case for the American invasion of Iraq.”

How ironic that America’s attempt to export democracy to Iraq was aided by a repressive government like Egypt’s.

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