Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Debate with Paleo-Conservatives

An acquaintance sent me an article and a lot of links from/to what I would call "paleo-conservative" websites. The article in question was by a Brit by the name of Andy Worthington, and can be accessed here. In case you're unclear about what I mean by "paleo-conservative", the term refers to conservative ideas that characterized the movement long before William F. Buckley Jr. helped to reshape American conservatism to a more centrist movement from the isolationist and conspiracy-theory obsessed one it had been in the past. If you're still in doubt, think of Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan, two of the most notorious representatives today of paleo-conservatism.

Following is my response to my acquaintance.

To be perfectly candid with you--and I hope that's what you prefer--I strongly disagree with the positions taken by the Andy Worthington article--and, I would guess by their titles, the articles linked on pages of the website "Americans against world empire, americans against bombing." These ideas are held by a subset of conservatism, sometimes referred to as "paleo-conservative" espoused by an element of conservatism somewhat detached from the larger conservative community. This is due in part to the strange alliance they have with some of the most radical elements of the left, most notably the beliefs, as stated in the article, that the US military and intelligence agencies torture our prisoners, and that America has engaged in adventures of empire throughout her history. In fact, I'm fairly certain that Worthington, the author of the article, is indeed a British leftist with virulent antipathy to the United States.

The leftist trope that America is a brutal imperialist power has found its latest expression in the accusation that our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are an illegitimate exercise of US brutality for any number of fanciful reasons: to steal Iraqi oil; George Bush's personal revenge against Saddam Hussein for his attempt to assassinate his father; (and most absurd of all) to enrich his "buddies" at Haliburton. To this and the ancillary argument that Bush lied to the world and somehow managed to trick and coerce congress into authorizing military action, I would point to several books that give an account of the actual process: Party of Defeat by David Horowitz, Shadow Warriors by Kenneth Timmerman, and War and Decision by Douglas Feith. Consider, for instance, that one reason there was so little debate in congress prior to the almost unanimous vote authorizing the invasion of Iraq was that the debate had already occurred in the Clinton administration when congress voted and Clinton signed the official policy of the United States as working for regime change in Iraq.

To the accusation shared by the radical left and isolationist right (such as Ron Paul) that the United States' history is one of brutal imperialism, invading, slaughtering, and exploiting smaller, weaker countries around the globe, I would offer Colin Powell's eloquent statement to the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2003. When asked in a Q&A session after his address by former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey if he felt the U.S and its allies had given due consideration to the use of "soft power" versus the "hard power" of military force, here, in part, is how Colin Powell responded to Carey's question:
There is nothing in American experience or in American political life or in our culture that suggests we want to use hard power. But what we have found over the decades is that unless you do have hard power -- and here I think you're referring to military power -- then sometimes you are faced with situations that you can't deal with.
I mean, it was not soft power that freed Europe. It was hard power. And what followed immediately after hard power? Did the United States ask for dominion over a single nation in Europe? No. Soft power came in the Marshall Plan. Soft power came with American GIs who put their weapons down once the war was over and helped all those nations rebuild. We did the same thing in Japan.

So our record of living our values and letting our values be an inspiration to others I think is clear. And I don't think I have anything to be ashamed of or apologize for with respect to what America has done for the world. [Applause.]
We have gone forth from our shores repeatedly over the last hundred years and we've done this as recently as the last year in Afghanistan and put wonderful young men and women at risk, many of whom have lost their lives, and we have asked for nothing except enough ground to bury them in, and otherwise we have returned home to seek our own, you know, to seek our own lives in peace, to live our own lives in peace. But there comes a time when soft power or talking with evil will not work where, unfortunately, hard power is the only thing that works.

Concerning the central argument of Worthington's piece--that the American military and intelligence agencies use torture against its prisoners and detainees--I would again offer other's work (far more persuasive and authoritative than any argument I could make) in rebuttal. Andrew McCarthy, former US attorney (who successfully convicted the "Blind Sheik" and others for the first World Trade Center bombing) has written considerably on this issue from a legal perspective in National Review. His newest book (which I haven't yet read) most probably deals with this, as well as other issues. It's called The Grand Jihad: How the left and Islam sabotage America. Marc Thiessen, former speech-writer for President Bush has a book that deals very specifically with the "enhanced interrogation" techniques used by military and CIA interrogators, called Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack. (I know it seems odd that a mere speech writer could write authoritatively on this issue, but he explains how, in preparation for writing the speeches that President Bush gave to the United Nations and congress defending the enhanced interrogation policy, Thiessen was given full access to both the lawyers who wrote the policy as well as the interrogators who implemented it.)

Worthington's and other's assertions that the very act of detention of the illegal combatants constitutes torture I find to be fatuous. Every country engaged in war detains its prisoners; it's one of only 3 options available: 1) let them go (we've done a lot of that, only to find them return again to terrorist activities and kill American soldiers and civilians), 2) detain them, or 3) kill them.

Likewise the idea that illegal combatants be given full Constitutional rights under our criminal justice system is absurd prima facia. The war that we are engaged in with transnational Islamic terrorists cannot be effectively fought as a criminal justice action, as Andrew McCarthy persuasively argues in his book, Willful Blindness (which I have read), the story of his prosecution of the perpetrators of the first World Trade Center bombing. The pertinent matter here, it seems to me, is that these men are not American citizens committing crimes, but foreign nationals carrying out acts of terrorism under the aegis of a quasi military organization. Even those few who are American citizens, by virtue of acting under the direction of these transnational terrorist groups, place themselves in a category outside our criminal justice system and under the military tribunal system. The legal precedence of military tribunals--of even American citizens--is clear in the case of the 8 German saboteurs tried by military tribunal (one of whom, Ernest Peter Burger, was a naturalized American citizen) during World War II, 6 of whom were executed days after their conviction. The Constitutionality of this was upheld by the US Supreme Court in Ex parte Quirin .

The last topic is the assertion that the illegal combatant detainees should be given Geneva Convention protections. First, those who espouse this view never seem to acknowledge that under GC rules, all intelligence gathering from detainees would instantly end, as all questions except name and rank, are prohibited of legal combatant prisoners of war. But the unassailable refutation of this position is to be found in the Geneva Conventions themselves, specifically Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, in which irregular forces are entitled to prisoner of war status provided that they are commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates, have a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance, carry arms openly and conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war. If they do not do meet all of these, they may be considered "francs-tireurs" (in the original sense of "illegal combatant") and punished as criminals in a military jurisdiction, which may include summary execution. The facts about the terrorist detainees are as follows:
• They are not signatories to the Geneva Conventions
• They do not wear uniforms, nor fixed sign or insignia
• They do not conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war

Once again, I appreciate the opportunity to discuss these matters with you, matters about which I am very passionate, as I'm completely convinced of the fundamental goodness of our country, the idea of American exceptionalism, and the righteousness of our war with Islamic jihadism, both in principle and in application.

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