Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization.
The swap of probable deserter Bowe Bergdahl for 5 “high-risk” Guantánamo detainees is about more than political public relations. By releasing some of the worst murderers, this deal prepares the ground for Obama’s long-term goal of shutting down the Guantánamo Bay detention facility and releasing the remaining detainees. According to Britain’s Daily Mail, a senior Pentagon official claims Obama nixed plans to rescue Bergdahl because “the president wanted a diplomatic scenario that would establish a precedent for repatriating detainees from Gitmo.” Given that on his second day in office Obama issued an executive order shutting Gitmo down, and as recently as this year’s State of the Union speech repeated this pledge, his failure to do so has aroused serial complaints from his progressive base. With his reelection behind him, Obama may now think he can fulfill this promise, no matter the danger to our efforts to protect ourselves against terrorism.
For Obama’s liberal base, Gitmo has been part of a larger narrative of American tyranny, particularly George Bush’s alleged lawlessness in waging an “illegal” and “unnecessary” war in Iraq. Once Howard Dean’s anti-war presidential primary insurgency took off after the war began in 2003, mainstream Democrats began endorsing the far-left “Bush lied” analysis of the war that John Edwards, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton had voted for based on the same intelligence that led to the Bush administration’s decision. With the anti-war movement providing the visuals for television news, the left’s distorted history of Vietnam was resurrected to provide the template for the war in Iraq, particularly the charge that the Bush administration had lied about Hussein’s WMDs, just as Lyndon Johnson had allegedly fabricated the Gulf of Tonkin incident to justify escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Soon the whole litany of American militarist evils was applied to Iraq and the war against terrorists and their enablers. Torture, illegal detention, and abuse of prisoners were staples of that catalogue, and for leftists Gitmo fit the bill.
Soon we were hearing that Gitmo was a “gulag,” “the Bermuda Triangle of human rights,” a “shocking affront to democracy,” and a “national disgrace.” The New York Times, paying heed to charges by detainees trained to lie, said Guantanamo exemplified “harsh, indefinite detention without formal charges or legal recourse” and recalled “the Soviet Union’s sprawling network of Stalinist penal colonies.” Such hysteria, of course, has no basis in fact.
In 2004, a report by Albert T. Church III concluded, “We can confidentially state that based upon our investigation, we found nothing that would in any way substantiate detainees’ allegations of torture or violent physical abuse at GTMO.” Almost all the interrogations at Gitmo were conducted according to the Army Field Manual approved by Obama himself. Conditions for the prisoners at Gitmo far outstrip those in most prisons, including in the United States. Jihadists involved in planning, aiding, and participating in the murders of Americans can play sports, work out on gym equipment, hang out with their comrades, learn English, take art lessons, peruse a library of 14,000 Arab-language books, and view satellite television, including Al Jazeera. They get first-class health care and nutrition, and their food is prepared according to halal standards of ritual purity––all that good grub has led to the “Gitmo gut.” Islamic holidays are respected, Korans handled by guards with delicate care, magazines censored to remove images disturbing to pious Muslims, and arrows painted on the floors pointing to Mecca to guide the prisoners in their daily prayers. Rush Limbaugh is justified in calling Guantánamo “Club Gitmo.”
Yet despite these facts, the myth has arisen that the existence of Gitmo, as the Wall Street Journal summarized liberal thinking, “symbolizes prisoner abuse, serving as a propaganda tool for extremists and complicating counterterrorism efforts with allies.” The incoherence of this argument points to the larger problems of American foreign policy in dealing with jihadism.
First, our tendency to take seriously the malignant propaganda of our enemies bespeaks our civilizational failure of nerve. Since there has not been any “prisoner abuse” at Gitmo, why should we legitimize blatant lies the purpose of which is to erode our morale and serve the interests of disaffected Westerners? And given the horrific conditions and routine use of torture in most prisons in the Muslim Middle East, why should we for one second listen to any government or group in that region criticizing Gitmo? Our acceptance of this double standard does not confirm our superior virtues and principles, not when such acceptance emboldens the enemy and convinces him that we are too weak and decadent to do what it takes to defend ourselves.
Then there is the assumption that Muslims who practice jihadist terror are merely reacting to affronts perpetrated by Americans, rather than acting on their own motives. Bin Laden was the master of attributing his violence to an ever-shifting catalog of American sins––support for Israel, stationing troops in Saudi Arabia, participating in the 1983 Lebanon war, neo-colonial machinations to secure oil supplies, even failing to sign the Kyoto accords all appeared as pretexts for terrorism. But of course, this was propaganda for consumption by self-loathing Americans. In reality, as Ray Ibrahim’s Al Qaeda Reader documents, al Qaeda’s jihadism is driven by the venerable Islamic doctrines that for 14 centuries have spurred Islamic violence, and that are epitomized in Mohammed’s “great commission”: “I was ordered to fight all men until they say, ‘There is no god but Allah.’” Jihadists don’t need Gitmo, or Israel, or globalism, or any other material reason to attack infidels. Like the Hydra, every grievance we appease will be replaced by two more. Jihadists have plenty of religious motives for trying to destroy the culture that once trembled at Allah’s armies but that now dominates a world that Islam teaches is destined to be ruled by Muslims, the “best of nations raised up for the benefit of men,” as Koran 3.110 has it. But like our tendency to blame poverty or lack of political freedom for creating terrorists, this focus on material causes ignores the powerful role of spiritual motives for jihadist terror.
As for “complicating counterterrorism efforts with allies,” this again bespeaks our curious arrogance that reduces every nation’s behavior to reactions to our own. Our allies friendly or otherwise do not calculate their foreign policy on the basis of lofty moral principles we allegedly violate. They figure out where their own interests lie and act accordingly, taking into account their evaluations of our strengths and weaknesses. As Thucydides taught us long ago, nations that cannot achieve their aims by force often call on principle and “take up the cry of justice, a consideration that no one has ever yet brought forward to hinder his ambition when he had a chance of gaining anything by might.” When we credit the specious pretexts of our allies, who are pursuing national interests that very often conflict with our own, we make our policies hostage to the self-interested aims of others.
Finally, the idea that somehow we gain an advantage in our fight with jihadism by upholding standards of exquisite constitutional delicacy in our treatment of vicious terrorists is equally delusional. Giving terrorists Geneva Convention protections, for example, or constitutional rights reserved for citizens is not to our enemies a sign of strength. Quite the opposite. As the gleeful victory celebrations by the Taliban over the recovery of 5 of their top commanders show, it is perceived as weakness, failure of nerve, and lack of confidence in the rightness of our cause. A people who behead their enemies or eat their hearts are not going to be impressed with our generous provisions of constitutional rights and pro bono legal counsel.
The demonization of Gitmo driving Obama’s rush to close the facility and release more of our enemies is one more example of the “kick me” sign the left has pinned on America’s back for decades. It does not demonstrate strength in the eyes of our enemies, but merely confirms their conviction that we are weak and destined for defeat.
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