Monday, November 06, 2006

The Long, Cost-Free War

By Ted Koppel
New York Times
November 6, 2006

IN the operations center at United States Central Command in Tampa, Fla., there is a wall of television screens, one end of the wall quartered so that four live feeds can be seen simultaneously. The signals originate somewhere over Iraq or Afghanistan. The cameras are aboard pilotless drones.

“Predators,” some are called, and predators they are. They can be equipped with Hellfire missiles that are remotely fired by operators in Nevada who receive their orders from Centcom in Florida. The enemy, meanwhile, does much of its killing with improvised explosive devices, the most sophisticated of which are designed in Iran.

Such is at least one face of modern warfare, in which combatants exchange mortal blows by remote control, once or even twice removed from the battlefield. The victims are just as dead or mutilated as those in previous wars, but the notion of violence activated from hundreds or even thousands of miles away is telling.

The Bush administration is trying to deal with a particularly nettlesome problem: preparing Americans for a struggle that may last decades without simultaneously demoralizing them. Centcom’s commander, Gen. John Abizaid, likes to refer to it as the “long war,” where “long,” means generational, with no end in sight.

To the degree that such a war can be fought at arm’s length, with a minimum of friendly casualties, it will be. To the extent that victory can be achieved with a minimum of personal sacrifice, the Bush administration will try to do so.

Senior members of the administration frame that struggle in existential terms. They invoke the nightmarish possibility of a 9/11 on steroids — a terrorist attack using weapons of mass destruction, rattling the very foundations of our society. The Bush administration uses that frightening image to justify a new worldview, within which even associating with someone who belongs to an organization on the United States terrorist list justifies prosecution here at home.

This practice falls into the category of what Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty calls “preventative prosecution.” It’s an interesting concept: a form of anticipatory justice. Faced with the possible convergence between terrorism and a weapon of mass destruction, the argument goes, the technicality of waiting for a crime to be committed before it can be punished must give way to pre-emption.

Set aside for a moment the somewhat jarring notion of recalibrating our constitutional protections here at home while our soldiers and diplomats are given the thankless mission of spreading democracy in some of the most inhospitable regions of the Middle East.

There is a whiff of hypocrisy about conjuring up visions of a nuclear or biological holocaust while urging the American public to go about its business and recreation as usual.

We are advised to adjust to the notion of warrantless wiretaps at home, unaccountable C.I.A. prisons overseas and the rendition of suspects to nations that feature prominently on the State Department’s list of human rights abusers, because the threats we face are “existential.”

But apparently they are not existential enough to warrant any kind of widely shared commitment or sacrifice, like increased taxes or a military draft to meet the Pentagon’s growing need for manpower.

One can share the Bush administration’s perception that the United States confronts real threats that will not be eliminated easily or soon, but still find it impractical and immoral to get on with life as usual while placing the burden solely on the shoulders of the young men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, their families and friends.

We are left with the impression that the grown-ups in Washington would prefer to make the difficult decisions for us without involving the courts, Congress or the press. That is precisely the wrong way to go about winning this war. Back when the United States was widely admired, it was for all that was most cumbersome about our democratic process.

America’s efforts to transplant democracy elicit none of that admiration. How can they, when we appear to have lost confidence in fundamental aspects of democracy here at home? What has historically impressed our allies and adversaries has been our often flawed, but ultimately sincere, determination to operate within the law — if not always abroad, then at least within the United States.

Does our system require calibration in the context of the Long War? Perhaps. We cannot, for example, expect to know everything our government does when transparency informs our enemies of what they must not know. That, however, has always been the case. Indeed, there are courts and Congressional committees set up for the express purpose of reconciling the needs for secrecy and for transparency.

Furthermore, when officials deem certain crimes (torture, for example) unavoidable in the defense of liberty, those who commit those crimes must still know that they will be held to account before an uncompromised legal system. Congress recently passed a law that ensures exactly the opposite.

It is going to be a long struggle, and we may have to live with whatever adjustments we make to our liberties until the struggle is won, or at least over. Even liberties voluntarily forfeited are not easily retrieved. All the more so for those that are removed surreptitiously.

One might have expected that these issues would feature prominently in the debate leading up to the Congressional elections. They are scarcely mentioned.

Apparently unnerved by the unceasing White House harangue that they are ill suited to waging the war on terrorism, Democrats have largely forfeited the argument that “war,” particularly a “long war,” may be the wrong prism through which to view the dangers facing the United States.

Those who once argued that the task was one for police and intelligence agencies have been mocked into silence. Democrats have given a wide berth to the invasion of privacy, selective suspension of habeas corpus and the mistreatment of detainees, preferring instead to echo the drumbeat of Republican warnings about terrorism in general.

There is a war to be waged. We should be building protective ramparts around our legal system, safeguarding our own freedoms, focusing on our own carefully constructed democracy and leading by example.

It’s too bad that we have so little confidence in the most powerful weapon in America’s arsenal.

Ted Koppel is a contributing columnist for The Times and the managing editor of the Discovery Channel.

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