Sunday, March 30, 2008

Former Secretaries of State Get It Wrong

Cabinet-level departments of the United States government are interesting entities. The heads of these departments, usually known as the Secretary of something-or-other, is usually replaced when a new President takes office, or sometimes one may depart in the middle of a presidential term. So, while the leadership changes every four to eight years the staff—the employees, the bureaucrats—remain in place for many years, and the effect of this is that many or most of these agencies develop their own individual culture and personality, quite often because of what its mission is.

A case in point is the Department of State. The State Department is involved in relations with other nations, and its stock in trade is diplomacy and diplomatic initiatives. Consequently, the culture of the State Department is first and foremost to talk, to negotiate. It may be cynical to say so, but a good case can be made that there is no situation or problem in the world which the State Department believes cannot be solved through negotiation, occasionally twisting itself into knots to rationalize this path as reasonable. The agency not infrequently seems a mass of contradictory policies and methods, as it tries to make its case for endless negotiation. It is not for nothing that the State Department is known as “Foggy Bottom.” This tendency sometimes creeps into the psyche of the Secretary, too, sometimes turning otherwise clear thinking individuals into doctrinaire actors unable or unwilling to see what is plain to everyone else.

Just to be clear, negotiation certainly has its place, particularly at the beginning of disagreements between nations. But everyone must acknowledge as a matter of rational thought that talking does not, and cannot, solve every problem.

All of the preceding is offered to set the stage for comments made at a recent meeting involving five former Secretaries of State, Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, Madeline Albright, Warren Christopher and James Baker. These five represent both Democrat and Republican administrations.

According to the Associated Press, and its reports must be viewed carefully, the five former Secretaries had broad agreement on a couple of hot-button issues, closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo, for short), and having a dialogue with Iran. Clearly, how we proceed with Iran is a legitimate area for State Department input, and the former Secretaries encouraged that path. The Guantanamo Bay facility, however, is outside the purview of State, although these individuals are entitled to their opinions. The statements I have chosen to comment on have to do with Gitmo.

Colin Powell noted that shutting down the facility sends a message to the world that “we are now going back to our traditional respective forms of dealing with people who potentially committed crimes.” See, that’s what I meant when I suggested that the mentality of Foggy Bottom sometimes affects the thinking of the Secretary. Gen. Powell ought to understand the difference between crimes like robbery, assault, and murder, and terrorist acts like those of 9-11 and in London and Madrid. Terrorists are not criminals, they are enemy combatants, members of an enemy force at war with the United States; they are not candidates for the American judicial system.

James Baker said, “I have a great deal of difficulty understanding how we can hold someone … —even if they were caught somewhere abroad acting against American interests—and hold them without ever giving them an opportunity to appear before a magistrate.” Foggy Bottom thinking, take two. Mr. Baker, a former Marine, and Gen. Powell, a four-star Army general, should know that enemy combatants/prisoners of war are held in detention centers or jails until the war ends. They are not tried while the conflict rages on. Since the detainees at Gitmo are suspected of fighting against the United States, and not suspected of holding up a convenience store, they must wait like all of those before them in wars across the globe for the war on terror to end.

Gitmo is looked upon both by some US citizens and some citizens of other nations as harmful to the good name of the United States, partly because these people do not understand the distinction between common criminals and terrorists, between street thugs and our nation’s enemies, or because they simply don’t care that there is a difference. Nevertheless, enemy fighters must be handled through a system appropriate to their status as enemies of our nation, and however unpopular the Guantanamo Bay facility is, it is a part of the system that is appropriate for the detention of our enemies.

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