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Monday, March 24, 2003
Much of the Right (and sometimes the Center-Left as well) trashes international institutions, treaties, and international law, because they restrain American freedom of action. Thus, we don't want anything to do with an enforceable Biological Weapons Convention, because it might require us to submit our labs to inspections. We don't support the Land Mines Treaty, because we might have to remove mines from Korea. Et cetera.

What this critique ignores is that rules benefit us even as they constrain us. And the Geneva Convention is a perfect example of it. Donald Rumsfeld is absolutely right to scream about Iraqi mistreatment of our POW's. But we've been systematically violating the Geneva Convention (as well as the Torture Convention) by publically displaying, interrogating, and torturing detainees from our operations against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and by refusing to provide them with access to competent tribunals to determine their combatant status. Such conduct makes it much harder to enforce Geneva Convention norms (usually enforced through international pressure and publicity) on Iraq or anyone else.

I have a theory about this. I have a feeling that Rumsfeld and others in the Bush Administration may have actually believed that we had become so strong that the successful capture of American soldiers in military conflict was highly unlikely. He believed that our strength would be sufficient to protect our POW's. Certainly, nobody was talking before this war about Iraq being able to capture our servicemen and women. This is part of a more general overconfidence about the ability of military strength to solve the nation's, and the world's problems. (No, Don and Dick and Paul and Richard and Douglas, a successful intervention in Iraq is not going to suddenly democratize the Middle East, end terrorism against the US, or result in an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.)

Weaponry is only one aspect of successful foreign policy. Strong international institutions set rules, and do so in ways that benefit us. The Geneva Convention provides a set of rules with respect to armed conflict that have stood the test of time. We are not at a time (and I don't ever expect us to arrive at a time) when such rules can or should be thrown out the window.

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