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“The Realities Of Modern Warfare”: Why ‘We Don’t Negotiate With Terrorists’ No Longer Holds Up As Policy

Like so many Americans, I have spent the past few days assimilating as much information as possible regarding the circumstances involving the ‘player trade’ that will bring Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl home to the United States while five terrorists check out of Gitmo and make their way to freedom in Qatar.

While there seems to be no end to the ‘angles’ to be considered in attempting to reach a conclusion as to the propriety—both long term and short term—of the deal, increasingly I find that one of our more culturally ingrained and instantly accepted axioms has been challenged by this case and turns out to be a position that cannot—and should not—be allowed to govern our behavior in the future.

That axiom?

“We don’t negotiate with terrorists.”

This is a sentence that few would challenge for all the obvious reasons—but one that has never really been true, despite the preposterous statement made by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, wherein he suggested that the President’s deal to retrieve Bergdahl ends the chapter in American history where we don’t negotiate with terrorists.

In 2007, a British IT consultant named Peter Moore, who had been captured in Baghdad by Shiite militiamen who ambushed Moore and his bodyguards, was freed after some 900 days in captivity. Sadly, only Moore would ultimately survive the experience as the terrorists murdered the remaining four members of his party.

To secure Moore’s release, the U.S. government agreed to free Qais al-Khazali who had previously served as a spokesman for the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr (remember him?). We had, most assuredly, negotiated with terrorists to arrange for Moore’s release and handed over a high value detainee in the process.

Note that Mr. Moore was a civilian—not military—and yet we freed a high value terrorists as the price for the freedom of an American captive.

In 1985, the Reagan administration used the Israelis to ‘front’ a deal (not unlike how we have used the Qataris in the instance of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl) whereby the Israelis freed 700 prisoners in trade for Americans that were taken captive on a hijacked TWA flight.

And then, of course, there is the whole Iran-Contra thing.

These are but a few examples of the secret dealing with terrorists that has long taken place.

But should we be following this rule more rigorously?

On it’s face, the notion of not negotiating with terrorists is a sensible proposition. When one choses to reward evil behavior by giving the bad guys what they want, it is reasonable to anticipate that these bad guys—and others like them—will continue their horrendous acts of violence knowing that there may well be a prize in it for them.

To that end, there is simply no getting around the fact that trading five supposedly high-value terrorists (there is disagreement as to how effective the released prisoners will be given their age and time out of the battle) for one unpopular U.S. serviceman may very well encourage others with ill intent to take more American soldiers from the battlefield and hold them for trade—not to mention civilians, diplomats or whomever.

However, where this accepted rule of thumb that demands no negotiating with terrorists comes into serious conflict with the reality of modern warfare is when it comes to members of our military who fight these wars.

Few would dispute that it is a fundamental mission of the U.S. military to do all it humanly can to avoid leaving any American combatant behind. This principle of warfare was, at one time, an easy one to grasp—if sometimes hard to execute—at a time when warfare involved a clash between nations fought by soldiers in the uniform of the nation they serve.


By: Rick Ungar, Op-Ed Contributor, Forbes, June 5, 2014

June 8, 2014 Posted by | Bowe Bergdahl, POW's, Terrorists | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Please Make Up Your Mind”: The Wall Street Journal Can’t Decide Why Obama Is Terrible

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal editorial board found an unusual way to criticize Barack Obama for his new limits on carbon emissions: the action, the paper declared, showed that he was too principled and insufficiently attuned to short-term political benefits.

One consequence of President Obama’s new anticarbon energy rule will be to create what economists call “stranded assets,” in this case still useful fossil-fuel plants that are suddenly made noneconomic. This is part of the plan. But if this grand design ultimately fails, it will be because Mr. Obama is also creating stranded Democrats from energy-producing states.

This will have far-reaching implications, especially for Democrats in energy-rich states and especially this year. Twenty years ago, Bill Clinton would never have dreamed of rolling out this EPA regulation five months before an election. Mr. Obama is willing to risk it now because his second term is winding down and he wants to put in place as a much of a legacy as he can…

As Jonathan Chait has noted, it’s rich indeed for the Journal, which savaged Bill Clinton to such an extent that it collected its editorials attacking him into a five-volume collector set, to now be praising him in hindsight for being more politically expedient and partisan-minded than his Democratic successor. But it gets  better than that. Todayjust one day laterthe Journal completely flipped its critique of Obama. His problem, you see, is that he is too fixated on domestic politics, as his handling of Bowe Bergdahl’s release shows:

President Obama’s decision to swap five Taliban killers for the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has morphed from a debatable policy decision into the Administration’s latest political fiasco. There’s a lesson here about the risks of spin and narrow political calculation, especially in foreign policy when American lives are stake…

The larger problem is that Mr. Obama treats all of foreign policy as if it’s merely part of his domestic political calculus. It’s all too easy to imagine him figuring that if he announced the withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan by 2016 as he did last week, he could then more easily sell the prisoner swap, which would then help empty Guantanamo so he could fulfill that campaign promise too. Is it too much to ask that, in his final two and half years in office, the President act as if more is at stake in foreign policy than his domestic approval rating?

I read the Journal’s editorials every day, and have for years. I find them a handy way to track conservative opinionhard-edged, no doubt, but generally also well-wrought (better-wrought, it must be admitted, than their counterparts at the New York Times.) But really, the Journal is not doing its regular readers a service here. We’re awfully confused: is Obama recklessly disregarding domestic politics to cement his legacy with grand edicts, or making hasty decisions purely for domestic political gain? Please make up your mind.


By: Alec MacGinnis, The New Republic, June 5, 2014

June 7, 2014 Posted by | Domestic Policy, Foreign Policy | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Release Of American POW Sparks Partisan Dispute”: In Practice, The United States Has Negotiated With Terrorists Plenty Of Times

Under normal circumstances, when U.S. officials secure the release of an American prisoner of war, it would seem like a happy occasion for the country, regardless of political considerations. We were reminded over the weekend that these are not normal circumstances.

President Obama announced on Saturday that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only American soldier held captive in Afghanistan, was finally free after five years as a prisoner of the Taliban, In exchange for his release, U.S. officials agreed to release five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar.

In his White House announcement, the president said, in reference to the Taliban detainees, “The Qatari government has given us assurances that it will put in place measures to protect our national security.”

The complaints from congressional Republicans were immediate.

Amid jubilation Saturday over the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from captivity by the Taliban, senior Republicans on Capitol Hill said they were troubled by the means by which it was accomplished, which was a deal to release five Afghan detainees from the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Top Republicans on the Senate and House armed services committees went so far as to accuse President Obama of having broken the law, which requires the administration to notify Congress before any transfers from Guantanamo are carried out.

Throughout the weekend, prominent GOP lawmakers condemned the move with varying degrees of outrage. Several Republicans described the policy that led to Bergdahl’s release as “shocking,” “disturbing,” and “dangerous.”

Any sense of national joy that might otherwise come with the knowledge that an American POW is on his way home disappeared within minutes of the announcement – Bergdahl’s freedom quickly became the latest partisan fight, and the prospect of congressional hearings are more a matter of “when,” not “if.”

For Republicans, this is an outrage: as Karen Tumulty reported, the administration is required to notify relevant congressional committees 30 days before prisoner transfers, and this clearly did not happen. For Democrats, there were extenuating circumstances that required a legal shortcut: without immediate action, the opportunity to rescue an American POW would probably be lost forever, and Bergdahl’s life would be in severe jeopardy. “We did not have 30 days to wait,” Susan Rice said yesterday.

Who’s right? In this case, probably both.

But Republicans went on to raise a separate concern. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), among others, condemned the White House for having “negotiated with terrorists.” The Michigan Republican added that the move marked a “fundamental shift in U.S. policy.”

That’s a nice soundbite, but it’s also wrong.

In principle, the United States does not negotiate with terrorists, which is a sensible policy intended to discourage terrorism. In practice, the United States has negotiated with terrorists plenty of times.

For example, when terrorists hijacked TWA Flight 847 in 1985, the Reagan administration negotiated with the hostage takers, despite the U.S. policy, and despite fears that it might create an incentive for future hijackings.

More recently, and more to the point, military leaders appointed by the Bush/Cheney administration, at David Petraeus’ behest, endorsed negotiations with the Taliban years ago in the hopes of improving national security conditions in Afghanistan*.

The politics surrounding negotiations to free Bergdahl have been ugly for a long while, so this weekend’s rhetoric hardly came as a surprise. What’s more, many of the questions that have been raised about the move deserve answers.

But let’s not pretend that talking to the Taliban represents some kind of shocking twist.


By: Steve Benen, The Madow Blog, June 2, 2014

June 3, 2014 Posted by | Politics, POW's, Terrorists | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Fighting Magneto And Dr No”: Dick Cheney Still Thinks He Was A Character On “24”

Dick Cheney felt moved to write an entire book about the heart troubles he’s had over the years, which I can understand. After all, we all find our particular maladies fascinating. What I don’t get is why anybody else would care, since we don’t tend to find other people’s maladies interesting in the least. If you’d let me, I’d love nothing more than to blather on about my various knee injuries, but since I’m not RGIII, I have the sense to know that you really don’t give a crap. Nevertheless, there’s apparently an interesting tidbit or two in Cheney’s book, including this reported by CBS News, which may validate what you already thought about him:

Cheney had [his defibrillator] replaced in 2007 and his doctor, cardiologist Jonathan Reiner, with whom he wrote the book, had the device’s wireless function disabled so a terrorist couldn’t send his heart a fatal shock. Some years later, Cheney was watching an episode of the SHOWTIME hit “Homeland,” in which that terrorist scenario was woven into the plot. “I was aware of the danger…that existed…I found it credible,” he responds to Gupta when asked what went through his mind. “I know from the experience we had and the necessity for adjusting my own device, that it was an accurate portrayal of what was possible,” says Cheney.

Did he also avoid sea travel, since the terrorists could use their nuclear-powered subs to send microwaves at him and fry his brains? What world was he living in?

The answer, in case you’ve forgotten, is that he and so many other Bush administration officials were basically enacting a fantasy in which the enemy—”the terrorists”—were not actually a bunch of semi-literate religious fanatics who got incredibly lucky one time with an extraordinarily low-tech attack, but were actually evil geniuses, had unlimited resources at their disposal, and could execute complex, highly technical schemes with multiple interlocking parts that enabled them to do things like get close enough to the Vice President to deliver him a fatal electric shock. And of course, we can’t close Guantanamo and house the prisoners now there in supermax prisons in the United States, from which no inmate has ever escaped, because they’re terrorists, and who knows what super-powers they might have developed in the fantastically well-equipped lab in their hollowed-out-mountain lair?  I joke, but do you remember Bin Laden’s mountain fortress? It was quite a remarkable feat of engineering—check out this conversation between Tim Russert and Donald Rumsfeld, going over all its amazing details. “A ventilation system!” marveled Russert. “The entrances large enough to drive trucks and even tanks!” Even computer systems and telephone systems. It’s a very sophisticated operation!” “Oh, you bet,” responded the Secretary of Defense. “This is serious business. And there’s not one of those. There are many of them.” You may also remember that the mountain fortress never existed. It was all made up.

Back in the real world, actual terrorists were struggling unsuccessfully to make their shoes or their underwear explode. So why did people like Cheney want so badly to believe they were fighting Magneto or Dr. No? I think it’s because they all wanted to be Jack Ryan or Jack Bauer. The more terrifying your enemy is, the more courageous and heroic you are. While Bin Laden was holed up in a house in Abbottabad watching DVDs of Three’s Company reruns, Bush and Cheney were imagining that their foe was so unstoppable that at any moment he could penetrate the Secret Service perimeter and kill them with death rays.

You may not remember, but there was a time when actual government officials talked about the television show 24 as though it were not absurd escapist entertainment, but a real representation of reality. Here’s a little  blast from the past :

According to British lawyer and writer Sands, Jack Bauer—played by Kiefer Sutherland—was an inspiration at early “brainstorming meetings” of military officials at Guantánamo in September 2002. Diane Beaver, the staff judge advocate general who gave legal approval to 18 controversial interrogation techniques including waterboarding, sexual humiliation and terrorizing prisoners with dogs, told Sands that Bauer “gave people lots of ideas.” Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security chief, gushed in a panel discussion on 24 organized by the Heritage Foundation that the show “reflects real life.”

John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer who produced the so-called torture memos—simultaneously redefining both the laws of torture and of logic—cites Bauer in his book War by Other Means. “What if, as the Fox television program 24 recently portrayed, a high-level terrorist leader is caught who knows the location of a nuclear weapon?” Even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, speaking in Canada last summer, shows a gift for this casual toggling between television and the Constitution. “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles … He saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” Scalia said. “Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?”

Well no, your honor, because Jack Bauer is a fictional character. We also don’t need to pass a law boosting penalties for using the Imperius curse on someone without their permission, because that isn’t real either.

There’s a practical side to this, which is that the more people thought 24 represented the reality of terrorism, the more willing they’d be to shrug their shoulders at things like vastly expanded surveillance and the use of torture. In the real world, “ticking time bombs” are so rare as to be essentially non-existent, and the torture policy (and even the actual torture techniques) were designed by people who knew virtually nothing about how to get information from a prisoner who doesn’t want to give it to you. But hey, on 24, not only did torture always work, it worked fast—60 seconds was about average—and everything a terrorist said under torture turned out to be true. How could you not use it?

This still matters because these fantasists built an infrastructure—legal, programmatic, psychological—that we still live with today. And they don’t seem to have regained their ability to distinguish between fiction and reality.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, October 21, 2013

October 22, 2013 Posted by | Dick Cheney | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Worst Of Times”: George W. Bush’s Presidency, Gliding Over The Costly Mistakes

How little there is to celebrate about George W. Bush.  How much there is to rue. Next to his son, his father’s short presidency seems worth at least a short thank you note.

The younger Bush’s presidential library fanfare calls for a reckoning before his rangers paint pretty lies the size of Texas all over the place. The squat man in the cowboy hat, Dick Cheney, was a useful reminder of the greatest one: you know, something about Iraq and WMD. Then came the war started under false premises and promises to the world community. After nine years, we left the country in shambles, like a trashed fraternity house, Bush’s scene at Yale. The untold civilian death toll is kept hidden in the shadows.

Before Bush took the oath of office, we knew his true colors from the darkness down in Florida. Folly, farce and tragedy were not far behind for American democracy, and perhaps you can say we deserved it. But he also hurt the whole world and our standing in it.

The pretty paint job on his presidency has already started. Another Bush war is now being waged on the truth. For starters, the gallery of living presidents gave Bush a platform to laud himself for staying “true to our convictions.”

What’s so great about that? Not only was he wrongheaded, but always aggressively so. He never looked back, he never thought twice. In this way, Bush reminds one of Andrew Jackson, his doppelganger. At least Jackson fought his own battles – like the one in New Orleans, the beguiling city Bush flew over on Air Force One when it was drowning. He later looked upon the Wall Street meltdown with the same kind of bemused detachment.

There are three things you are going to hear about Bush. He kept us safe. He expanded freedom. Finally, history will decide. That’s the tough crowd’s storyline and, in a way, its marching order. Pundit Charles Krauthammer picked up on it fast, asserting in The Washington Post that Bush “created the entire anti-terror infrastructure that continues to keep us safe.”

You have to admire such excellent embellishment.

As for keeping us safe, the terrorist attacks of September 11th happened on Bush’s watch, despite intelligence warnings all summer that the system was “blinking red.” His national security people, notably Condoleezza Rice, persistently ignored the threat of al-Qaida, and Bush himself rudely dismissed a CIA briefer at his Crawford vacation ranch in August for bearing more bad tidings of a terrorist plot within the United States. Really rude, because presumably he had better things to do that day.

If Bill Clinton had been president on 9/11, you can bet on him being blamed by the Republicans ’till he was out of town by sundown. Yet somehow, some way, it became the best thing that happened to Bush, the jump start to his presidency. Who can forget his inspiring leadership, telling us to fight terrorists by going shopping?

Ready to move on to expanding freedom? An absurd claim from the man who opened the sinister specter on Guantanamo, where scores of men have been held for years as terrorist suspects. There is no trial in sight after torture was visited upon many of them in the name of expanding freedom. Closer to home, the Patriot Act swiftly became law after 9/11, which clamped down on civil rights and freedoms, right down to our library books.

So much for keeping us safe and expanding freedom. The best defense Bush uses as an apologia for the wasteland of his eight years, at home and abroad, is that history will decide. Curiously, he even asks visitors to his library to make mock decisions in his shoes. He seems to be pleading: “It was hard!”

That won’t wash, for we know Bush has a reckless disregard for history. In a telling moment with Bob Woodward, Bush scoffed at the notion of history’s judgment, saying that we’ll all be dead anyway.

The library’s soft focus on hard facts cannot be the final say about George W. Bush. Shakespeare would have a field day with the father-son rivalry, the doting, sharp-tongued mother, and the colorful Cabinet war council – producing our own “war president.”

In the Bard’s absence, Bill Clinton slyly spoke to the truth of the Texas scene, stating that former presidents use their libraries to rewrite history. Clinton was also a reminder of “high cotton” peace and prosperity, a land where we lived in the best of times. Then came the worst of times. And that’s no lie.


By: Jamie Stiehm, U. S. News and World Report, April 29, 2013

April 30, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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