The Propaganda War

By any standard, historical or moral, the treatment of al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo Bay has been outstanding, even exemplary. Why, then, have European and international airwaves been ringing this week with howls of condemnation? The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, Germany’s foreign minister, Joschka Fischer and even Britain’s Tony Blair have publicly expressed their deep concern. A handful of British parliamentarians have called on their government to take stronger measures, even to “talk very strongly to our U.S. allies.” And an angry Amnesty International, predictably, has demanded access to the prisoners.

Although the American press has expressed only tepid interest, the European and international press has loudly denounced the prisoners’ treatment. Among others, the Guardian of London published an agonizing article by Terry Waite, a former hostage in Beirut, implicitly comparing his captivity to what the al Qaeda prisoners were enduring. A certain amount of this noise represents nothing more than a return to normality. In the wake of Sept. 11, sympathy for the U.S. was widespread, if not universal. Now we are back to where we were before: a state of generalized resentment of the U.S., of its power and of its ability to enforce a unilateral security policy. In some quarters, the resentment is magnified by partisan politics. It is no accident that this controversy echoes loudest in the left-leaning European press, and among the left-wing political leaders who now run most of Western Europe.

But the U.S. has also made mistakes. The Defense Department’s decision to publish photos of the prisoners shackled, hooded and kneeling must surely count as a public-relations blunder. No amount of post hoc explanation–the prisoners were shackled and hooded only during transport, and they were only kept kneeling for a short period on arrival–can undo the damage. Nor is it clear why the U.S. has not bent over backwards to respect every subclause of the Geneva Convention.

Of course these men are, as Donald Rumsfeld says, “unlawful combatants,” and not proper POWs: They were not in uniform, and were not fighting in a conventional war. The Taliban were not even recognized as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, if international law says that a tribunal needs to be held to determine their status before we can interrogate them and put them on trial, there seems no reason not to hold one.

Some, I know, will say it doesn’t matter. Afghanistan was America’s war. From the military point of view, the Europeans were irrelevant to America’s victory there, when they were not actually in the way. No one in Washington, at the moment, is much in the mood to worry about America’s image in Europe or anywhere else, or to fuss about the shocked expressions on the faces of people who never much liked the Bush administration in the first place.

Yet in the longer term, America’s image does matter. This is a minor episode, but it reveals a carelessness about that image, and an arrogance which bodes ill for the future. Like the Cold War, the war on terrorism is going to last for many years. Like the Cold War, this war is going to require allies. Even if the U.S. doesn’t need military allies, military power alone will not win this war. America will still need allies to supply intelligence, allies to share police and border guards, allies to help rebuild Afghanistan, allies in Europe, in the Middle East, and in South Asia.

True, the U.S. is now the only superpower, with a military capability that enables unilateral action whenever and wherever it wants. Nevertheless, there is no reason to flaunt this unique position, to become careless, or to defy internationally recognized norms just because it can’t be bothered to adhere to them. Intelligent unilateralism means that the U.S. abide by treaties, especially human-rights treaties, that it has already ratified. In the case of the al Qaeda prisoners, it would cost the U.S. nothing. Intelligent unilateralism also should mean that the U.S. relearn the importance of selling itself abroad, both to allies and enemies. Where its allies are concerned, this shouldn’t be too difficult. An opinion poll conducted in Britain showed that 90% of the public approved of America’s treatment of prisoners–despite their politicians’ raucous objections. The U.S. should seek to address the European public, over the heads of the chattering classes. In the first days following Sept. 11, President Bush made a speech in which he addressed himself directly to people who had expressed sympathy for the U.S. around the world. That speech, quoted and requoted everywhere, was an immense success. It wouldn’t hurt to do it again, and from time to time.

What is true for America’s allies is even truer for its enemies–and the Cold War analogy applies here too. As not everybody remembers, the U.S. defeated the Soviet Union not just with military power, but by convincing the leaders as well as the people of the communist bloc that its system was better: that liberal capitalism was better than central planning, that respect for human rights was better than totalitarianism. Like the Cold War, the war on terrorism is also a propaganda war, not just a military war. We will find life a lot easier in coming decades if we convince new generations of potential terrorists not only that they will lose if they choose to fight us, but that there is actually no reason to.