How Ever Do the Handcuffed Suicide Pactists Manage?


In the recommended New York Times article on Iraq propaganda I linked to below, there was another quote worth pondering:

"I'm not surprised this goes on," said Michael Rubin, who worked in Iraq for the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003 and 2004. "Informational operations are a part of any military campaign," he added. "Especially in an atmosphere where terrorists and insurgents—replete with oil boom cash—do the same. We need an even playing field, but cannot fight with both hands tied behind our backs."

Italics mine. File these under the same category as ticking-time-bomb scenarios, zero-sum liberty-for-security trades, and the Constitution-as-death-pact. (Other nominations gladly accepted in the comments.) Each phrase is vivid and catchy, totally agreeable upon first or even second glance, and used in the service of actions that gobble liberty while doing squat for security.

The "even playing field" and "both hands tied behind our backs" fantasies—shared fervently by Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and their boss—is bogus on at least four levels.

1) No fighting force in the world is within shouting distance of the U.S. military's "playing field," largely because of the fruits of our comparatively free market, combined with policy choices and embrace of universal ideals, which have allowed Washington to afford a defense apparatus no other country could dream of. To somehow "level" the playing field would require radical and unprecedented disarmament.

2) As such, you simply cannot describe such a powerful military—one that is expected (if grudgingly) by the world to take a lead role in the internal affairs of faraway countries—to be fighting "with both hands tied behind our backs." Whatever happened at Abu Ghraib was not the result of a shackled fighting force.

3) Less literally, there is this strange assumption that the terrorists and/or insurgents have an unfair advantage, one which we need to erase by adopting their tactics, however unsavory. If that's the case, why aren't we teaching our 12-year-old girls to strap nail bombs to their bodies before riding the bus? Terrorists, who by definition are people who couldn't win a fair fight, use unfair tactics out of desperation, and also to horrify the sensibilities of citizens living under the terrorists' enemy's government. Their actions are almost always incompatible with spreading the cause of freedom. A military which sinks to their level risks alienating the very people they're supposed to liberate.

4) Noble ideals are not just noble because they sound pretty, they're noble because they work. Soldiers aren't taught the Geneva Conventions grudgingly, as some kind of suspiciously European scam to ignore when the going gets tough, but rather as part of a larger American fighting ethic that assumes we'll use cleaner means than our enemies, and benefit by doing so. Corruption of that ethic saps morale, and kneecaps PR.

The Constitution is not now and has never been a suicide pact, even back when the country was truly vulnerable to foreign invasion, like, oh, when the thing was written. On the contrary, it's arguably the best democratic defense mechanism known to man. If liberty and security were at zero-sum odds, the world would still be disgraced by Ceausescu, Husak and Honecker. And if rights and ethics were handcuffs, America would have been hauled off to prison decades ago.