I think today’s Best of the Web Today has an unusually lucid, and brief, summary about why it is not reasonable for the United States to extend to today’s enemy prisioners all of the benefits available to POWs under the Geneva convention (a convention that neither the terrorists, nor the nations that harbor them) have ratified:
In this passage quoting a letter from retired general Colin Powell, the Financial Times gets to the nub of the problem without really realizing it:
“The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. To redefine Common Article 3 [of the Geneva conventions] would add to those doubts. Furthermore, it would put our own troops at risk,” Mr Powell wrote in a letter to Mr McCain released yesterday.
“We are not saying the CIA cannot carry out a programme,” Mr McCain said yesterday. “We are saying it cannot amend the Geneva conventions, which calls for the kind of treatment of prisoners that fall under Common Article 3.”
The argument is that unless we interpret the Geneva Convention as providing maximal protections to terrorists, our enemies will mistreat U.S. soldiers in their captivity. Assume for the sake of argument that this is true. If the restrictions on interrogations that Powell and McCain advocate result in another 9/11, then they will have sacrificed the lives of women and children in order to protect soldiers. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?
Further, McCain’s personal experiences–which lead people to be skittish about criticizing him on this subject–actually argue against his position. As a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, McCain suffered actual, brutal torture–not just aggressive questioning of the sort that the Bush administration seeks to legalize. America’s adherence to the Geneva Conventions did not protect McCain–even though he, unlike the al Qaeda detainees, was a legitimate prisoner of war; and Hanoi, unlike al Qaeda, had ratified the Geneva Conventions and thus was legally bound by them.
The whole point of the Geneva Conventions is reciprocity: Nations agree that when they fight wars, they will do so in accordance with some civilized rules. Extending the conventions’ protection to terrorists, who reject those rules, transforms Geneva into a suicide pact. John McCain is one of the Senate’s true war heroes, but in this area his personal experience seems to be clouding, rather than clarifying, his views.
The only other thing I’d add is that, no matter how nice we are to their guys, their guys will continue torturing and beheading our guys. These agreements do not work when they’re a one way street.
UPDATE: Here’s the Captain making the same excellent point about the fact that, as to signatory nations fighting the United States, the Geneva Convention has never had the desired civilizing effect.