View Full Version : Twentieth-century Rules Will Not Win a 21st-century War

04-08-2006, 09:09 AM
7 April Wall Street Journal commentary - '9/11 Changed Everything' (http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/dhenninger/?id=110008194).

... In an important speech delivered Monday in London, the British Defense Minister John Reid suggested that we consider revising the Geneva Conventions regarding conduct in war. He wants to accommodate the altered reality of modern terrorism. "I believe we need now to consider whether we--the international community in its widest sense--need to re-examine these conventions," Mr. Reid said. "If we do not, we risk continuing to fight a 21st-century conflict with 20th-century rules." The Geneva Conventions were shaped 50 years ago, Mr. Reid said, but "warfare continues to evolve, and, in its moral dimensions, we have now to cope with a deliberate regression towards barbaric terrorism by our opponents."

This summary does not do justice to Mr. Reid's speech, which was at pains to seek a balance in the tension between a West that struggled to mitigate the savagery of armed conflict and an enemy that daily dishonors those principles. He is not suggesting that we adopt the enemy's methods. He is worried that the old rules are putting the soldiers on our side at unacceptable risk. "If we act differently today from how we behaved yesterday, it is not necessarily wrong. Indeed it may be wrong not to."

Most likely, any such reconsideration would pass through the United Nations, an institution perhaps irreparably damaged by September 11. Set aside the disqualifying facts of the Oil for Food scandal; the U.N. has never been able to agree on a definition of "terrorism." That is so the worst of them can escape censure for crimes against civilian populations. Thus the legitimacy of suicide bombings as an instrument of policy remains, repulsively, an "open question." So it worsens...

Because of the practices that Islamic fundamentalism has chosen as instruments of policy--in lower Manhattan, Madrid, London, Baghdad, Bali and for the future--a whole range of settled customs in time of war deserve more organized thought than they have so far received. Beyond the Geneva Conventions, any such list would include the debate over Guantanamo and stateless combatants, prisoner interrogation methods (is "waterboarding" torture, or not?), the fight over electronic surveillance and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the custody status of suspected terrorists like Jose Padilla, and the fight over the provisions in the Patriot Act...