A Better Way to Fight Terrorism

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By John Hamre
Thursday, November 16, 2006

In the warm glow of post-election bipartisanship, Congress and President Bush would do well to take on a crucial task: forging a new legal foundation for the global war on terrorism. The current policy framework is a disaster. While I know it's not true, still, the world believes that America condones torture, prison camps and "disappearance" tactics.

Let me recount an analogy. I remember a day back in 1986, when I was working for the Senate Armed Services Committee. An intelligence officer told me that the Navy had just recovered a Soviet sonobuoy and, in taking it apart for intelligence assessment, our government had discovered an American-designed computer chip -- one that we had not yet even certified for production in our own systems. The Soviet Union clearly had superior intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities.

But these did not make the Soviets strong enough to overcome their fundamental flaw. In fact, they were doomed because their whole social construct was built on a lie. America and its allies were victorious because they embraced transcendent government values of freedom, liberty, accountability and transparency. Our ideals and their practice brought hope to millions around the world and drew our allies closer to us.

The United States will lose the global war on terrorism if we feel we must adopt tactics that undermine our civic values. For generations the world has admired America's commitment to the rule of law and government accountability. Much of the world now questions that commitment.

President Bush was right to say that the previous framework of international legal norms did not anticipate al-Qaeda-type combatants. But the administration failed to follow through to lead the world to a new legal framework. And the policies that led to Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, secret renditions and warrantless wiretaps have undermined America's towering moral authority.

The compromises of the final days before Congress recessed for the midterm election only muddied the waters. Political urgency infected an honest search for a durable policy framework.

This is an opportunity for constructive bipartisanship. The election is over. Instead of defaulting to the blue-ribbon-commission model, we should ask Congress to work on this problem. Let's ask the leadership to create a special select committee, made up of the chairmen and ranking minority members of the Armed Services, Foreign Relations, Intelligence and Judiciary committees, to work together for six months. They should assemble a panel of advisers consisting of politicians and jurists of excellent reputation -- people such as Sandra Day O'Connor, Sam Nunn, John Danforth and John Glenn.

We do need a new framework and a new national consensus, one that meets the challenges of this new enemy and is consistent with our tradition as the most revolutionary nation in history; one that holds the rule of law and government accountability inviolable by even the most powerful politicians.

We can prevail in the long war only if America recovers its tarnished inspirational powers and draws to its side the enthusiastic support of friends and allies.

The writer, a former deputy secretary of defense, is president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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