The Magazine

The Trap

There is now a clear and live contrast between Bush and the Democrats on an important issue in the war on terror.

Sep 25, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 02 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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"It [the 2006 election campaign] shouldn't be about national security."

--House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Sept. 14, 2006

Too bad. It will be. On September 6, 2006, President Bush set the trap. He spoke in the East Room of the White House on the war on terror. He announced that 14 terrorist leaders and operatives, who had been held and questioned by the Central Intelligence Agency outside the United States, were being transferred to Guantánamo. He outlined some of the information acquired from the interrogations of men like Khalid Sheik Mohammed, and explained that this information had contributed to disrupting terrorist plots here and abroad. In light of the Supreme Court's Hamdan decision, the president asked Congress to pass legislation that would put this interrogation program, and trials before military tribunals for captured terrorists, on a surer legal footing.

On the morning of September 14, in Room 222 of the Russell Senate Office Building, the Democrats marched into the trap. The Democratic members of the Senate Armed Services committee unanimously turned their back on Bush's proposed legislation. They reported out of committee, by a vote of 15-9, alternative language.

The next day, the president sprung the trap. He strongly reiterated his judgment that the bill reported out of the Senate Armed Services committee failed to provide sufficient clarity to guide personnel involved in questioning detained terrorists, and exposed such personnel to possible legal liability. The president said he would follow the advice of CIA director Michael Hayden not to continue the interrogations in such a murky legal environment. As the president put it, "Congress has got a decision to make. Do you want the program to go forward or not? I strongly recommend that this program go forward in order for us to be able to protect America."

The president has a sound substantive position. Some legislation is needed (at least arguably) because of the Supreme Court's (ill-advised) Hamdan decision. That decision suggests that detained terrorists might enjoy the protection of the vague Article 3 standards of the Geneva Convention. CIA agents could not, therefore, use short-of-torture interrogation techniques that might be thought "humiliating and degrading." Unless the CIA were to abandon all techniques that a judge might construe as contrary to Article 3, the door would be open for agents to be held legally liable. The Bush-backed legislation would stipulate that compliance with U.S. law would constitute fulfillment of our obligations under Geneva. This would permit an effective interrogation program to go forward with confidence.

But the president has an even better political position. There is now a clear and live contrast between Bush and the Democrats on an important issue in the war on terror.

Wait a minute, you say--it's not just Democrats who oppose Bush. Four Republicans joined the Democratic senators--John McCain, John Warner, Lindsey Graham, and Susan Collins. Colin Powell is with them. So the Democrats have cover.

No, they don't. The fact that McCain has badly damaged his 2008 presidential chances doesn't mean the Democrats can't be hurt in 2006. True, there could be a dozen GOP votes for the Democratic alternative on the floor of the Senate next week. There were a dozen Democratic votes for Bush's tax cuts in 2001. It didn't prevent Republicans from distinguishing themselves from Demo crats on taxes. A few defections won't prevent Republicans from saying--truthfully--that there is a real difference between the two parties on the war on terror, and that they stand with Bush and against Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi.

Democratic candidates will respond that McCain also stands with them. It won't help. The American people don't agree with McCain on this. And they're not going to be persuaded by some of the arguments made by Bush's critics. Let Democratic candidates try to argue that, unless we go even further than required by the 2005 legislation sponsored by McCain (which Bush's proposal embraces), al Qaeda might react by not treating Americans decently. Let Democratic candidates try to defend the notion that we'll get lots of credit in Europe by going the extra mile--as if the 2005 detainees legislation generated any good will there. Let Democratic candidates align themselves with world opinion (as interpreted by Colin Powell), and join in expressing doubt about "the moral basis of our fight against terrorism."

The key political fact is this: A GOP candidate can say he will vote to authorize interrogations that CIA director Hayden (no partisan gunslinger) says are important. The Democrats, by contrast, support legislation that would bring such interrogations to a stop. It looks as if the 2006 campaign will be, at least in part, about national security.

--William Kristol