The Geneva Convention
Jude Wanniski
January 29, 2002


Memo To: Vice President Dick Cheney
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Who is a Terrorist?

In the last year, I've not had a single critical word to say about your performance in office, Mr. Vice President. I may have come close a few times, but the issues were so small that I can scarcely remember what they were. But your appearance on FoxNewsSunday with Tony Snow shook me up so much I've been depressed ever since. The very worst thing that could happen in our war against terrorism, I think, is to use it as an excuse for behaving as "terrorists" ourselves. I've come to expect that Don Rumsfeld, as Defense Secretary, can be pretty loose with his definition of "terrorism," but that's to be expected. He spends his days talking to military men. Colin Powell, as Secretary of State, spends his days talking to our political allies around the world, and he has his hands full these days trying to persuade them we are not going to slap the "terrorist" label on the next country we plan to bomb. When you decided to publicly insinuate Yasir Arafat is a "terrorist" for knowing about a shipment of munitions being sent to agents of the Palestinian Authority from a source in Iran you crossed a crucial diplomatic line. You don't have to believe Arafat's denial, which he asserted in a letter to President Bush. But to equate a shipment of 50 tons of munitions with "terrorism" is in itself stretching the definition.

There is certainly "conflict" between Arabs and Jews, and with the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon using massive military power to bomb and strafe, bulldoze and assassinate, it should be no surprise there may be Palestinians who take seriously those in Sharon's coalition who want to rid the West Bank of Arabs altogether. They will need 50 tons of munitions and maybe another 5000 tons if the "terrorism" between Arab and Jew moves to a higher level of civil war. Do you really believe that Arafat has been secretly training Arab boys and girls to blow themselves up in shopping malls and pizza parlors? As far as I can tell from this distance, the Israeli secret service does not believe he is involved in fostering "Muslim McVeighs." The scary thing, Mr. Vice President, is that if we really wanted more real terrorism in Jerusalem, Manhattan or Washington, D.C., this is the way to go about it. Our old Cold War friends, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, want to define Saddam Hussein as a "terrorist," so we can crank up a new war in Iraq. If you will now go along with the idea that the United States has the right to label a "combatant" a "terrorist," outside the protections of the Geneva Convention, we all might as well resign ourselves to a war against all of Islam, with no "coalition" behind us at all.

Don't you see how ridiculous it is that we can define the soldiers of the Taliban government as "unlawful combatants" after we have defined the Taliban government in Kabul as a "gang," not an "organized government"? It is perfectly clear that the situation may be "unprecedented," but the Geneva Convention does provide a mechanism for resolving questions of definition. Because the Geneva Convention is inconvenient for Rumsfeld, he tells the International Red Cross to go fly a kite, and he has serious journalists who are enjoying this popular "war on terrorism" lining up behind him. This ain't the Golden Rule, Mr. Vice President. What goes around, comes around, and if we want to get into legal battles with other countries that cite our new definition of "unlawful combatant" to detain an American citizen for purposes of "interrogation," that's what we can expect. Danny Pearl, The Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnaped in Karachi, Pakistan last week, is an obvious tit-for-tat example of how this plays out. Indeed, the WSJ took the lead earlier last week in ridiculing the Red Cross for complaining about the "unlawful combatants" at Guantanamo Bay. The Karachi kidnapers may have read the piece in the Asian edition and decided to grab Pearl to make the point.

The warriors who are hell bent on ridding the world of unruly Muslims are pretending they did not kidnap the Taliban soldiers and hustle them to Cuba for a little friendly interrogation. Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against rounding up Al Qaeda terrorists wherever we find them and holding them without bail while they are checked out. But the Taliban soldiers were conscripted to defend the existing government in Kabul against attacks by the Northern Alliance. There is no justification in calling them Al Qaeda "terrorists" when the government that conscripted them has been recognized by the governments of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as being legally organized. They were almost certainly bad guys for harboring Osama bin Laden, but they were in charge. We could have declared war on Afghanistan, but that would have meant a debate in Congress, so we defined the Taliban as criminals. Then again, the Geneva Convention wasn't arranged to deal with good guys, Mr. Vice President, but to establish rules of warfare for civilized people, in an attempt to limit the damage by the uncivilized.

I'm sorry to have to lecture you like this, but we have been friends for almost 40 years, and it is often the best friends who risk the friendship by being critical. I know what a stickler you are for high principle, which is why I have been arguing on your behalf on the matter of the energy papers you are refusing to disclose. Others who don't know you as well as I suspect you have something to hide. I insist you have nothing to hide, and if you lose the argument in court, we'll find you are serious about protecting the powers of the two Constitutional offices of President and Vice President from the unprivileged political probings of the legislative branch. What goes around comes around, here too. I hope you're not angry with me for bringing up these matters in this public forum, and I hope I can make it through at least another year before I'm moved again to criticism.