Specific Costs and Diffuse Benefits

by Eugene Kontorovich

Speaking of releasing prisoners (see my post below)… a terrorist formerly held at Guantanamo bay died in a gunfight with Pakistani soldiers this week. He blew himself up rather than be captured, suggesting he had valuable intelligence to hide. The gentleman was released from Gitmo a few years ago. He immediately rejoined the jihad, terrorizing the Afghan-Pakistan border area. Notable accomplishments include kidnapping two Chinese engineers, one of whom died. It turns out that he is one of many Gitmo alumni to resume their violent ways.

There are several lessons here.

1) There has been significant discussion over how long the detainees can be held without criminal charges being brought. Cases like this demonstrate that the conflict in which they took part has not at all ended, because the Taliban have chosen not to lay down their arms.

2) The initial round-up of combatants during the invasion of Afghanistan was not the blind and capricious sweep it is sometimes made out to be.

3) The determination of who gets released from the base is badly flawed, perhaps because of the political pressure to reduce the number of detainees. This is not the first time the poor souls of Guantanamo have returned to violence, despite signing statements upon their release promising not to. How did this guy slip through? It was easy. He simply said he was someone else. Of course, the question is why anyone believed him. While there may be hapless peasants, humanitarian workers, and tourists picked up in Afghanistan, one must understand that, unlike traditional combatants, the current enemy will not be giving name, rank and serial number. Indeed, the mixing with the civilian population that gives terrorists a bad name in the field continues after apprehension, again with negative consequences for the innocents.

4) There is a broader point here about specific versus diffuse consequences. The internment at Gitmo is very specific: one can put a face to the story, see the people being detained for years. Thus the benefits of releasing them are immediate. Those who advocate for release, on legal or geopolitical grounds, can point to the immediate harm being done by the Administration, while taking credit for helping real people. However, the consequences of releasing these people are diffuse, in the sense of being somewhat removed in time and place. The Wall Street Journal reports that at least 30 released detainees have for sure returned to their old ways, there are doubtless more that have not been identified, as the former detainees do not go around wearing big gemstone rings with “Gitmo ‘04” on them.

This imbalance creates a natural bias against Gitmo, where costs are apparent and benefits concealed. Indeed, criticisms of Gitmo seem to recognize the “diffusion” point. International demands to shut down Gitmo, which would result in the release of many but mostly in the reshuffling of most detainees to a number of different locations, are all about the diffusion.

Just as advocating for continued internment requires accepting responsibility for the innocents, it seems advocating for the release requires accepting the responsibility not just for the immediate appealing consequences but for the diffuse negative consequences, which are often measured in lives and terror.

This is an example of the general bias towards inaction versus action because the consequences of doing nothing are harder to trace. Many Americans were horrified with the consequences of our involvement in the Vietnam War. As James Taranto writes in the Wall Street Journal today, Sen. John Kerry argued in the early 1970s that a withdrawal from Vietnam would not result in a bloodbath. Like many claimed then and continue to claim now, the domino theory was bunk. However, a bloodbath ensued. The dominoes (Laos, Cambodia) fell to communism.

Yet Kerry in recent years has said a bloodbath just did not happen. This willful blindness is I think typical. Have any critics of the war in Vietnam accepted responsibility for the massive loss of life and freedom that their policies caused? To be sure, this does not make the policies wrong. Maybe a bloodbath and invasion of two neighboring states was worth the end of US involvement, but that is a case to be argued. My concern is that as soon as the immediate problem disappears (i.e., U.S. presence in Vietnam, ethnic cleansing of Serbs and Gypsies by Albanians), the attention of polite society shifts, and future problems (mass slaughter of South Vietnamese supporters and imposition of tyranny; ethnic cleansing of Serbs by Albanians) are ignored or brushed under the carpet to avoid feeling bad. One can see the same phenomenon in Zimbabwe, where the worst predictions about Mugabe’s regime seem mild in comparison with the reality. Yet he was brought to power with overwhelming international support. But now the plight of his country hardly seems of interest to anyone, and certainly no one would suggest that Western policies contributed to it.

The point I’m making here is policy neutral. If it is correct to oppose the Vietnam War, or the Czar, or the Shah, this does not mean that having solved the first problem one should ignore the problems of the solution. Indeed, what we’re now doing in Iraq is taking responsibility for the unintended consequences of our policy against Saddam Hussein. You break it, you own it, as Secretary of State Powell said about Iraq. At this point we may have paid more than enough of our debt for “breaking” Iraq. But too often, we break it — or allow it to be broken — and simply walk away.

http://opiniojuris.org/2007/07/26/specific-costs-and-diffuse-benefits/

9 Responses

  1. There is one more possibility on those lessons to be learned: You abuse and detain people unjustly, (and who knows what they also went through during that time) and you might create a new enemy who will now be willing to die fighting back.

  2. As I recall, Laos and Cambodia were first destabilized by the USA, so their fall shouldn’t count in support of domino theory. The big domino was always Thailand … and it didn’t fall after all.

  3. With all due respect, I do not think this single case supports all of the lessons learned advanced above.

    Cruz is right…there is usually no way to know whether the folks released were already our enemies when they were captured. If they escape and join the other side, isn’t it a nice slap at us to say the fooled us – true or not?

    Further, who knows how many people detained in Afghanistan (or elsewhere) managed to make it to Cuba? The “sweep” didn’t always end in a trip to the Carribean. Stories are legion about folks turned over to the U.S. to settle old scores or to divert attention from real terrorists or Taliban.

    As for the quality of detainee we have in custody, see the Jurist report (can be found in their “paper chase” I think) on the recent release of a study of the CSRTs done by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. It is based solely on unclassified summaries and shows significant weakness in the evidence against many. Some only received some form of small arms weapons training. In Afghanistan? What a shock. This does not necessarily mean they currently present or ever presented a threat to the U.S. It might have meant they joined one of many warlords fighting for power – perhaps involuntarily or perhaps simply to preserve their families.

    If these proceedings were adversarial and this evidence subjected to further examination and evidence presented by the defense (with the same burden of proof), how many would still be in custody? Would the same political pressure still exist? After six months or a year of detention, I would hope there is enough intel to withstand an adversarial proceeding with a “preponderance” standard of proof if we have a “real” bad guy or the “worst of the worst” as has been claimed. Of course, maybe we do have that evidence in the classified files. But there is no way to know – in my humble opinion – without an adversarial proceeding.

    I suspect that the “natural bias” against Gitmo primarily stems from a perceived lack of due process and allegations of torture and other abuse. It has much less to do with specific versus diffuse consequences.

    For what it’s worth….

  4. There’s a lot to react to in this post, particularly in point #4 and below. But on a more tangential point, the idea that his suicide “suggest[ed] he had valuable intelligence to hide” is quite a surmise. It’s just as plausible that he thought it was a better way to die, and that he wanted to avoid lifelong detention, irrespective of how one views Guantanamo. I also see considerable tension b/w points 2 and 3.

    On the other hand, with respect to the comments, the WaPo story, at least, lends zero support to the idea that the detention of Mehsud created a new enemy, so using this incident to illustrate that point is peculiar. Indeed, the better “new enemies” argument, I would think, suggests that this cost is “diffuse” in the sense of Eugene’s post — the symbol of Guantanamo, and the perceived conduct of interrogation there and elsewhere, loses friends and converts the uncommitted among those never (yet) detained.

  5. I am not sure what is surprising here – Mehsud fooled his captors. I believe that Confederate soldiers were paroled during the Civil War having made the promise not to take up arms again against the Union. And some of them went home and took up arms against the Union. So (I believe it was) Secretary Stanton ended paroling Confederates POW’s. Then, the Confederates ended paroling Union POW’s and the number of prisoners of war in the camps went up dramatically. It is sometimes said that this change led to the horrors at Andersonville (others place more of the blame on Captain Wirz).

    If the Taliban were treated at the beginning as POW’s then we could detain them to the end of hostilities without any trial. The pressures change once someone is in a POW status. Mehsud played the system. That still does not mean that people should be tortured. I have called for the people there to be put in places stateside like we did in WWII and Gitmo closed because Gitmo is synonymous with lawlessness. That’s the distinction I would make.

    Best,

    Ben

  6. There is one more possibility on those lessons to be learned: You abuse and detain people unjustly, (and who knows what they also went through during that time) and you might create a new enemy who will now be willing to die fighting back.

    This is irrelevant to the discussion at hand. The people in question are already in our custody, we only need chose what to do with them.

  7. Sorry Mathew. Thought that we were dealing here with the lessons to be learned and what to do with those we can’t prove are a threat to this country . My mistake!

  8. The making enemies point is an important one, but it cannot in itself be deceive. Every action we take in the international field will make new enemies. If I recall the history of the Civil War correctly, many Southern states were uncertain about joining the Confederacy. They wanted to see how Washington would handle the successoinists. When Lincoln chose force over slow dialog, it created vast resentment in the wavering southern states, which saw the Union action as entirely unjustified aggression. Germans probably thought a lot worse of the U.S. after we went to war with them. Bombing Belgrade no doubt made us Serbian enemies, but they have had the good form to refrain from attacking our civilians to express their resentment. Even something as relatively innocuous as saving Arabia from Saddam Hussein bread a new enemy, in the form of Bin Laden.

    Certainly no one should make enemies for no reason. But the making of enemies is a cost to be considered against the benefits of the action, not a trump.

    Ed’s point about the uncertain intelligence value of the terrorist discussed in the post is well taken. In response to John and others, nothing in my post condoned, or even discussed, the torture of detainees. I believe the case against Gitmo is independent of the treatment the detainees recieve; the torture issue is on top of that.

  9. There has been significant discussion over how long the detainees can be held without criminal charges being brought. Cases like this demonstrate that the conflict in which they took part has not at all ended, because the Taliban have chosen not to lay down their arms.

    Why is this a lesson? Who in the debate over Guantanmo is suggesting that the conflict with the Taliban or Al’Qaeda is over? The implication from this “lesson” is that if you oppose GITMO you think that terrorism isn’t a significant threat. That is a straw man. The argument against GITMO is that the detainees should be given some formal legal status as POWs, as war criminals or as some other recognized procedure under domestic and internatinal law not released. However, the detainees in GITMO should not be the new men in the iron mask (or in this case the black hood) either and robbed of all humanity with indefinite detention, potentially for life, if they are not terrorists.

    The determination of who gets released from the base is badly flawed, perhaps because of the political pressure to reduce the number of detainees. This is not the first time the poor souls of Guantanamo have returned to violence, despite signing statements upon their release promising not to. … Indeed, the mixing with the civilian population that gives terrorists a bad name in the field continues after apprehension, again with negative consequences for the innocents.

    The duty of any soldier who is taken prisoner is not only to survive but to escape and return to the field of battle for his side. The idea that a terrorists would pose any more of a threat of escape than say a German soldier in World War II who had Geneva protections is, in my estimation, wrong. If this person was released inappropriately then the system failed. The remedy for a failed system is not to give it increasing power, but to change that system.

    Indeed, maybe a more open system of review where the military would have to sustain its case for detention would actually improve identification of terrorists by requiring the military to find witnesses, documents and other materials to make the case for a positive identification. Maybe a more open system would reduce political pressure to make an unjustified release because other countries and their populations would view a detainment as legitimate.

    Plus, these tales of Taliban soldiers run loose after being released from GITMO have a pretty suspicious timing to the leaks don’t they, as debate over whether to close GITMO mounts in the State Department and some circles in the Pentagon, and while the Supreme Court is hearing new detainee cases? This line from the article seems especially interesting:

    “Defense officials have said that as many as 23 other freed men, whom they have not identified, have taken up arms again.”

    Hard to know whether this number is accurate without any independent verification. Obviously, no one can doubt the Meshud release was a failure, but the scope of the problem is difficult to ascertain. To suggest that those advocating changes to the GITMO system are responsible for even “diffuse consequences” of the military’s failure here is tenuous at best.

    The gratuitous shot against Kerry makes me wonder whether your statements are really all that “policy neutral.”

    Finally, in your comment you state:

    I believe the case against Gitmo is independent of the treatment the detainees recieve; the torture issue is on top of that.

    This is a fundamentally flawed view that fails to take into account prison psychology. As the Stanford Prison Experiment showed if you create a system where a prisoner is stripped of their humanity as GITMO does it invites abuse because the guards begin to view the prisoners as less than human. Add in an official policy which refuses to condemn coercive techniques and you have a powder keg.

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