- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 16, 2005

A third of a decade after September 11, 2001, it’s hard trying to maintain a war footing against a nebulous enemy.

At Senate confirmation hearings for the attorney-general-designate, Alberto Gonzales, Democrats seem to have decided the very concept of an “enemy” is dubious, cheerfully cranking up their sanctimonious preening for CNN and berating Judge Gonzales for declining to extend the Geneva Conventions to captured terrorists. To be covered by Geneva, a combatant has to have (a) a commander who is responsible for his subordinates; (b) formal recognizable military insignia; (c) weapons that are carried openly; (d) and an adherence to the laws and customs of warfare. Islamist terrorists meet none of these conditions and extending the protection of the Conventions to them would simply announce to the world that, from a legal point of view, there’s no downside to embracing terror. Blow up a nightclub or a schoolhouse or a pizza parlor and you’ll still get full POW status.

Ah-ha, say the Democrats. But if we don’t treat our prisoners with respect, America’s brave men and women in uniform will pay the price when they fall into enemy hands. Hello? Does anyone in the Democratic Party still read the newspapers, other than the fawning editorials of the New York Times?

If an American falls into the hands of the enemy, he will be all over the Internet having his head hacked off for a recruitment video or dragged through the streets and strung up on a bridge in Fallujah. Military historian Sir Max Hastings made the point last week that, in an age of overwhelming U.S. military supremacy, for her enemies asymmetric warfare — i.e., terrorism — is the only logical way to go.

But the urge by the Democrats and the media to raise them to the level of lawful combatants only makes things even more asymmetric: they can decapitate us while screaming “Allahu Akbar” and clean up on the DVD sales, while we’re only supposed to ask name, rank and serial number, two of which they don’t have and they’re flexible on the first. The wish to gentrify the enemy and, by extension, their tactics will only result in more kidnappings and more decapitations.

In late summer, three hostages were seized in Iraq — the two Americans were murdered immediately, but the third, a Briton, was kept alive while his jailers very adroitly played off U.K. Muslim lobby groups and public opinion against Her Majesty’s Government. As I wrote back then, “the feelers put out by the Foreign Office to Ken Bigley’s captors … confer respectability on the head-hackers and increase the likelihood that Britons and other foreigners will be seized and decapitated in the future. The United Kingdom, like the government of the Philippines when it allegedly paid a ransom for the release of its Iraqi hostages, is thus assisting in the mainstreaming of jihad.”

I was proved right a few days later when poor Margaret Hassan, an aid worker who had lived in Baghdad for decades and was married to an Iraqi, was seized — in the hopes of extracting further gestures of deference from British officials — and then, like Mr. Bigley, murdered.

It’s depressing that after three years the Democrats seem incapable of any kind of characterization of the enemy that approximates to reality. But it’s not surprising. In the landscape of modern progressive pieties, there are no enemies, just friends whose grievances we haven’t yet accommodated.

But out there in the field a good glimpse of how things really work was provided by Moayad Ahmed Yasseen, who was captured in Fallujah a couple of months ago and turned out to be full of interesting information. He was a colonel in Saddam’s Iraqi Army and after the fall of the Ba’athists last spring was sent to Tehran, where he says he was received by Iran’s head honcho, Ayatollah Khamenei, and various Iranian intelligence officials. He returned with cash, weapons and car bombs for his new outfit — something called Jaish Muhammad, which means Muhammad’s Army. It’s closely allied with Abu Zarqawi, Insurgent Numero Uno in the new Iraq. A few weeks later, Saddam ordered Yasseen west, to meet with Syrian intelligence and procure more money and weapons from Boy Assad.

So who’s the enemy there? Take your pick: Saddamite remnants, Iranian theocrats, Syrian Ba’athists, ad hoc insurgents, a Jordanian terrorist commander; states, nonstate actors, Islamic fundamentalists, secular dictatorships, wily opportunists. You name it, Col. Yasseen is plugged into it. And, even though Osama has anointed Zarqawi as his viceroy in occupied Iraq (somewhat post facto), it seems unlikely he or anyone close to him in the luxury caves with en suite latrine has anything to do with what’s going on in the Sunni Triangle, or Saudi Arabia, or Indonesia, or anywhere else.

We were encouraged after Afghanistan to see al Qaeda as less a hierarchical structure and more of a loose franchise operation. But it seems doubtful these days it’s anything at all — except perhaps a meaningless media shorthand for a network of diffused autonomous Islamist groups operating from Central America to the Balkans to Southeast Asia, not to mention gazillions of British, Canadian and European Muslims who graduated from the Afghan terror camps and either returned home to await instructions or sallied forth to join the jihad in Chechnya, Gaza and Bali, plus various disaffected individuals who just got the Islamist fever, like the July Fourth shooter at Los Angeles Airport and, indeed, the Washington sniper duo, the younger of whom liked to draw pictures of planes crashing into skyscrapers, etc.

How do you deal with an enemy that encompasses everything from the United Nations’ favorite dictatorships to freelance nutters? You need methods as diverse as they are. You need to be smart and at times improvisational. You don’t do what the senators puffing all over the TV want to do: box in the United States and give free Geneva upgrades to terrorists.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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