- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2002

LONDON — Winston Churchill famously observed that the only thing worse than having allies is not having them.
Were U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld here in Britain, he might be giving that more than a little thought. Tony Blair, diplomat extraordinaire and alliance spokesman, has all he can do to contain a restive Labor Party, not to mention a chorus of Continental critics who have chafed at the American war on terrorism since September.
Today's issue, not surprisingly, is the treatment of the al Qaeda and Taliban detainees. Though a tempest in a teapot, this issue has the ingredients of a North Atlantic gale, and so, annoying as it may be, Mr. Rumsfeld would do well to look at the matter through the eyes of his carefully assembled allies.
Jay Leno and David Letterman have raised the matter in their own way, asking who wouldn't volunteer to be whisked from a frozen cave to the balmy Caribbean in January. After all, they get three squares a day ("culturally sensitive menu" no less), lavish medical care, a barber's shave and haircut. Like most folk who lose a war to the United States, their standard of living improves. But late-night comics and policy at-the-edge make an unhappy combination for power brokers in general and certainly for this forward-leaning defense secretary.
More to the point, the European media are on a roll, and those who would support us are strangely silent or asking for time. Graphic descriptions abound of "inhumane treatment," detainees "locked in open cages" like animals, "forcible shaving of beards," and so on. With much hand-wringing the United Nations' Human Rights Chief Mary Robinson declares, without caveat, the U.S. treatment fails to meet minimum standards of decency and violates international law. She says the al Qaeda are "prisoners of war."
Mr. Rumsfeld announced he does "not feel even the slightest concern about their treatment. They are being treated vastly better than they treated anybody else over the last several years and vastly better than was their circumstance when they were found." His irritation is understandable, but after such stunning success, this is an unfortunate time for a dialogue of the deaf.
Yet, the perception gap, nursed by America-haters and exploited by the tabloid media predates the U.S. response to September 11. The detainee issue, in fact, returns us to the worst European stereotypes of America as a land where police brutality feeds a bloodthirsty judicial system. While prior to September 11 it was impossible for an American to converse with a European intellectual without descending into a dispute over capital punishment, the atrocious September attacks and the war against al Qaeda interrupted that for four months.
And so the world returns to a well-worn but little-missed path with today's burning trans-Atlantic question: Should those terrorists who happen to be British subjects be subject to the death penalty? Here in Britain, the Labor-left is palpably relieved to once again express open contempt for American justice.
Why give up hard-earned gains? The next phase of the war will be difficult enough even with strong allied support. And there may be times when American national interest quite rightly dictates a sharp break. Why spend the capital on perception, not policy?
Mr. Rumsfeld is counting on, and will doubtless obtain, a clean bill of health from the International Red Cross inspectors examining Guantanamo. With that, the issue is "Are the detainees prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention"? We believe not, as these men were not in uniform and targeted, according to published and spoken statements, innocent civilians worldwide. While the courts decide, however, three issues offend European sensibilities: Did the military overdo the precautionary measures during transport; should the detainees be shaved for health reasons; and should the detainees be held in open-air facilities?
On the transport issue, the obvious safety and security concerns should trump the squeamishness of the allies. The health issue could go either way but it is hardly worth offending allies on this. On the "open air" housing, the Pentagon should place the detainees in cells as soon as possible. Why shoulder the PR burden of "cages" longer than is necessary?
The central policy point, however their status as detainees not prisoners of war must not be conceded. Prisoner-of-war status is a right accorded only to those who abide by the laws of armed conflict. The terrorists quite consciously chose to break those laws, surrendering any claims in this context, including the notion of withholding information that might lead to the arrest of Osama bin-Laden and other al Qaeda-Taliban leaders.
For our own purposes, and as a humanitarian gesture, we lose little by placing the detainees in isolation cells and providing the nutrition and health arrangements a POW would receive. This would shut down an unnecessary debate and help retain alliance which could be critical in the months ahead.

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