Friday, June 5, 2009

Tortured Diplomacy

A few thoughts on the situation with Iran and North Korea…

When the debate over the “torture memos” was still going on, I sent Doug and Ryan an e-mail. In it, I opined that interrogations of any kind always involve some kind of tit-for-tat. We can potentially get a suspect to open up to us and give us something we want—in this case information or a confession—if we’re able to give them something they want. In the case of arrested criminals or apprehended enemy combatants, if we’re disinclined to offer them their freedom then we need to be able to offer them some other increase in their present comfort level. We may offer them greater freedom within the limits of their confinement or greater luxury to enjoy while being confined, but since the tit must have roughly the same value as the tat and since the value of the potential information may be inestimably greater than any increase in comfort we can possibly offer, the tit-for-tat arrangement becomes more difficult as the potential information we might hope to get from interrogations becomes more valuable.

Continuing to speak only of suspected terrorists, we can potentially reduce this difficulty and stack the deck in our favor by intentionally decreasing the comfort level of our suspect to a point they find unacceptable and then merely promise to restore their comfort to where it was when we started. The more their comfort is decreased, the more valuable to them that promise may become. Some methods by which we can decrease a suspect’s comfort may rightly and justly be considered torture but certainly not all methods. A captured terrorist who we suspect of having valuable information may already have a very low degree of physical comfort in his present confined condition. His movement may already be limited to a small cell with nothing but a cot and a Koran. He may live on nothing but bread and water. And the offer of more personal freedom or greater luxury might not be “valuable” enough to him to get him to talk. If he’s a hardened terrorist and also an ideologue, such an offer may be an insult to him and may cause him to lose whatever fear and respect for his captors we might have been fortunate enough to have instilled in him.

If such is the case, decreasing his present comfort level may be our only option and of course, if it must be done, it should be done in such a way as to conform to our collective sense of the dignity inherent to every human being. At present, let’s say, our suspect’s present comforts include a space to live and a place to sleep, food for his body and food for his soul, a comfortable temperature, light to see by, air to breathe, and, conditions allowing, he may be used to a certain degree of peace and quiet.

And so we may decrease the size of his living space be degrees. We can “put him in the hole”. We can bind him in chains. We can take away his cot and let him sleep on the floor for several nights. We can add noise to his environment making sleep difficult if not impossible. We can withhold his daily bread. We can take away his Koran. We can make him too cold or too hot. We can take away his light. We can take away his air.

As I said, some methods by which we could accomplish any of those things may really be torture. I don’t think every method is necessarily.

When discussing methods to bring about any of those discomforts one must realize that discomfort can become torture, not suddenly, but gradually—so gradually, in fact, that one might not notice the transition. Also, one must realize that it’s really subjective. One man’s torture may be another man’s discomfort. Even confinement in an enclosed space may be rightly considered torture by some. There are many religious all over the world—our suspect may be one of them—who voluntarily submit themselves to hardships and discomforts that many of us WOULD consider torture if they were involuntarily forced upon us.

But I digress. It struck me as I was reading about the latest flap with North Korea that interrogations of suspected terrorists and international diplomacy are very similar. At the very root of both is this tit-for tat relationship. “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” Well, what if Kim Jung Il doesn’t want his back scratched? Maybe he wants something else. Do we give it to him no matter what it is just to get him to scratch our back and give up his nuclear ambitions?

The question is, how can we further decrease the comfort of Iran’s or North Korea’s leadership so that we’ll be in a position to offer them something they want that doesn’t compromise our security interests? Iran and North Korea are threats to their regions and they are threats to our interests. If their apparent ambitions are left unmolested and uninterrupted they may one day be capable of threatening our safety here in Illinois. I say apparent ambitions because of the possibility that they’re intentionally increasing OUR discomfort in order to get the world community to give them something that they find valuable—something that has less to do with regional or world domination than their actions and their words would have us believe.

But if they might be content with something less or something different than regional or world domination, what might that be? And will Barrack Obama and the other leaders of the free world be able to figure out what that is in time to give it to them? And will it even be in our interests to give it to them, whatever it is?

War, like torture, is used to increase an adversaries discomfort to the point of pain and oftentimes blood. For the soldiers in the field, war frequently means an honorable if regrettable death. But war doesn’t necessarily mean the death or dissolution of the warring nations. The USSR bled more than any other nation in WWII. Over 20,000,000 Soviets lost their lives in that conflict. It’s been said that Russia bled the German army white. Germany lost over 7,000,000. Japan lost almost 3,000,000 lives. But Russia, Germany, and Japan survived the war.

So let’s figure out what North Korea and Iran want. If what they want is something that we can’t or don’t want to give them then we’ll have to either make them want something that we’re able to give them or we’ll have to accept whatever they’re willing to give us and learn how to live in that new reality—probably a reality that includes Iran and North Korea with nuclear weapons, missiles to deliver those weapons in a hostile manner to their neighbors, and, as a result, an Iran and a North Korea with a great deal more clout then they have now. And what if their aspirations are geo-political? What if their intentions are to subject neighboring territories to their regime’s control? Even if we’re willing to accept an Iranianized Middle-East, will Iran’s neighbors? And won’t that mean war whether we asked for it or not?

I hope diplomacy will work as much as the next guy. But if or when diplomacy fails, I wonder what we’ll be willing to accept as an alternative.

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