No More Enemy Combatants

by Brien Jackson

Well, in name at least:

The Obama administration said Friday that it would abandon the Bush administration’s term “enemy combatant” as it argues in court for the continued detention of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in a move that seemed intended to symbolically separate the new administration from Bush detention policies.

But in a much anticipated court filing, the Justice Department argued that the president has the authority to detain terrorism suspects there without criminal charges, much as the Bush administration had asserted. It provided a broad definition of those who can be held, which was not significantly different from the one used by the Bush administration.

I’m not a legal expert, nor do I play one on teevee, so I’ll try to stay away from discussing the legal finer points of this decision. I will, however, say that I think a lot of the progressive disappointement over the decision is somewhat misplaced. To get right to the point, the problem facing the Obama administration is that the Bush administration screwed this pooch so badly that they really don’t have any good option for responsibly handling this matter. Also, some of the seemingly cosmetic changes actually have pretty important practical implications, according to Anonymous Liberal.

But I’d also point out that the idea of bringing criminal charges against suspected terrorists isn’t really a silver bullet either. From a diplomatic standpoint, I think you’re kidding yourself if you think that such a claim to US authority, the right to apprehend suspects and then try them in domestic courts for actions taken outside of your jurisdiction, isn’t going to be met with skepticism in its own right from other countries, particularly the other great powers. A new round of international agreements to deal specifically with this issue might be our best bet, but short of that, I think we’re probably best served by sticking with the standards laid out by the international agreements we currently have. So, as far as I can tell, our best bet is to stick as closely as possible to the Geneva standards. I really don’t see the need to fix something that wasn’t particularly broken in the first place.