Catholic ethics and the global War on Terror

President Obama promised to conduct a more ethical War on Terror. He hasn’t succeeded.

This week the Obama administration finally delivered a long-promised plan to close Guantanamo Bay using the proper legal authorities. At first glance, this seemed to be an ethical advance that Congress and American Catholics ought to support. But first impressions aren’t always accurate.

It was difficult for many Catholics to find much hope in the “change” promised by President-elect Obama in 2008. They knew their new president supported the unrestricted right to abortion, he was sympathetic to euthanasia, he was already wavering on the traditional definition of the family, and he had no record of supporting religious liberty. In these areas, the results have been worse than many feared. One policy area in which President-elect Obama seemed to demonstrate some consistency with Catholic teaching? The global War on Terror. As a candidate he claimed that if the US withdrew from Iraq, stopped “enhanced interrogation”—which he called “torture”—ended its foreign interventions, and closed Guantanamo Bay, the threat of Islamic terrorism would be dramatically diminished. While all three policy shifts promised to bring the US more in line with Catholic teaching, in all three the president has disappointed.

President Obama vociferously condemned the Bush administration for torture. The Catechism states: “Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity” (CCC 2297). However, the worst Bush-era interrogation techniques, such as those at Abu Ghraib, occurred in violation of established policy. Moreover, CIA director Michael Hayden gradually clarified the policies, ending those techniques considered torture. Thus, by the time Obama assumed the presidency, the remaining issue was whether to prosecute those involved in the program. No charges were ever filed.

While enhanced interrogation by the US has ended, there are no guarantees that those detainees returned to their home countries won’t face the same treatment, or worse. In 2010 a group of Algerian detainees, their attorneys, and various human rights organizations unsuccessfully sought to prevent their repatriation, saying the detainees would face persecution and violence in their home country. How is it a moral improvement to end questionable techniques at home, but expose these individuals to even harsher treatment abroad?

Although President Obama succeeding in bringing American combat forces home from Iraq in 2011, he failed to end the war. Instead he left behind a corrupt Shiite government, heavily dependent on Iran, and a void that was eventually filled by ISIS. Obama then intervened in Libya. He successfully helped overthrow a brutal, but stable, dictatorship. The result was a horrific civil war, an attack on the US compound in Benghazi, and the growth of ISIS and other radical organizations. Both in Libya and subsequently in Syria, Obama pledged not to repeat the mistakes of the Bush administration, meaning he would avoid “boots on the ground” at all costs. This may have initially seemed the moral choice. Just war theory requires that war be employed only as the last resort. Thus, when Senator McCain advocated early US support for the Syrian resistance, war-weary Americans, including Catholics, weren’t enthusiastic. When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used poisonous gas to kill civilians in 2013, thereby crossing Obama’s “red line,” it still seemed possible that the US president was correct and greater force was unnecessary. However, American inaction persisted in the face of the expansion of ISIS, the growth of Russian and Iranian power, and an exploding humanitarian disaster, which included millions of refugees and a genocide against native Christians. In March 2015, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi called on the UN to “stop this kind of genocide.” While the Holy Father has never gone so far as to call for intervention, he has called for a response. What initially seemed ethical, increasingly seems a dereliction of moral responsibility. President Obama appeared to emulate President Bush’s successful Iraq strategy when he surged American forces in Afghanistan. However, he never surged to the level recommended by his own military, and by announcing a withdrawal date in advance, he simply encouraged the Taliban to wait out the temporary surge. 

In total, the Obama administration has conducted military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq again, and now Syria. These wars meet some of the conditions of a just war based on Catholic teaching. The Obama administration used force only as a last resort. It used war to redress wrongs. It has used a level of force proportionate to the injustice to be remedied. It frequently avoided civilian casualties—for example, the president initially forbade US forces from striking ISIS oil trucks because they were driven by noncombatants. But the net effect was millions of dollars in profits for ISIS, which it likely used to kill more civilians. 

More importantly, President Obama’s unwillingness to commit to victory violates a basic principle of just war theory. Wars can only be fought, or violence employed, when there is a commitment to reestablish peace, a peace that must be preferable to the conditions that existed prior to the start of the war. Each of Obama’s wars has failed to reestablish peace, certainly not a peace more stable than when the US intervened. In short, irrespective of the means he employs, President Obama isn’t pursuing a just war if he hasn’t the will or commitment to establish peace. As the Catechism states, to pursue just war “there must be serious prospects of success” (CCC 2309). Thus pursuing wars without a commitment to success is not just war.

President Obama’s final assertion of moral superiority in the War on Terror was his pledge to close Guantanamo. During his 2016 State of the Union address the president summarized his three arguments for closing Guantanamo: “it’s expensive, it’s unnecessary, and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies.”

President Obama says Guantanamo is expensive. The US pays far more for each prisoner at Guantanamo—allegedly as much as $3 million per detainee—than the $80,000 per year it costs to keep a prisoner in a supermax facility in the United States. But while Guantanamo is undoubtedly more expensive on a per-prisoner basis, the numbers can be misleading; the administration includes the costs of the military tribunals and local defense functions in its Guantanamo Bay calculations, but the costs of the US court system and other functions are not included in the costs of US prisons. Ultimately, maintaining a prison system is expensive and few Americans see the cost as prohibitive if it protects them.

The argument that Guantanamo fuels terrorism was always the weakest. Islamic extremism predated Guantanamo. Closing Guantanamo has never been listed by Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al Shabab, ISIS, or any other major Islamic terrorist organizations as one of its top goals. Nor has the Obama administration ever presented significant evidence to support its claim. While Al Qaeda’s Inspire Magazine occasionally discusses the plight of those held at Guantanamo and other facilities, they have received less mention in recent years, and are of little interest to ISIS. 

Finally, because President Obama denied there was a “war” on terror, a special camp for “enemy combatants” is unnecessary. Its continuation entails not only a broken promise, but an affront to the president’s worldview. In his view, Guantanamo was an immoral choice to begin with. He saw no barrier to using the existing American criminal code, courts, and prisons when trying those held in Guantanamo Bay. Since Guantanamo was made a prison in 2002, 780 have been detained there. As of February 22, 2016, 676 have been released and nine have died. Three have been convicted by military tribunals, and seven have been charged. Of the remaining 91 detainees, only 35 were recommended for transfer and detention abroad. For those not recommended for transfer, President Obama either needs to try them in the military tribunal system, or find some way to send them to the US for trial and incarceration.

The president has failed to live up to his own executive order for the periodic review of detainee status. More critically, his 2010 proposal to hold trials for the 9/11 conspirators in New York City met with public fear and rejection. His 2012 proposal to move the Guantanamo detainees and other terror suspects to a refurbished Thomson Correctional Facility in Western Illinois gained no public or congressional traction. Both proposals were ultimately withdrawn by a frustrated president. In November, the administration leaked a Defense Department report proposing the transfer of many of the remaining Guantanamo detainees to a facility in Colorado. Congress responded in December by sending the president a Defense Authorization Bill that banned the transfer of detainees to the US and imposed new restrictions on the transfer of detainees abroad. The president signed the bill, thus ending his stealth effort to close Guantanamo by transferring those held there.

Ironically, in the recent proposal Obama has promised to expedite the use of military commissions, but the president could have employed these anytime in the previous seven years if he were so inclined.

Of the 674 detainees that have been transferred or released from Guantanamo, only 140 have been released under Obama. Nonetheless, the policy is controversial. The Bush administration released or transferred those thought to be the least dangerous; thus those released during the Obama years were increasingly the worst of the worst. When asked about a detainee transfer last year, Press Secretary Josh Earnest argued “those individuals don’t pose an ongoing, continuing threat to the United States or our interests.” Subsequently, Earnest disputed the most commonly used recidivism rate of 30 percent, claiming that only “6 percent or so of those transfers have been suspected…or…or…have been confirmed to have returned to terrorism.” Clearly Earnest wanted to use the “6 percent have been confirmed” notion, but included the word “suspected,” where the figure is more accurately 30 percent. 

That said, as we saw on September 11, and more recently in Paris and San Bernardino, even a few terrorists can take many lives. There were notable failures of the release policy. Of the five Taliban leaders released in the Bowe Bergdahl exchange, at least one has been confirmed to have returned to the Taliban. Last month a former Guantanamo detainee, Osama Bin Laden’s former driver and confidant, released a video calling on supporters to engage in lone-wolf attacks against the West. Ibrahim al-Qosi plead guilty in 2010 to charges of conspiracy and providing material support to terrorism. But he was released by the Obama administration in 2012 to his native Sudan. Within two years he was part of the leadership of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. 

A related problem is that with the president unable to persuade Congress to create a domestic alternative to Guantanamo and unwilling to send more to Guantanamo, what does he do with new terrorists? While the press has largely ignored this question, the answer is fairly clear. President Obama has replaced the capture, interrogation, prosecution, and incarceration of suspected terrorists with drone strikes. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in Pakistan there have been 422 US drone strikes, 371 of which have occurred under the Obama administration. These attacks have killed between 2,494 and 3,994 people, including between 423 and 965 civilians. In Yemen there have been between 108 and 128 confirmed drone strikes, which have killed between 496 and 729 people. Of these, between 65 and 101 were civilians. Again the majority of strikes, casualties, and civilian casualties were in the Obama years. Similar data, though on a lesser scale, is available for both Afghanistan, with 183 confirmed strikes, and Somalia, where there have been between 18 and 22 strikes. Overall the number of drone attacks has risen and the number of innocents killed has risen as well.

Drone strikes might be preferred to the capture, interrogation, and prosecution of suspected terrorists in that they avoid the ambiguous legal status and any risk for enhanced interrogation. However, they also don’t provide the same intelligence. More importantly, drone strikes simply kill suspected terrorists without benefit of trial. Finally, despite the administration’s assurances in its 2013 guidelines that drone strikes were only taken in the absence of civilians, both the actual results and intercepted government documents suggest that those on the administration’s “kill list” may be targeted whenever civilian deaths are likely to be limited. So America should close Guantanamo because it is a moral atrocity, but the alternative is to kill alleged terrorists without trial and to accept civilian casualties as collateral damage? 

In sum, President Obama came to power promising to end the War on Terror, which he declared over in 2013. But that was before Chattanooga, before Paris, before San Bernardino, Philadelphia, and a half dozen other Islamic terror attacks in the West. The president promised to conduct a more ethical War on Terror. He hasn’t succeeded. The worst forms of enhanced interrogation were ended before he took power. His ending of the war in Iraq led to the rise of ISIS. He has fought in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, and Syria without a clear commitment to, or strategy for, success. Finally, he persists in his attempts to close Guantanamo Bay despite the lack of a clear legal alternative. Instead, many of those released have returned to terror, while others faced torture after their transfers. Either result is inconsistent with Catholic teaching. Conversely, new enemy combatants who previously were captured and sent to Guantanamo Bay are frequently killed by drone attacks, a decision based on no legal process. While the drone strikes in rural Pakistan and Yemen receive less media attention than lingering prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, the killing of civilians is undoubtedly the greater violation of Catholic teaching. 

As Catholic voters again prepare to elect a new president, we might remember that it was easy to criticize the morality of President Bush’s War on Terror, and much of the criticism was warranted. President Obama has failed in his attempt to design a more effective or more ethical alternative. The plan presented to Congress does little to create a true alternative. Moreover, it is only likely to be implemented via constitutionally questionable executive action. In the next presidential election it would be wise to support candidates who offer realistic policy alternatives in the War on Terror, and not simply artfully critique those of others.

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About Daniel Kempton 3 Articles
Daniel Kempton is Vice President of Academic Affairs at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.