Last week there was a bit of noise in the blogosphere when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki proposed an amnesty for insurgents provided they have not killed Iraqis. Many pointed out that those terms meant insurgents who had killed Americans and allied troops and civilians would be included in the amnesty. The bloggers, representing both sides of the political spectrum, were upset. I understand their outrage and to a certain degree share it, but it's not a simple issue for me.
This was an act of the supposedly independent Iraqi government. This government is in a difficult position. They are in the early stages of a multi-sided civil war and many of their people view them as a puppet of the Americans. It is their right to do what they feel necessary to establish legitimacy and make peace with some of the opposing groups. The quest for legitimacy will make it necessary, at some point, for them to make a public show of separating themselves from the Americans. Peace with some sector of the armed opposition, at some point, will make some form of amnesty necessary.
However, just because I recognize the fact that they will need to undertake an action similar to this someday, doesn't mean I think this was the right action or the right time. As an American, I certainly don't think this announcement was in our interest. The outraged bloggers, and I'm sure many of the insurgents, are seeing this as a declaration of open season on Americans. My recognition that this is mostly an internal Iraqi matter doesn't mean I give up my right to have an opinion about it. I think it's an insult to the foreign soldiers and one which increases their risk.
The Iraqi government has since disavowed the amnesty plan, but not before the US Senate got to jump into the fray. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) put forth a nonbinding resolution saying the Senate was opposed to an amnesty for the killers of Americans. The resolution is pure election year grandstanding. Nothing the American congress says has any legal authority in Iraq. As a nonbinding resolution, it has no more power in the United States than a letter to the editor or a blog. Nothing requires the Senate to express an opinion on an issue like this. Nevertheless, the Senate saw an opportunity for a few easy brownie points and jumped on it, Democrats and Republicans alike.
During the debate, here's what my former Senator, Ted Stevens (R-AK), had to say:
I really believe we ought to try to find some way to encourage that country to demonstrate to those people who have been opposed to what we're trying to do, that it's worthwhile for them and their children to come forward and support this democracy. And if that's amnesty, I'm for it. I'd be for it. And if those people who are, come forward… if they bore arms against our people, what's the difference between those people that bore arms against the Union in the War between the States? What’s the difference between the Germans and Japanese and all the people we’ve forgiven?
To answer Stevens' historical question, the difference is that most of those amnesties were made after the end of hostilities. Sure, there were instances during the Civil War when POWs were simply made to promise that they would go home and not fight any more. This was typical in those days when neither side had the means to keep large numbers of prisoners for a long time. However, in the latter two wars, that type of amnesty was no longer practiced. The type of amnesty that was given to normal German and Japanese soldiers was part of the final settlement at the end of the war and was not offered to those who had committed atrocities.
It is the formal position of the Bush administration, supported by the Republicans in the Senate (including Stevens), that the fighters in Iraq are not normal soldiers and are not entitled to the treatment demanded by common decency and the Geneva Conventions. If Stevens has trouble understanding why the fighters in Iraq, a war that is still going strong, should be treated differently that those after WWII, he must really be baffled by the treatment we're giving the fighters from Afghanistan, who are still held captive and denied basic rights four years after we "won" that war.
If it appears that I'm being too hard on Sen. Stevens over one silly bit of hyperbole, let's jump forward to the final disposition of that resolution. On the same day Stevens made his statement, two American soldiers, Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker and Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, were kidnapped, tortured, and killed; their barely recognizable bodies were booby-trapped and left where they might kill other Americans. The day after their bodies were recovered, Stevens still supported the amnesty (even though the Iraqi government had already disowned the idea). Stevens and eighteen other Republicans voted against the resolution. The majority of the Republicans in the Senate and all of the Democrats voted to condemn the idea of amnesty.
Does Ted Stevens really believe the torturers of Pfcs. Tucker and Pfc. Menchaca should be forgiven and sent out to kill some more? Has supporting the right of the Bush administration to torture prisoners led him to support the right of everybody everywhere to torture prisoners? Can he really not tell the difference between this amnesty and other historical amnesties? If either of those is the case, Stevens is not fit, mentally or morally, to stay in the Senate. If Stevens is really as confused as he claims to be, then it is long past time for him to retire.
The Alaskan people need to ask Stevens these questions and hold him accountable. The voters in the states whose Republican senators voted with Stevens need to similarly ask the same questions of their senators and hold them responsible.