The Washington Times

I came to Washington in 1985 with the expectation that I was going to spend my professional career fighting the Cold War (ideas division, that is). This was just fine with me. I thought the difference between a democratic, free-market system in which civil, political and human rights were protected, on one hand, and, on the other, the expansionist totalitarianism of the Soviet Union was something worth devoting a career to.

The Cold War ended on terms I regard as entirely satisfactory: the end of Soviet expansionism and a Soviet threat, the breakup of the external Soviet empire and then of the Soviet Union itself, the emergence of a Western-oriented Russian – and, to boot, the complete international discrediting of the development “model” based on collectivism and central planning.

But, of course, the moral clarity of the essential struggle of the Cold War – a contest between freedom and tyranny – and the certain conclusion that the right side won must not obscure the difficult subsidiary choices the times posed, and the often questionable judgments I and others reached at the time. Looking back, I note without pleasure that I supported, defended or otherwise downplayed the outrages perpetrated by: the apartheid government in South Africa; the right-wing government in El Salvador; the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile; the autocratic Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines; the authoritarian governments of Taiwan and South Korea; and many more, including a host of unsavory resistance movements.

But while recalling all this gives me no pleasure, I am not prepared to repudiate it. I am not, in short, prepared to say that it was unnecessary to a satisfactory conclusion to the Cold War in 1989. It is, of course, highly unlikely that every single piece of it was necessary. And it would have been nice to sail toward that happy ending without accumulating the moral barnacles of Marcos, Gen. Pinochet, et al. But it is not obvious to me that we could have arrived at the happy ending without the barnacles, and I think it is complacent, if not indeed smug, to assume (and it is no more than an assumption) that things would have turned out just as well, just as quickly, if the United States hadn’t actively resisted Soviet expansionist ambitions. Yet this entailed, precisely, support for some governments and some individuals the likes of which one wouldn’t now touch with a barge pole.

It is ahistorical to easily assert now that one could have been cheerfully anti-Marcos, anti-Pinochet, etc., and still have applied sufficient counterpressure to check the Soviet Union. Such ahistorical judgments amount to little more than the moral posturing of the present against the past. The posturing takes the favorable outcome as a given, when at the time it was anything but a given, and then denounces anything and everything unsavory in pursuit of it as unnecessary precisely because the outcome was a given.

I have been moved to think about this because we are in another kind of war now, and for the first time in it, we have seen the emergence of significant elite dissent: specifically, over the administration’s decision to allow for the trial of suspected terrorists who are non-citizens before military tribunals. Some seem to regard this as a horrendous abuse of civil rights, the rule of law – in the most hyperbolic formulation, everything we are fighting for and that distinguishes us from the terrorists.

Here, once again, it seems to me worth noting that the outcome of this war is not a given. I have no great faith that the challenges of dealing with rounded-up members of al Qaeda are of a kind that the U.S. criminal justice system can handle, nor is it clear that any international tribunal will be up to the task. The people we are talking about have defined themselves as our enemies in and by their actions, and they need to be treated as enemies – not the way we treat fellow citizens who are presumed innocent unless they are convicted. There are some people in Afghanistan now whom I presume to be guilty. That’s the nature of war. It is not the nature of domestic law enforcement. And while I would gladly defer to an international tribunal when such a body has proved it is up to the task, such a showing will be necessary beforehand. In the meantime, and in the absence of indications to the contrary, I am confident that military tribunals will go about our business with sufficient due process.

The penalty for failure here is high. There may come a day, once we have brought this whole matter to a successful conclusion, when it will be possible to look back and wonder just how essential it was to embrace the military tribunals at the expense of certain cherished civil liberties. That’s OK with me. I want to get to that day, and that’s why I support the military tribunals.