Edwards Confronts GOP on War on Terror

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET

On Wednesday, John Edwards continued his frontal assault on President Bush's Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), telling a Portland audience that he opposes the policy and the "Bush language" that justifies Iraq, torture and Guantanamo. Edwards is not only trying to distinguish himself from the Democratic frontrunners, who said they "believe there is a war on terror" in response to a simplistic question at last week's debate. The Edwards campaign is also taking the battle directly to Republican candidates, pressing MSNBC to ask a similar question at tonight's GOP debate:

"Has the Bush doctrine of a Global War on Terror backfired? Does the president's focus suggest a fixed enemy that can be defeated through a permanent military campaign or do you think we need a broader approach as many military leaders believe?"

Instead of waiting for the inevitable Republican attacks on national security - which will come with equal ferocity whether Democratic leaders back Bush's doctrine or not - Edwards is pushing Republicans to answer for their President's failed policy.

This is a particularly auspicious time to challenge the conventional wisdom on counterterrorism, since this week's State Department report on global terrorism indicated a terrible 29 percent spike in terror attacks. Edwards is gearing up to outline a more comprehensive rejection of Bush's foreign policy than any other major candidate. A source close to the campaign told me that in "rejecting the Bush doctrine," the plan is to set the tone to announce a "bold national security framework" to defeat an enemy who is not "fixed in place" and a transnational threat that cannot be "defeated through a permanent military campaign alone."

That strategy was on display yesterday, as Edwards emphasized his case against GWOT in an interview with Time: "This political language has created a frame that is not accurate and that Bush and his gang have used to justify anything they want to do [...] It's been used to justify a whole series of things that are not justifiable, ranging from the war in Iraq, to torture, to violation of the civil liberties of Americans, to illegal spying on Americans[...] I also think it suggests that there's a fixed enemy that we can defeat with just a military campaign. I just don't think that's true."

That argument concisely nails three faults of Bush's policy that experts have been assailing for years: targeting a tactic instead of an enemy; making endless war as the premise for U.S. foreign policy; and secretly violating the Constitution and federal law in the name of security.

President Bush never had the courage or honesty to stand up for his most controversial post-9/11 policies, he simply implemented them, often in defiance of Congress and sometimes illegally. Instead of working with Congress to build an effective detention center for accused terrorists, for example, the administration unilaterally created the lawless Guantanamo prison. Five years and zero convictions later, in 2006 a (conservative) Supreme Court found the system unconstitutional, forcing Bush to start over with Congress. In the meantime, the prison operated with scant oversight and, according to Defense Department records, a majority of the detainees were not even alleged to be members of terrorist groups. Read that again: the Defense Department says most of the detainees were not alleged terrorists. (Here's a report on the DoD records from Seton Hall Law School.) Maybe that's why General James Jones, who served President Bush as chief of the U.S. European Command and is an informal adviser to Senators Clinton and Obama, said we should close Guantanamo "tomorrow" because it hurts America from a "national prestige standpoint."

At a minimum, congressional oversight would have exposed the detainee errors earlier. But even a compliant Congress would probably not have approved the original Guantanamo plan, which is precisely why the administration bypassed the coequal branch in the first place. The same logic motivated illegal spying, supposedly justified by GWOT. In a rare moment of candor, Alberto Gonzales told reporters why the administration didn't just request new spying authority from Congress:

"We have had discussions with Congress in the past [...] as to whether or not FISA could be amended to allow us to adequately deal with this kind of threat, and we were advised that that would be difficult, if not impossible."

See? It would be hard to change the law, so instead they broke it. But it's still "justified" in the Global War on Terror.

This GWOT approach has failed to reduce terrorism because it defies oversight, transparency, and accountability -- all essential for effective operations, as any general or CEO will tell you. But it is also dangerous, because it assumes an endless war with unilateral executive authority to defy democracy and the rule of law itself. The Republican candidates have surely heard Edwards' argument by now, tonight we'll see if any of them can stand up to address it seriously.

Ari Melber writes for The Nation, where this post first appeared.