Crisis of Credibility


     America, and her fight against terrorism, are in crisis.  It is a crisis of credibility.  The backlash due to the incidents in Iraq threatens to undermine any achievements in this effort to date unless swift and radical changes are made to prove to the world at large that we are serious and credible in our commitment to the values which we expound, values which have been held in contempt in a public display of both stupidity and immorality by some in our government service.  The crisis is real, not theoretical or metaphysical, though it may indeed include a spiritual element.  Unless decisive and publicly evident measures are taken soon, the results of this crisis may well escalate beyond a point from which we may recover anytime soon.


     Leadership is responsible for all that happens or fails to happen in its command and on its watch.  It is a great burden and responsibility, requiring that we give utmost care in the selection of those who would lead.  The leadership of a country, or a departmental service, or for that matter a large business, cannot be involved in every decision made or implemented.  That is physically and temporally impossible.  They can and must, however, set the tone and construct the moral framework within which decisions are made.  Individuals are and must be held accountable for their individual actions.  It has never been acceptable to carry out an illegal order.  More, it is a responsibility to refuse to carry out such an order.  Leadership must also be held accountable, and take responsibility for, the actions of those under their direction and guidance.  The moral laxity evident by the recent revelations of prisoner mistreatment did not occur overnight.  It is a result of a slow but steady decay, over time, in the moral compass of an organization.  Setting this compass right is the responsibility of leadership.  Detecting its misalignment early enough in the game in order to make proper and timely adjustments is also a leadership responsibility.  There have been, and remain, plenty of warning signs that this compass needed adjustment and refinement.


     The military has been grappling with how best to handle “Military Operations Other Than War” for some time.  Without going in to its many appellations, the war on terrorism and the current operations in Iraq epitomize such operations.  Yet in all of this preparation, some basic questions have been left both unasked and therefore un-debated and unanswered, perhaps because they are questions more properly debated outside the military.  Central to this debate is the very definition and characterization of what these operations are, for it is from our understanding of their character and nature that we are enabled to understand how best to conduct them and prepare for them.  Is the “war on terrorism” war?  Are the participants combatants?  What methods are legitimate to use in such a war?  What methods are most effective in such a war?  Who are its legitimate participants?  What rules govern its conduct and who or what body lends legitimacy to these rules?


     Regardless of the lack of serious philosophical debate on these topics, there is a strong undercurrent of poor moral reasoning on the part of those charged with prosecuting such a war.  I have recently received more than one e-mail indicating that methods such as those used in Iraq on prisoners were legitimate methods in war, or if not legitimate acceptable as the cost of carrying out the activity of war, which we all know is a horrible business.  If only looked at from the standpoint of plain pragmatism, this is a foolish position, as attested by our current position as a result of recent revelations.  More than that, however, it is an illegal as well as immoral position.  It is a position, however, that many seem willing to either take or try to justify.  The argument often thrown in counterpunch to such moralizing is that the moralists are blind to the reality and brutality of war and its requirements.  I would counter that, unfortunately, too many involved in governing or guiding such operations have not taken the time to understand or simply cannot see the absolute imperative of moral authority and legitimacy when dealing with many of today’s conflict scenarios. 


     We have unfortunately moved beyond crisis prevention and are now in a mitigation stage.  We will not be successful, either in this stage or the overall effort, if we do not take bold steps.  Such bold steps include public accountability, of leadership as well as the perpetrators of the acts, full transparency, humility, and an active, energetic outreach to our international partners and allies for help.  The help we need is not only in ensuring peace and stability in Iraq, but just as importantly addressing the long term future of our international relationships in dealing with the plethora of issues which affect us all, to include failed states, “rogue” states and terrorism.  We simply cannot afford to deal with the world’s problems alone, no matter how much we may value our sovereign authority, and the problems will not go away unless they are dealt with. 


     Our current crisis of credibility requires that we act now.  It may, indeed, be necessary that some in leadership positions step aside.  It is most certainly necessary that the perpetrators of the acts which precipitated this crisis be tried and, if found guilty, punished.  This process must be, as painful as it may be to American pride, public and transparent.  We must also institute public and vigorous debate over the character of current conflict and how we, as a community of nations, plan to deal with it.