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Lecture examines U.S. foreign policy

John Cameron | Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Cornell University political science professor critiqued the lack of foreign policy progress of both the former Bush and current Obama administrations in a lecture Tuesday in the Hesburgh Center for International Studies.

Professor Matthew Evangelista’s lecture, titled “A ‘War on Terror’ by any other name … What has Obama changed?” was partly based on Evangelista’s book “New Wars, New Laws? Applying Laws of War to 21st Century Conflicts.”

The lecture examined “how policies regarding the war on terror … have changed or not changed under the Obama administration,” Evangelista said.

Much of the lecture focused on controversial topics like Guantanamo Bay, military torture and targeted killing using drone aircrafts.

Evangelista compared statements made by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — like his description of Guantanamo Bay detainees as “the worst of the worst” — with CIA statements that classified most detainees “noncombatants.”

“[Only] 8 percent of the detainees at Guantanamo were Al Qaeda,” Evangelista said.

The treatment of detainees was one of the main focus areas of Evangelista’s examination.

Evangelista quoted excerpts of Article 5 of the Geneva Convention, which calls for a determination of detainee status by “a competent tribunal.”

Evangelista said that vague term typically implies a committee of officials from the military force itself.

“The people who decide … are the people who capture them,” Evangelista said. “There is no right of appeal.”

Evangelista said under these policies, officials often fall short of adhering to acceptable standards of treatment of prisoners.

“Of course, we know their human rights are being violated,” he said.

Torture, especially waterboarding, has become an especially hot topic, Evangelista said, as it has been contested on both legal and ethical bases.

“The only time it wasn’t considered a form of torture was during the Bush administration,” he said.

Targeted killings, like those initiated with the use of remote-controlled aircrafts to target presumed hostiles, have also come under fire in recent years.

Evangelista noted a problem in the inefficiency of the practice.

“The people being targeted … [are] not soldiers,” he said. “Civilians are protected under the Geneva Conventions.”

The U.S. Supreme Court subsequently ruled that the U.S. had indeed violated the Common Article 3 of the Conventions, which states during armed conflicts, noncombatants and civilians should be treated “humanely.”

“The Bush administration responded by making legal many of the things the Supreme Court had declared unconstitutional in the Military Commissions Act of 2006,” Evangelista said. “So, how would we recognize if things have changed?”

He established three standards for evaluating the Obama administration regarding war practices: whether former policies were discontinued, whether the illegal practices were stigmatized and whether the crimes and perpetrators were investigated.

Evangelista said Obama’s initial language on the subject was vague, as he said detainees would either be released, detained in the U.S. for trial or handled in a manner categorized as “other.”

“This language worries people,” he said.

Furthermore, Obama’s failure to follow through with the closing of Guantanamo Bay, Evangelista said, falls short of the first qualification of change: discontinuing practices.

Evangelista said the shortcomings of the Obama administration, especially with regard to investigating the crimes, are associated with issues that date back to the Bush administration’s Justice Department.

The current administration has, however, succeeded in stigmatizing the practices, Evangelista said, referencing a statement by Attorney General Eric Holder that called waterboarding torture.

Evangelista offered a simple response as to why the administration has failed to identify and thwart policies deemed immoral and illegal by many.

“The politically attuned advisers got scared, I think,” Evangelista said. “The answer is politics.”