When not publicly attacking the Bush Administration, European statesmen tend, at least on the quiet, to deprecate their American counterparts as the rude products of a "cowboy" culture. These days, however, they would do well to recall the long-forgotten words of one of those rude products. In 1838, Abraham Lincoln noted that "all the armies of Europe and Asia, with a Bonaparte to lead them, could not, by force, take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. If destruction is to be our lot, we ourselves must be its authors." This sense of strategic optimism has undergirded American foreign policy and permeated our political culture. To be sure, during the second half of the 20 th century, the nuclear standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States challenged America's erstwhile strategic invulnerability. Yet, an important segment of American people and elites never accepted this state of affairs and, instead of striving to maintain indefinitely the "balance of terror", sought to win the Cold War. By 1991, the demise of the Soviet Union had ushered in an era where Lincoln's assessment seemed justified again.
Unfortunately, on September 11, 2001 Osama bin Laden demonstrated that a determined terrorist group, equipped with the tools of modern technology, could prove Lincoln wrong. While the United States remains the primary terrorist target, this attack was part and parcel of a broader civilizational gauntlet that, at the dawn of the 21 st century, challenges the security and even the very survival of democratic states. The threat is real and requires a concerted response by the same Atlantic alliance that has won the Cold War.
Unfortunately, with the possible exception of Britain, Europe's post-September 11 "unconditional solidarity" has proved to be short-lived. The Europeans have questioned, albeit mostly soto voce , whether we are really at war. For many of them, the search for absolute security is just another example of American strategic hubris and terrorist threats--even of the most awesome variety--are just a fact of life, to be endured and managed indefinitely, rather than something to be defeated once and for all.
In part because of these differences in threat assessment, the Europeans have been mostly lukewarm in their support of the American military operations in Afghanistan, and outright hostile to the idea of a regime change in Iraq. These military disputes, coupled with other highly visible diplomatic estrangements - e.g., the jurisdiction of the permanent International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Kyoto Protocol - have put considerable stress on the Atlantic alliance. This situation is further exacerbated by yet another brewing contretemps--this one over the investigation, prosecution and extradition of accused terrorists--which pits Europe against the United States.
This matter has already ignited a fierce and continuing firestorm in the European press. The initial focus has been President Bush's November 13, 2001 order, permitting the use of military commissions to try captured members of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Europe's editorial pages have blazed with rhetoric accusing the United States of abandoning its own constitutional ideals. At least one European government, Spain, has suggested that it will not extradite suspected terrorists to the United States if they are subjected to trial by military commissions. Of late, the European media has broadened its attacks in criticizing numerous law enforcement aspects of the Bush Administration's war against terrorism, including the detention of enemy combatants, crackdown on immigration law violators, alleged excessive secrecy and the like.
While a lot of this is standard anti-American rhetoric, the key underlying issue is Europe's "progressive" agenda, and especially its determination to force the United States to abolish the death penalty. Over the last year, Germany, France, Britain and other European governments have carefully scrutinized various American extradition requests, raising all sorts of objections (from an alleged insufficiency of evidence to various death penalty-related concerns). Germany and France have even suggested that they would not share law enforcement and intelligence information about various Al-Qaeda suspects already in American custody, unless the United States promised not to execute them. This point was made with particular vigor by the recently dismissed German Justice Minister, Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, a well-known anti-death penalty advocate, who subsequently acquired considerable notoriety for comparing President Bush with Adolf Hitler.
The flair-up of these tensions is not a manifestation of random or issue-specific trans-Atlantic disputes. Rather, it is emblematic of the long-term fundamental disagreements between the United States and our European allies over a broad range of major policy issues. The fact that these disagreements have not been muted by an emergence of a new common strategic threat--terrorist groups seeking the destruction of Western civilization--demonstrates the width and depth of the intra-alliance rift.
Military Commissions & European Justice
There is no doubt that the military commissions authorized by President Bush mark a clear departure from ordinary criminal justice in the United States. Their features, such as the lack of a jury, closed trials and secret witnesses, unlimited "hearsay" evidence and conviction on a two-thirds vote, would make any American lawyer shudder. In the Anglo-American canon, the elaborate due process protections accorded to criminal defendants (too often considered "game playing" by lawyers trained in the Civil Law tradition) have always served twin purposes -- to avoid conviction of the innocent, and to ensure that the government's formidable power is not abused. Secrecy permits, even invites, abuses and often is sought for personal or bureaucratic advantage, rather than for the lofty reasons of national security.
Consequently, public trials by jury are the rule in the United States, and are guaranteed by its Constitution. American history, however, has featured, and the Supreme Court has recognized, a rarely invoked exception. Under applicable precedents, "unlawful combatants", like members of Al-Qaeda, who do not fight in uniform, carry arms openly, and acknowledge the "laws of war", may be tried by military commission. Notably, this process would not be applicable to those terrorists who are not engaged in an armed conflict - a term of art under international law - against the United States, and the entire military commission system would operate only while that conflict continues. Hence, the process set forth in President Bush's military commissions order is severely limited both in terms of the number of persons to which it can apply and its duration.
Moreover, after much internal deliberation, the Bush Administration released a set of quite reasonable rules that the military commissions are to follow. They would operate mostly in ways similar to the normal judicial bodies, meeting in secret only on those rare occasions when classified evidence is being introduced. The accused would have the right to the counsel of their choice, while the prosecution would have to meet an exacting burden of proof. In any case, no matter how troubling the potential resort to military commissions may be from an American perspective, given the European legal tradition, their criticism of the United States is quite hypocritical.
With the exception of England and Ireland, most of Europe follows the "inquisitorial" Civil Law system, in which secret proceedings, trials without juries, and unlimited hearsay evidence are commonplace. Moreover, Europe's governments enthusiastically espouse the virtues of international criminal tribunals, such as the ad hoc International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the ICC, that also permit secret proceedings, limitless hearsay evidence, trial without the benefit of a jury, and conviction on a two thirds majority vote, rather than unanimity. Lengthy pre-trial detentions, measuring in years, also are common on the Continent, and bail is often not granted. Meanwhile, France actually uses special judicial arrangements, distinct from the regular justice system, to try terrorists. Conditions in European prisons are often appalling, and the suicide rate among prisoners is high. None of these features of everyday life in Europe have, however, drawn the fire of its "progressive" pundits. Assuming that the Europeans are not just using this opportunity to attack a conservative administration in Washington, the real basis for their extraordinary ire is one particular aspect of the American system of justice, both civilian and military, the fact that it can and it does impose the death penalty.