WASHINGTON -- At a meeting here recently with high-level Obama officials, a group of foreign correspondents had lots of time to ask them what we had learned from the Iraq War. It was, after all, the 10th anniversary of the start of that half-witted enterprise.
Following all the usual dismal questions about how the George W. administration would have had us believe that a slavering Saddam Hussein had been about to launch nuclear weapons upon us, I purposefully asked something very different: Where are we on the rules of war?
Even in Vietnam, we correspondents, as well as anyone who served in a non-military capacity, were considered "non-combatants" under the Geneva Conventions issued between 1864 and 1949. If I am correct in my reading of the situation then, even the Viet Cong observed this designation and would pass us back, if captured or wounded. It was in Cambodia, with the vicious French Communist-educated Khmer Rouge, that non-combatancy was not observed.
What struck me was that when I mentioned the Geneva Conventions and their protection for journalists, aid workers and nurses and doctors, everyone looked around in quiet confusion. I can only assume they didn't know what the conventions assured us.
In 40-some years of covering virtually every part of the world, I found myself writing not about a solid world of designated states with interstate agreements designed to keep them at peace, but about popularly designed failed states and a "return to past movements" (my contribution to the new nomenklatura). Everywhere I looked there were societies in the process of disintegration and young people choosing to be guerrillas, insurgents and jihadis, almost always using their own society's failed and forgotten past as dark inspiration.
Arguably America's foremost scholar of foreign affairs, Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, has been writing on this "new age" recently.
"The dangers inherent in the degradation of the already vulnerable international system cannot be overstated," he wrote recently in the Financial Times. "Social chaos, with paralyzing fear magnified by uncertainty as to its origins, could spread. Making matters potentially even worse, such degradation is not the product of one or another particularly menacing state. Rather, it is the consequence of the rising vulnerability of the global system to cumulative pressures: technological innovation, massive and increasingly impatient populist upheavals and a shift in the distribution of geopolitical power."
We read about it every day now. We dreamed that after the Iraq War less attention (obsession?) would be paid to military actions and military machines. Now we find that, instead, there are endless stories about drones and new, even worse, moral and ethical questions.
Is it moral to kill people with drones, say, in Yemen or Pakistan? Is it moral to kill an American, on our soil or someone else's? Should we hit Iran, as we did, with cyber warfare? What power should an American president have in this new, dark world? Can he alone make out a "kill list" and carry it through?
The Justice Department has just argued in a white paper that the president has legal powers to kill U.S. citizens suspected of presenting an "imminent threat" to the nation. (In the 1950s and '60s, even groups like the Black Panthers might well have been considered threats by certain people.) NATO commissioned the Tallinn Manual on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Warfare, a study recently released in which the U.S. and Israel are both criticized for a secret 2009 cyber attack that crippled Iran's nuclear program. (Now, not surprisingly, the world is getting into the act.)
So, here's MY suggestion -- an impassioned one. We, the United States of America, should sponsor an international conference on the new rules of warfare, at some special place of significance. We should root out all the secret groups fighting in mountains and deserts. We should have the leaders of these groups at the rostrum. We should take the blame for our mistakes, but force others to speak out just as honestly.
For several days, the militaries of the world, the peace people and the new insurgents would mix and talk. We should move on from where Geneva in 1949 stopped. We should cooperate with the United Nations and organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, and devise new conventions to protect the sick and wounded, the non-combatants of this new world.
Once again, America would look like the moral and cultural leader of the world, and not like waterboarders and drone targeters. Surely it is time to modernize morality for a newly militarized world.
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)