The Bush administration was correct in deciding to extend humane treatment to the al-Qaida captives at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without extending to them the legal status of prisoners of war.
Despite all the complaints from allied nations and critics, no one could point to any legitimate examples of the United States inhumanely treating these captives. Still, it is important that the administration announce its intentions of abiding by the Geneva Convention's rules on humane treatment. The United States must seek every opportunity to show the world how a civilized nation handles such matters.
But to call these captives "prisoners of war" would, in some ways, undermine the Geneva Convention treaty, signed in 1949. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has noted, that treaty calls for all combatants to wear identifiable uniforms. That language was adopted specifically to discourage nations from dressing their soldiers like civilians. Terrorists operate that way. They sneak among regular people and detonate surprise attacks that kill innocent civilians.
The al-Qaida fighters don't deserve to be legitimized. They don't represent a nation. They represent a network of thieves and criminals. Their attacks on the United States were acts of war only in the sense that they caused massive casualties and were the work of an organized movement. They were supported by a regime in Afghanistan that no longer exists, and yet the movement lives on. Its exists in the shadows and lurks in many corners of the world.
Clearly, the United States can't afford to return these men to their actual nations of origin without guarantees they will remain in custody and undergo a trial. It is difficult to conjure a time or circumstance where these men no longer would pose a danger to the United States if they were released. Prisoners of war, on the other hand, are considered loyal to their homelands, not to an ideology, and can be released with little worry at the end of a conflict.
Much has been made in recent days about the rift in the administration between Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, and Collin Powell, the secretary of state. In reality, both men were fulfilling the duties of their offices and protecting vital interests. The duty of the secretary of state is to preserve relationships with allies and to enhance the nation's stature abroad. The secretary of defense is concerned about national security and the potential legal fallout that could arise from the way the war is defined.
The compromise ought to satisfy both, so long as the administration continues its policy of allowing oversight and scrutiny of the way the captives are treated.