Being serious about torture. Or not.
In Cambodia they’re once again endeavoring to hold trials to bring some former senior Khmer Rouge officials to justice for their 1975-79 war crimes and crimes against humanity. The current defendant in a United Nations-organized trial, Kaing Guek Eav, who was the head of a Khmer Rouge torture center, has confessed to atrocities, but insists he was acting under orders.1 As we all know, this is the defense that the Nuremberg Tribunal rejected for the Nazi defendants. Everyone knows that, right? No one places any weight on such a defense any longer, right? We make jokes about Nazis declaring: “I was only following orders!” (“Ich habe nur den Befehlen gehorcht!”) Except that both the Bush and Obama administrations have spoken in favor of it. Here’s the new head of the CIA, Leon Panetta: “What I have expressed as a concern, as has the president, is that those who operated under the rules that were provided by the Attorney General in the interpretation of the law [concerning torture] and followed those rules ought not to be penalized. And … I would not support, obviously, an investigation or a prosecution of those individuals. I think they did their job.”2 Operating under the rules … doing their job … are of course the same as following orders.
The UN Convention Against Torture (first adopted in 1984), which has been ratified by the United States, says quite clearly, “An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.” The Torture Convention enacts a prohibition against torture that is a cornerstone of international law and a principle on a par with the prohibition against slavery and genocide.
Of course, those giving the orders are no less guilty. On the very day of Obama’s inauguration, the United Nation’s special torture rapporteur invoked the Convention in calling on the United States to pursue former president George W. Bush and defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld for torture and bad treatment of Guantanamo prisoners.3
On several occasions, President Obama has indicated his reluctance to pursue war crimes charges against Bush officials, by expressing a view such as: “I don’t believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” This is the same excuse Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has given for not punishing Khmer Rouge leaders. In December 1998 he asserted: “We should dig a hole and bury the past and look ahead to the 21st century with a clean slate.”4 Hun Sen has been in power all the years since then, and no Khmer Rouge leader has been convicted for their role in the historic mass murder.
And by not investigating Bush officials, Obama is indeed saying that they’re above the law. Like the Khmer Rouge officials have been. Michael Ratner, a professor at Columbia Law School and president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said prosecuting Bush officials is necessary to set future anti-torture policy. “The only way to prevent this from happening again is to make sure that those who were responsible for the torture program pay the price for it. I don’t see how we regain our moral stature by allowing those who were intimately involved in the torture programs to simply walk off the stage and lead lives where they are not held accountable.”5
One reason for the non-prosecution may be that serious trials of the many Bush officials who contributed to the torture policies might reveal the various forms of Democratic Party non-opposition and collaboration.
It should also be noted that the United States supported Pol Pot (who died in April 1998) and the Khmer Rouge for several years after they were ousted from power by the Vietnamese in 1979. This support began under Jimmy Carter and his National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and continued under Ronald Reagan.6 A lingering bitterness by American cold warriors toward Vietnam, the small nation which monumental US power had not been able to defeat, and its perceived closeness to the Soviet Union, appears to be the only explanation for this policy. Humiliation runs deep when you’re a superpower.
Neither should it be forgotten in this complex cautionary tale that the Khmer Rouge in all likelihood would never have come to power, nor even made a serious attempt to do so, if not for the massive American “carpet bombing” of Cambodia in 1969-70 and the US-supported overthrow of Prince Sihanouk in 1970 and his replacement by a man closely tied to the United States.7 Thank you Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Well done, lads.
By the way, if you’re not already turned off by many of Obama’s appointments, listen to how James Jones opened his talk at the Munich Conference on Security Policy on February 8: “Thank you for that wonderful tribute to Henry Kissinger yesterday. Congratulations. As the most recent National Security Advisor of the United States, I take my daily orders from Dr. Kissinger.”8
Lastly, Spain’s High Court recently announced it would launch a war crimes investigation into an Israeli ex-defense minister and six other top security officials for their role in a 2002 attack that killed a Hamas commander and 14 civilians in Gaza.9
Spain has for some time been the world’s leading practitioner of “universal jurisdiction” for human-rights violations, such as their indictment of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet a decade ago. The Israeli case involved the dropping of a bomb on the home of the Hamas leader; most of those killed were children. The United States does this very same thing every other day in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Given the refusal of American presidents to invoke even their “national jurisdiction” over American officials-cum-war criminals, we can only hope that someone reminds the Spanish authorities of a few names, names like Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, Feith, Perle, Yoo, and a few others with a piece missing, a piece that’s shaped like a conscience. There isn’t even a need to rely on international law alone, for there’s an American law against war crimes, passed by a Republican-dominated Congress in 1996.10
The noted Israeli columnist, Uri Avnery, writing about the Israeli case, tried to capture the spirit of Israeli society that produces such war criminals and war crimes. He observed: “This system indoctrinates its pupils with a violent tribal cult, totally ethnocentric, which sees in the whole of world history nothing but an endless story of Jewish victimhood. This is a religion of a Chosen People, indifferent to others, a religion without compassion for anyone who is not Jewish, which glorifies the God-decreed genocide described in the Biblical book of Joshua.”11
It would take very little substitution to apply this statement to the United States – like “American” for “Jewish” and “American exceptionalism” for “a Chosen People”.
Hell hath no fury like an imperialist scorned
Hugo Chávez’s greatest sin is that he has shown disrespect for the American Empire. Or as they would say in America’s inner cities – He’s dissed the Man. Such behavior of course cannot go unpunished lest it give other national leaders the wrong idea. Over the years, the United States has gotten along just fine with brutal dictators, mass murderers, torturers, and leaders who did nothing to relieve the poverty of their population – Augusto Pinochet, Pol Pot, the Greek Junta, Ferdinand Marcos, Suharto, Duvalier, Mobutu, the Brazil Junta, Somoza, Saddam Hussein, South African apartheid leaders, Portuguese fascists, etc., etc., terrible guys all, all seriously supported by Washington at one time or another; for none made it a regular habit, if ever, to diss the Man.
The latest evidence, we are told, that Hugo Chávez is a dictator and a threat to life as we know it is that he pushed for and got a constitutional amendment to remove term limits from the presidency. The American media and the opposition in Venezuela often make it sound as if Chávez is going to be guaranteed office for life, whereas he of course will have to be elected each time. Neither are we reminded that it’s not unusual for a nation to not have a term limit for its highest office. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, if not all of Europe and much of the rest of the world, do not have such a limit. The United States did not have a term limit on the office of the president during the nation’s first 162 years, until the ratification of the 22nd Amendment in 1951. Were all American presidents prior to that time dictators?
In 2005, when Colombian President Alvaro Uribe succeeded in getting term limits lifted, the US mainstream media took scant notice. President Bush subsequently honored Uribe with the American Presidential Medal of Freedom. But in the period leading up to the February 15 referendum in Venezuela, the American media were competing with each other over who could paint Chávez and the Venezuelan constitutional process in the most critical and ominous terms. Typical was an op-ed in the Washington Post the day before the vote, which was headlined: “Closing in on Hugo Chávez”. Its opening sentence read: “The beginning of the end is setting in for Hugo Chávez.”12
For several years now, the campaign to malign Chávez has at times included issues of Israel and anti-Semitism. An isolated vandalism of a Caracas synagogue on January 30th of this year fed into this campaign. Synagogues are of course vandalized occasionally in the United States and many European countries, but no one ascribes this to a government policy driven by anti-semitism. With Chávez they do. In the American media, the lead up to the Venezuelan vote was never far removed from the alleged “Jewish” issue.
“Despite the government’s efforts to put the [synagogue] controversy to rest,” the New York Times wrote a few days before the referendum vote, “a sense of dread still lingers among Venezuela’s 12,000 to 14,000 Jews.”13
A day earlier, a Washington Post editorial was entitled: “Mr. Chávez vs. the Jews – With George W. Bush gone, Venezuela’s strongman has found new enemies.”14 Shortly before, a Post headline had informed us: “Jews in S. America Increasingly Uneasy – Government and Media Seen Fostering Anti-Semitism in Venezuela, Elsewhere”15
So commonplace has the Chávez-Jewish association become that a leading US progressive organization, Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) in Washington, DC, recently distributed an article that reads more like the handiwork of a conservative group than a progressive one. I was prompted to write to them as follows:
I’m very sorry to say that I found your Venezuelan commentary by Larry Birns and David Rosenblum Felson to be remarkably lacking. The authors seem unable, or unwilling, to distinguish between being against Israeli policies from anti-semitism. It’s kind of late in the day for them to not have comprehended the difference. They are forced to fall back on a State Department statement to make their case. Is that not enough said?
They condemn Chávez likening Israel’s occupation of Gaza to the Holocaust. But what if it’s an apt comparison? They don’t delve into this question at all.
They also condemn the use of the word “Zionism”, saying that “in 9 times out of 10 involving the use of this word in fact smacks of anti-Semitism.” Really? Can they give a precise explanation of how one distinguishes between an anti-Semitic use of the word and a non-anti-semitic use of it? That would be interesting.
The authors write that Venezuela’s “anti-Israeli initiative … revealingly transcends the intensity of almost every Arabic nation or normal adversary of Israel.” Really. Since when are the totally gutless, dictator Arab nations the standard bearer for progressives? The ideal we should emulate. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan are almost never seriously and harshly critical of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. Therefore, Venezuela shouldn’t be?
The authors state: “In a Christmas Eve address to the nation, Chávez charged that, ‘Some minorities, descendants of the same ones who crucified Christ … took all the world’s wealth for themselves’. Here, Chávez was not talking so much about Robin Hood, but rather unquestionably dipping into the lore of anti-Semitism.” Well, here’s the full quote: “The world has enough for all, but it turns out that some minorities, descendants of the same ones who crucified Christ, descendants of the same ones who threw Bolivar out of here and also crucified him in their own way at Santa Marta there in Colombia …” Hmm, were the Jews so active in South America?
The ellipsis after the word “Christ” indicates that the authors consciously and purposely omitted the words that would have given the lie to their premise. Truly astonishing.
After Chávez won the term-limits referendum with about 55% of the vote, a State Department spokesperson stated: “For the most part this was a process that was fully consistent with democratic process.” Various individuals and websites on the left have responded to this as an encouraging sign that the Obama administration is embarking on a new Venezuelan policy. At the risk of sounding like a knee-reflex cynic, I think this attitude is at best premature, at worst rather naive. It’s easy for a State Department a level-or-so above the Bushies, i.e., semi-civilized, to make such a statement. A little more difficult would be accepting as normal and unthreatening Venezuela having good relations with countries like Cuba, Iran and Russia and not blocking Venezuela from the UN Security Council. Even more significant would be the United States ending its funding of groups in Venezuela determined to subvert and/or overthrow Chávez.
You’ve got to be carefully taught
I’ve been playing around with a new book for awhile. I don’t know if I’ll find the time to actually complete it, but if I do it’ll be called something like “Myths of U.S. foreign policy: How Americans keep getting fooled into support”. The leading myth of all, the one which entraps more Americans than any other, is the belief that the United States, in its foreign policy, means well. American leaders may make mistakes, they may blunder, they may lie, they may even on the odd occasion cause more harm than good, but they do mean well. Their intentions are honorable, if not divinely inspired. Of that most Americans are certain. And as long as a person clings to that belief, it’s rather unlikely that s/he will become seriously doubtful and critical of the official stories.
It takes a lot of repetition while an American is growing up to inculcate this message into their young consciousness, and lots more repetition later on. Think of some of the lines from the song about racism from the Broadway classic show, “South Pacific” – “You’ve got to be taught” …
You’ve got to be taught
from year to year.
It’s got to be drummed
in your dear little ear.
You’ve got to be taught
before it’s too late.
Before you are 6 or 7 or 8.
To hate all the people
your relatives hate.
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
The education of an American true-believer is ongoing, continuous. All forms of media, all the time. Here is Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military officer in the United States, writing in the Washington Post recently:
“We in the U.S. military are likewise held to a high standard. Like the early Romans, we are expected to do the right thing, and when we don’t, to make it right again. We have learned, after seven years of war, that trust is the coin of the realm – that building it takes time, losing it takes mere seconds, and maintaining it may be our most important and most difficult objective. That’s why images of prisoner maltreatment at Abu Ghraib still serve as recruiting tools for al-Qaeda. And it’s why each civilian casualty for which we are even remotely responsible sets back our efforts to gain the confidence of the Afghan people months, if not years. It doesn’t matter how hard we try to avoid hurting the innocent, and we do try very hard. It doesn’t matter how proportional the force we deploy, how precisely we strike. It doesn’t even matter if the enemy hides behind civilians. What matters are the death and destruction that result and the expectation that we could have avoided it. In the end, all that matters is that, despite our best efforts, sometimes we take the very lives we are trying to protect. … Lose the people’s trust, and we lose the war. … I see this sort of trust being fostered by our troops all over the world. They are building schools, roads, wells, hospitals and power stations. They work every day to build the sort of infrastructure that enables local governments to stand on their own. But mostly, even when they are going after the enemy, they are building friendships. They are building trust. And they are doing it in superb fashion.”16
How many young servicemembers have heard such a talk from Mullen or other officers? How many of them have not been impressed, even choked up? How many Americans reading or hearing such stirring words have not had a lifetime of reinforcement reinforced once again? How many could even imagine that Admiral Mullen is spouting a bunch of crap? The great majority of Americans will swallow it. When Mullen declares: “What matters are the death and destruction that result and the expectation that we could have avoided it”, he’s implying that there was no way to avoid it. But of course it could have been easily avoided by not dropping bombs on the Afghan people.
You tell the true-believers that the truth is virtually the exact opposite of what Mullen has said and they look at you like you just got off the Number 36 bus from Mars. Bill Clinton bombed Yugoslavia for 78 days and nights in a row. His military and political policies destroyed one of the most progressive countries in Europe. And he called it “humanitarian intervention”. It’s still regarded by almost all Americans, including many, if not most, “progressives”, as just that.
Now why is that? Are all these people just ignorant? I think a better answer is that they have certain preconceptions; consciously or unconsciously, they have certain basic beliefs about the United States and its foreign policy, most prominent amongst which is the belief that the US means well. And if you don’t deal with this basic belief you’ll be talking to a stone wall.
- Associated Press, August 1, 2007
- Press conference, February 25, 2009, transcript by Federal News Service
- Agence France Presse (AFP), January 20, 2009
- New York Times, December 29, 1998
- Associated Press, November 17, 2008
- See William Blum, “Rogue State”, chapter 10 (“Supporting Pol Pot”)
- See William Blum, “Killing Hope”, chapter 20 (“Cambodia, 1955-1973”)
- Reuters news agency, January 30, 2009
- The War Crimes Act (18 U.S.C. 2441)
- Haaretz, leading Israeli newspaper, January 30, 2009
- Washington Post, February 14, 2009, column by Edward Schumacher-Matos
- New York Times, February 13, 2009
- Washington Post, February 12, 2009
- Washington Post, February 8, 2009
- Washington Post, February 15, 2009, p. B7