Protecting U.S. Peacekeepers from a Political Tribunal

Three weeks ago, President George W. Bush exercised his veto powers on the United Nations Security Council. In so doing, Mr. Bush blocked a U.N. peacekeeping directive that fell short of offering protection to American soldiers from the jurisdiction of an unaccountable International Criminal Court (ICC).

This issue, and the actions of the United States relating to the deployment of American soldiers to foreign lands, may not be the topic of dinner-table discussion across America, but it is critically important for numerous reasons. A military force that relegates punitive control of its soldiers to an external enforcement agency – one that is not based and not grounded on the legal principles from whence that military force came – is treading on very shaky ground.

The U.S. veto brought shock and sobering reality to many foreign diplomats, to the U.S. State Department itself, and to countless advocates of this liberal-backed initiative known as the Rome Treaty. It also blocked a six-month extension of the U.N.’s so-called peacekeeping mission operations in Bosnia.

One could argue that disagreements concerning legal jurisdiction over potential combatants may be the initial chink in the armor of America’s involvement in the Balkans quagmire. This contention over the ICC’s authority could eventually lead to Uncle Sam’s withdrawal from what has become since 1995 a mind-boggling military and diplomatic disaster, surpassed only by our mismanaged involvement in Vietnam.

How did we find ourselves at this juncture in this epitome of mission-creep?

After years of ethnic violence, western diplomatic prevarications, and a September 1995 NATO air strike that finally prompted the various factions in the former Yugoslavia to consent to an outside peacekeeping force, the United States and its allies first sent combat troops into the area on Dec. 26, 1995. American combat troops from the 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry, 1st Regiment of Dragoons led the fabled U.S. 1st Armored Division from its staging location in Hungary across the Sava River into northern Bosnia.

President Clinton earnestly promised that the American soldiers would be out of the former Yugoslavia by Christmas 1996. It was a typical Clinton promise: American soldiers remain scattered throughout the Balkans today, more than 6Ѕ years later.

The main constant of that force and mission is that today it still lacks a clear exit strategy or quantifiable “end-state” goal that could lead to a “mission-completed” report anytime soon.

The current challenge to our men and women in uniform there is not in mine-strewn farmer’s fields or the threat of concealed snipers. Rather, it is the threat to their legal status – even while obeying the proper commands of their military leaders – from a supposedly “independent” ICC that could easily turn on the peacekeepers for craven political reasons.

The United States finds itself at bitter odds with other U.N. member states and NATO countries regarding this facet of international law. In the waning days of his presidency, Clinton signed on to a treaty giving the International Criminal Court legal jurisdiction over American soldiers and civilians who are performing a peacekeeping mission.

President Bush’s decision upon assuming office to veto the implementation of this treaty served as a twofold response. Not only did Bush’s action renounce his predecessor’s underhanded decision to sign on to the establishment of the ICC, but the veto also bars the implementation of legal jurisdiction over Americans on international peacekeeping duty.

One important point to note is that Clinton did not go so far as to submit the proposed treaty to the U.S. Senate for ratification. In fact, Clinton carefully went on record as saying that the treaty was “flawed.”

Still, Bush’s veto action has been the subject of sharp criticism by other countries. At the top of the list of detractors is the European Union, many of whose members are our World War II allies whom we saved from Nazi domination and whom we protected from Communism for decades by the presence of our soldiers.

One delicious irony in the Bush veto of Clinton’s tacit support of the ICC is that it may have saved Bill Clinton himself from appearing in the dock at The Hague. One member of the legal staff on the Balkans war crimes tribunal has noted that the tribunal “is examining whether charges are warranted against former U.S. President Bill Clinton and his aides for supporting the 1995 military offensive by Croatia that recaptured territory then held by Serbian rebel forces.” Also, the court is reportedly considering an indictment of Clinton for his role in the 1999 U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, “Operation Allied Force.”

In addition to the former president, the Croatian World Congress is also accusing former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, former Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith, former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. This development – a war-crimes tribunal threatening to turn on the former president and his aides – is in no small part due to Clinton’s own slavish dedication to multi-lateralism in international affairs and his tacit support of anything that downgraded the concept of U.S. sovereignty in favor of international “justice.”

Were the ICC to somehow gain jurisdiction over U.S. political leaders and peacekeeping soldiers, it would immediately pose the spectacle of a former U.S. president, his senior aides and unknown soldiers being put on trial alongside former Yugoslavia President Slobodan Milosevic. Talk about moral relativism: A known war criminal and those who belatedly tried to stop him being tried in court on essentially the same charges!

In exercising its veto power as a member of the U.N. Security Council, the Bush administration clearly saw such a possibility. Its veto is intended to protect much bigger fish than the soldiers on the ground -- but it does protect those soldiers as well from the arbitrary and capricious “justice” of a European-dominated court that appears to be vulnerable to partisan politics, including anti-American hostility.

The Bush administration’s threat to end our Balkans peacekeeping mission over the ICC jurisdictional issue brought a sobering reality-check to the Security Council. As a result, the issue was put off by a unanimous UN resolution last weekend that exempts American peacekeeping troops from the ICC. The measure requires annual renewal.

So as American troops slog through the seventh summer of what Bill Clinton promised was a one-year tour of peacekeeping duty in the former Yugoslavia, there is at least one bit of cheering news: Our soldiers do so unhampered by a conflicting and confusing set of legal precedents that could have held them hostage to partisan European politics in the name of the ICC.

The widespread belief in Europe that President Bush ought to act in the best interest of the European community, as opposed to what is good for America and Americans, is clearly seen as executive arrogance and a flippant attitude on the part of our president that smacks of isolationism. From my corner of the foxhole, it looks like the Bush stance on the ICC demonstrated tough and effective leadership that all soldiers – and even a former president – should applaud.

David Galland PRAVDA.Ru