Alan Bock: The Empire Plans Strikes

The word this week is that the Bush administration is engaged in a large-scale review of current policies that could lead to a massive military campaign against Iraq. The administration plans to have the review completed in time for Vice president Dick Cheney to inform Arab leaders of American plans during his planned tour of West Asia next month. According to the Los Angeles Times, the administration now believes that the Iraq problem has to be solved, not simply managed, as they believe the Clinton administration did. Washington is now said to be willing to push the envelope with ostensible allies in the War on Terror by opening a campaign against Iraq. The campaign might begin with a diplomatic option, pushing the United Nations to reopen the Iraq issue by passing new "smart" sanctions and demanding the return of UN weapons inspectors. If Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein rejects the demand, US policymakers believe they will then have a rationale for a military campaign, hat would probably begin with intensive bombing and involve subsidies for disaffected Iraqi exile groups. In an op-ed piece in Sunday's New York Times, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gave push to the invade-Iraq crowd. "America and its allies, indeed the Western world and its values, are still under deadly threat," she wrote. "That threat must be eliminated, and now is the time to act vigorously." She identifies the main threat as "Islamic terror," but soon gets around to recommending that we move quickly to get rid of "the most notorious rogue ... without doubt, Saddam Hussein – proof, if ever we needed it that yesterday's unfinished business becomes tomorrow's headache." Dame Thatcher doesn't mention that, however horrific Saddam's regime may be, it is a secular government rather than an Islamic fundamentalist regime. Nor does she mention that despite the best efforts of American, British and Israeli intelligence, so far no link between Saddam and the terrorist attacks of September 11 has yet been established. Indeed, a New York Times story last week based on interviews with unidentified top-level CIA officials not only confirmed the opinion that Saddam wasn't involved in the September 11 attacks, it said the Iraqi regime hadn't engaged in financing or sponsoring terrorist attacks on the United States for about a decade. Never mind all that. Saddam is said to be developing weapons of mass destruction "so as to challenge us with impunity," as Dame Margaret put it. So he must be eliminated. It should be understood that an American incursion against Iraq would be a purely imperial mission. The American empire might not be a traditional empire as these institutions have been constitute in the past. We have very few outright dependencies or colonies overseas. But we seem to believe firmly that we have the unquestioned right to intervene in any country anywhere in the world – to effect what the war- hoopers call a "regime change" – whenever any American leaders believe that U.S. interests, even loosely-defined, are affected, even peripherally. Our interests as viewed by our leaders bear little resemblance to the kind of "core" national interests most traditional writers on international relations would define. Core interests would include a decent defense of the homeland against imminent and some potential threats; these might even include the occasional aggressive action against a possible enemy who, according to intelligence, is getting dangerously close to having the capacity to pose a threat in the near future. These days, however, it is enough for a significant percentage of policymakers simply to dislike a regime, whether because it is too undemocratic or too democratic, too repressive or too lenient, to trigger an attack. As Gary Dempsey and Roger Fontaine show through extensive quotes in the recent Cato Institute book, "Fool's Errands," America's policymakers don't even bother to try to hide their contempt for the outmoded notion of national sovereignty as a bar to "humanitarian" intervention. As Clinton-era Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott put it in January 2000, summing up a decade of evolution in the way interventionists justify themselves, the United States had "accepted the principle that the way a government treats its own people is not just an 'internal matter.' It's the business of the international community." This may be a new kind of imperialism, but it's imperialism nonetheless. CONVICTED OF THOUGHT CRIMES? You might have thought that the demise of the Soviet empire would have led to a certain discrediting of the notion of "thought crimes," the conceit of totalitarian regimes that they had the right to control and punish not just anti-social actions by citizens, but antisocial thoughts and opinions as well. However, I am afraid that the concept of "thought crimes" is experiencing a certain resurgence here in the land of the free – at least when it comes to the "American Taliban," John Walker Lindh. To be sure, Lindh has been charged with some relatively specific crimes and will apparently have the services of a reasonably competent attorney – after having been denied one for months while he was being interrogated. And it is just possible that when the dust settles and the trial begins the court will rule much or most of "Jihad Johnny's" "confessions" inadmissible and the government will have a hard time proving anything specific. Based on the kinds of letter to the editor we receive at our newspaper, the kinds of e-mail the cable news outlets publish for viewer delectation and other impressionistic indicators, however, I fear that a wide swath of the American public will have no patience with such legal niceties. Lindh made a conscious decision to abandon his country and sign up with another political entity, seems to be the consensus, and that's enough to justify hanging him high. Never mind that the United States was not at war with the Taliban when John Walker Lindh joined its forces – indeed, the United States was sending money to the regime to reward it for being an ostensibly faithful ally in the Holy War on Drugs. Never mind that there is no evidence – at least not yet, though some might be forthcoming –that Lindh ever fired on Americans. Never mind that the U.S. Constitution very purposely defines treason very tightly, in a way that makes it extremely difficult to get a conviction. Johnny Walker was disloyal to the country and all it stands for, and that's enough for punishment. To me, that's a thought crime – an impulse to punish somebody for having impure or insufficiently loyal thoughts, not for deeds. It's a shame that so many Americans seem willing to condone punishment for having the wrong thoughts rather than for specific deeds. The American judicial system may yet save us from these baser impulses, but judges take note of polls and expressions of opinion too. GUANTANAMO: MISSING THE POINT It's not so much that the decision to declare that members of the Taliban now being held at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay are POWs under the Geneva Convention while members of al Qaida are not is an irrational or indefensible decision. One could argue that it's a fairly reasonable conclusion, and I have no reason to believe that American assurances that people in both categories will be treated roughly the same are insincere or incorrect. What's questionable about the decision is who made it. The news reports say President Bush decided, after consultation with various diplomatic and military experts. If so, he is acting like an autocrat rather than a leader of a country that believes in the rule of law. The Geneva Convention of 1949 specifically deals with the problem of how to classify prisoners or detainees whose status is questionable or ambiguous. Article 4 defines who is to be classified as a Prisoner of War entitled to certain standards of humane treatment. Article 5 then discusses problematic prisoners: "Article 5: Should any doubt arise as to whether persons ... belong to any of the categories in Article 4, such persons shall enjoy the protection of the present Convention until such time as their status has been determined by a competent tribunal." President Bush may be many things, but he is not a "competent tribunal" in this matter. The Geneva Convention doesn't strictly define the term, and presumably a military tribunal would be acceptable. In fact, U.S. law already contains provisions for a mechanism to deal precisely with this question of classifying detainees – a tribunal of three officers, with a two-thirds vote required to determine status and the detainee to be entitled to competent representation and the right to call witnesses. It certainly would be nice to see any evidence that the United States plans to abide by the Geneva Convention – which might be outdated or even ill-advised, but which the United States did push for and ratify – or by its own laws in the matter of classifying prisoners at Guantanamo. To have the head of the executive branch make the decision unilaterally, despite laws being on the books that specify a different procedure – reeks of absolute monarchy, perhaps even of despotism. And Congress hasn't even formally declared war, which might – or might not – provide at least some justification for such an arbitrary shortcut around the law of the land.

Alan Bock

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