Saturday, July 26, 2008

I Know How To Win Wars

Not content with crowing about his macho credentials once, Republican presidential candidate John McCain, on July 18 in Albuquerque, blared out his assertion twice:

            “ I know how to win wars. I know how to win wars.”

If this were not so alarming, it would be funny. I mean this is the guy who got shot down over North Vietnam on one of his first combat missions, spent the rest of the war as a POW, and may well have provided information to the enemy about American strategy and tactics. Worse, this was not McCain’s only mishap: before he got to Vietnam, he crashed his airplanes no less than 4 times. One, on the deck of the aircraft carrier Forrestal, occurred when he “wet-started” his A4E Skyhawk while awaiting takeoff and “caused a jet of flame to strike the Phantom F4 immediately behind him. That caused a Zuni rocket to ignite and launch, starting a chain of events that killed at least 164 men” (from George Giacoppe,, June 30, 2008).

            So here we have a “hot-dog” Navy pilot, who seems to have escaped several courts-martial for reckless behavior while flying because of his father’s position in the Navy, who then becomes a “hero” because he is shot down over North Vietnam. It is presumably this “heroic” status as a POW (he would have had a great deal of time to think), and all those crashes which taught McCain “how to win wars.” Of course, the United States cannot by any stretch of the imagination claim a win in Vietnam, but that’s another matter.

            But let’s look at the war McCain claims in his win column—the war in Iraq, now going so swimmingly because of the surge which McCain backed. To begin with, this is not and never has been a “war.” No war was ever declared. The United States simply imposed an arbitrary deadline for the president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, to get out of his country. When he did not, the U.S. invaded, first with a rain of bombs and missiles, then with a ground invasion. It is now accepted by almost everyone that the justification for invading Iraq—the famous WMD Saddam supposedly had—was a blatant lie. So this aggression, which McCain claims as a war he knows how to “win,” was illegal from the beginning. According to international law, such aggression is a crime against humanity, the supreme crime of all the crimes a nation can commit.

            The occupation which followed the U.S. invasion was also a crime. It has resulted in an estimated 1 million Iraqi deaths, the destruction of an entire country including its infrastructure, the exile of more than 2,000,000 Iraqis (out of a population of 26,000,000) who could not survive the civil war the invasion and occupation unleashed, and the displacement of at least 2,000,000 more within the country. The entire nation has gone from the richest Arab nation in the Middle East with an almost universally educated populace to a third-world basket case: spotty electricity, polluted water, hospitals and schools hardly functional. Its oil production, once second only to that of Saudi Arabia, has been since the invasion in a state of almost complete disrepair. Recent agreements, signed with U.S. and European oil companies, guarantee that most of the revenue from Iraqi oil will be stolen by the West rather than supporting the Iraqi people themselves. As to the surge, its most visible sign is the ethnic segregation of a population which used to live in totally mixed neighborhoods. Huge blast walls, similar to those in Israel, line most of Baghdad’s streets. And the real success of the “surge” has been the paying off of the Sunni population which comprised most of the insurgency. Sunni leaders and their soldiers now get weekly salaries courtesy of the U.S. Government, a payoff which is apparently cheaper than financing the fight against them.

            This is the war McCain “knows how to win.” It will “only” cost the United States, when it is done, something in the area of 2 trillion dollars, a military crippled by the strain, a reputation as a decent nation in tatters, and the lifeblood of more than 4,000 men and women (not to mention the thousands crippled in various physical and mental ways for the rest of their lives.) It will also make the world, and America itself a more dangerous place for all Americans.

            And all this for a lie.

            In the face of all this, one can only work and pray and organize to prevent “Hot Dog” McCain and his ilk from ever ever getting the chance to teach us “how to win” more such lovely wars.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, July 25, 2008

Hussein in Yarmulka



Among the dismaying news items from yesterday, July 23, were these two:

1) a photo of presidential hopeful Barack Obama at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, wearing a yarmulka—the skull cap worn by Jewish men on occasions deemed culturally or spiritually significant;

2) an interview on NPR with distinguished Israeli historian, Bennie Morris, concerning the op-ed piece he wrote in the July 18 New York Times predicting that “Israel will almost surely attack Iran’s nuclear sites in the next four to seven months.”

            Consider the Morris prediction first. Despite all the talk about a new effort by the United States to engage Iran diplomatically, the war threats from Israel have never really ceased. Coming from Bennie Morris—a historian who was among the first to publicize the true story of the 1948 ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Israelis, including the infamous massacre at Deir Yassin, and so one who knows intimately the grave crimes committed by his country—this was grim news indeed. So were his reasons for why Israel cannot count on diplomacy to stop the Iranians from “getting a nuclear weapon,” and the reasons why Israel is certain that Iran with a nuclear weapon would mean an Iran which would drop a nuke on Israel. Simple, said Morris: “the Iranians are not rational people.” They are controlled, he said, by religious zealots who are irrational; they “threaten Israel with destruction every day.” Here, once again, we have the purposeful distortion of what Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, which was not so much a threat as a prediction:  “the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time”—and one that Iran scholar Juan Cole says “does not imply military action or killing anyone at all.” By contrast, it is Morris’ article that contains the real threat, for what he concludes it with is this: Iran should hope that Israel’s conventional strike succeeds, for though it would mean “thousands of Iranian casualties and international humiliation,” the alternative—Israel being forced to use its nuclear weapons on an Iran that did succeed in building its own nuke—“is an Iran turned into a nuclear wasteland.” 

            Isn’t this rich? Here we have an Israeli scholar who has researched the international crimes his nation has committed and continues to commit. He also must be aware that his nation is controlled by a Zionist ideology which is nothing if not zealous, racist, and ruthless in its admission that in order for it to survive, it must rid Palestine of all Palestinians, and perhaps Iran of all Iranians. He also must know that his nation is animated by a sense of its own superiority—that is, the superiority of even a single Jewish life over the lives of thousands of Palestinians or Arabs or Muslims—indeed, a nation whose leaders have routinely referred to Palestinians as insects or worse. Finally, he clearly, in the very op-ed piece under discussion, threatens Iran with a nuclear holocaust. And he is calling the Iranians “irrational.” He is saying that the Iranians are so “irrational” that they cannot be trusted with a single nuclear weapon (ignoring the fact that the best U.S. evidence indicates that the Iranians gave up their nuclear program in 2003).

            "But doesn’t Israel have nuclear weapons itself?" asked the NPR interviewer. “Yes,” said Morris, “but they have never threatened anyone with their use.” In other words, unlike the irrational Iranians, the Israelis are MORAL people; they would NEVER use nuclear weapons, or even threaten to use them (again, forgetting his own words). But wait: who has been at war for virtually its entire existence as a nation? Who has attacked and continues to attack a population with virtually no weapons, and certainly none comparable to the American-supplied planes, tanks, rockets, and ships possessed by armed-to-the-teeth Israel? Who has just written an entire essay that is essentially a threat of nuclear destruction? And from the other side, who has Iran ever attacked in modern times? No one, unless we call Iran’s defending itself from Iraq’s aggression in 1980 an “attack.” No, what Iran has done is make the supreme error of taking over its own oil fields. It has made the supreme error of getting rid of its U.S.-backed and-created dictator, the Shah. It has made the supreme error of telling the western powers, including Israel, that it doesn’t need them and their exploitation. And in the lexicon that pertains today in Israel and the United States, that translates into that dread word: “irrational,” which justifies not only a pre-emptive strike, but a nuclear holocaust.

            The sad part of all this is that Barack Obama has made irrational statements agreeing with such propaganda. As I noted in a previous blog, Obama, groveling before the rabidly pro-Israel minions at the recent AIPAC conference in Washington, DC, said:

“Now, there's no greater threat to Israel or to the peace and stability of the region than Iran…. The Iranian regime supports violent extremists and challenges us across the region. It pursues a nuclear capability that could spark a dangerous arms race and raise the prospect of a transfer of nuclear know-how to terrorists. Its president denies the Holocaust and threatens to wipe Israel off the map. The danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be to eliminate this threat.”

            Then yesterday, he continued his groveling, attending sit-downs with no less than half a dozen Israeli leaders, topping it off with his yarmulka-enhanced photo op at the Wailing Wall. This is truly disturbing stuff. For it not only indicates the lengths to which Obama now seems willing to go to demonstrate his fealty to Jewish Americans and the money they contribute to Democratic Party candidates, but also his fear of the concerted power of Jewish-controlled opinion in the United States and the West. This is a serious situation indeed. For where Obama has been at great pains to downplay what would seem to be his logical concern for his own people in his own country—the African Americans who are supporting him almost universally and who need his help—he does public prostrations meant to announce in bold type his willingness to “go to the wall” on behalf of a foreign nation that has been at the center of international conflict for its entire existence, and now threatens a neighboring nation with a nuclear holocaust.

            Any hope, therefore, that an American president would finally take a look at history and conclude that the United States places itself and all its people in peril by supporting a nation that condemns entire peoples and religions to sub-human status, must be abandoned. Absent growing outrage from Americans themselves, and that includes condemnation of the powerful forces in this country, like AIPAC and other Jewish organizations, which exist to bludgeon politicians into undying support for Israel regardless of its actions or its threats, we can expect more of the same, with the consequent rising frustration and hatred from Arab and Muslim nations.

            What a terrible irony for a man whose middle name is “Hussein.”            

Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Let's kill all the lawyers

In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part II, we find Dick the butcher, one of the rebel followers of Jack Cade, uttering these lines:
            “The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.” (IV.ii.83-84)
Especially after listening to Congressional hearings featuring such legal eagles of the Bush Administration as John Yoo, David Addington, Alberto Gonzalez, Jim Haynes, and most recently Douglas Feith, the lines seem uncannily appropriate to our time. Each lawyer has taken the stand in his turn and, like that other legal eagle, former President Bill Clinton, chosen denial and obfuscation and parsing of words as the means to escape all culpability. In Clinton’s case, though, the offense involved fellatio in the Oval Office—a rather crude offense, but not one that endangered the Republic. In the case of Yoo, Addington, Gonzalez, Haynes and Feith, by contrast, the offenses amounted to supplying the legal justification for war crimes, most notably the torture that now almost everyone agrees took place at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and probably numerous other “black sites” around the world. Such torture subverts not only several treaties to which the United States is a signatory—the Geneva Conventions, the Torture Convention of 1984—but also the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, and the policies for interrogation laid out in the Army Field Manual.
            All these lawyers, of course, argue either that they were just doing the job their client, the President of the United States or, in some cases Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld asked them to do; or that they were endeavoring to “protect the security of the nation.” In order to do this, they argue, they had to find a way to extract vital information from “the bad guys” captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Thus they argued in memo after memo, and in meeting after meeting, that since this was not a regular war, the rules governing prisoners of war (POWs) did not apply; or that even if they did apply, these particular “bad guys” were not regular, uniform-wearing troops but were “enemy combatants” (i.e. terrorists) and undeserving of the protections offered by the Geneva Conventions. Yoo and his boss Jay Bybee—another legal eagle now rewarded with a lifetime position as a federal judge—took a slightly different tack. They argued that the Geneva rules governing torture were outdated, having defined torture much too broadly. They then “tortured” torture to refer to only that kind of treatment which led to injury equivalent to “organ failure or death” or long-term psychological damage.
            What resulted from all these coordinated attempts to justify “taking the gloves off” was torture. Prisoners were hooded for long periods, shackled to the floor like dogs, kept standing for long hours until their ankles swelled to excruciating size, sexually humiliated in a host of ways, frightened with dogs, religiously tormented, and waterboarded. All these methods (18 of them were outlined in Haynes’ December 2, 2002 memo to his boss, SecDef Donald Rumsfeld), both alone and in combination, were meant to reduce a prisoner to total hopelessness, misery, disorientation, de-personalization, and psychosis, the aim being to force him to reveal what he knew about future terrorist plans or the whereabouts of superiors.
            The astonishing thing about all this—especially as it is laid out in numerous books and articles like Philppe Sands’ recent Torture Team—is that where usually we expect the military to be pushing for tougher measures in war and civilians in the Justice Department to be reigning them in with legal objections (as happened in World War II regarding internment of civilians), here the opposite occurred. In 2002 it was civilian appointees in the Pentagon, the Department of Justice and the White House who argued ferociously for extreme interrogation methods, and Pentagon lawyers, usually in the Judge Advocate General’s office, who objected to the violations of U. S. laws and military traditions. In short, instead of trying to reign in the hawks in the military, the Bush Administration let loose its own Chicken hawks. It was these civilian policy makers who badgered and bullied and, most often, simply cut the military lawyers out of the decisional loop entirely. And indeed, what Philppe Sands, himself an English barrister, concludes is that in the Bush Administration, policy ruled. The policy was set by civilians, by Bush himself, by his Machiavellian Vice President Cheney, and by all the sycophants, mostly lawyers, who followed and sought to please their clients by offering advice they wanted to hear. In Sands’ words:
            “The legal advice was fitted around the policy” (Sands, p. 226)
If the policy was war in Iraq, the lawyers found ways to justify it. If the policy was torture, the lawyers found ways to disqualify prisoners from protections against it, or found ways to define torture so narrowly that almost anything was permissible. And overall, they argued fiercely that even if it were torture, it was necessary to save the people from terrorism. This was the tack taken by that distinguished legal eagle, not a part of the administration but one of the reigning nabobs at Harvard’s Law School, Alan Dershowitz. He it was who invented the last-ditch rationale, the “ticking time-bomb” scenario. Its import was simple, or simple-minded: if we capture a terrorist whom we suspect has information about a bomb, a nuclear weapon about to explode in a crowded city, what could possibly limit our attempts to get that information in time? Shouldn’t our policy be that any and all methods are warranted in such a dire emergency?
            Without questioning this ridiculous scenario—for how often could it be, aside from on an imaginary thriller like “24” (the favorite program of most of the interrogators at Guantanamo, as well as many of the lawyers), that a single captive would have such information, with his captors knowing he had it?—the Administration based policy on it. And administration lawyers gave the requisite advice: it is legitimate to do virtually anything to prisoners to make them talk. In short, the legal advice was fitted around the policy—just as, earlier, as we learned from one of Britain’s diplomats, the intelligence required to justify invading Iraq was fitted around that policy as well.
            What Sands points out in Torture Team, however, is that lawyers have a legal obligation not simply to win for their clients, not simply to provide them with legal rationales for the unlawful behavior they wish to engage in (this is the job rather, of mafia lawyers), but the obligation to warn them of the legal consequences of such actions. Lawyers have a primary responsibility to make sure their clients do NOT resort to measures that violate the law. Lawyers are officers of the court. And what the government lawyers in the Bush Administration failed to do, it now seems clear, was sound the alarm about the legal peril facing their clients for the illegalities they wanted to employ.
            Instead, they strove mightily to frame arguments and find justifications for those illegalities, as well as expedients to indemnify both themselves and their clients from the penalties such acts incurred. They worked mightily to avoid their culpability for the war crimes that resulted from their arguments. And for the most part, they succeeded.
            On the other hand, perhaps they did not succeed as thoroughly as they once hoped. The 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment, to which the United States is a signatory, makes very clear that not only are public officials prohibited from “intentionally inflicting” physical or mental pain upon a person (including so-called enemy combatants), but there are no circumstances, including a war against terrorism, that justify such treatment. Not only are all such acts criminal offenses, but more important, “any act by any person which constitutes complicity or participation in torture” is also a criminal offense. In other words, the lawyers whose arguments authorized such acts are also culpable—as the Nuremberg Trials demonstrated.
            This is not just an academic argument. In June 2006, in the Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld case, the Supreme Court ruled that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention did, in fact, apply to all Guantanamo detainees. Taliban or al-Quaeda, state combatants or enemy combatants, all had these rights. Justice Anthony Kennedy went even further. He wrote that “violations of Common Article 3 are considered ‘war crimes,’ punishable as federal offenses, when committed by or against United States nationals and military personnel” (quoted in Sands, p. 174).
            Of course, this “ominous” decision put the Bushies, including the lawyers, in a bit of a panic. For one thing, the Torture Convention of 1984 contains the requirement that all parties to this Convention, i.e. all nations who signed it, are “required to investigate any person who is alleged to have committed torture.” This act also “criminalizes any act that constitutes complicity” in torture (Sands, p. 177). So what did President Bush and his lawyers do? Why they proposed, and passed the Military Commissions Act, signed into law in November of 2006. This act “created a new defense to alleged breaches of Common Article 3…where the misconduct concerned the ‘detention and interrogation of aliens’ between September 11, 2001 and December 30, 2005” (Sands p. 208). Thus it gave the interrogators, and the lawyers, and any Bush Administration officials retroactive immunity from prosecution for their crimes. Rather a nice ploy, it seems. Commit crimes that violate the law both domestic and international; then create a new law absolving oneself of guilt for the crime. We’ve just seen a re-enactment of this in the bill that gave telecommunications companies immunity from their crimes in spying on the American people.
            But the rejoicing in the White House may have come too soon. For as two jurists pointed out to Philippe Sands when he questioned them about the immunity legislation, this was a “very stupid” thing to do. Such legislation, allowing a crime to be covered up, “was almost an admission that a crime had occurred.” As one of the jurists pointed out, it had all the earmarks of a “pactum scaelaris,” or “evil pact,” bringing into play that part of the Criminal Code which “showed that contributing to the avoidance of an investigation of a crime could itself give rise to complicity” (Sands, p. 208).
            Sands sums up the case he makes throughout the book as follows:
“The lawyers advising the Administration played a decisive role in subverting the system of international rules that should have protected all detainees from cruel and degrading treatment, a system that the United States had done so much to put in place. This was no mere accident or oversight. Nor was it a case of responding to a legitimate request that came up from the ground-level interrogators at Guantanamo, as the Bush Administration would have us believe. September 11 gave rise to a conscious decision to set aside international rules constraining interrogations.”
            In short, it was the lawyers who enabled torture by subverting the constraints against it. Absent their legal arguments rationalizing the banned techniques, circumventing the international constraints against them, and justifying their use in the alleged crisis, the torture could not have happened. Which brings us back to Shakespeare’s formulation for a remedy:
            “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
Lawrence DiStasi