Doesn’t it seem like decades, even generations, have passed since the grand moments of writers as diverse (but ultimately like-minded and longwinded) as Samantha Power and Jorge Castaneda? Hailed as savants, they described a world in which opposition to U.S. policies had become foolish, reactionary and downright dangerous. What the world needed – and this got the two authors wide attention, fabulous book sales and top-flight academic appointments – was the doctrine of less resistance and more intervention.
No doubt the two regard the current Bush regime as an unmitigated disaster, recalling with nostalgia the days of Clintonism. The rhetoric then was so much better. And fundamentalists, not to mention indigenists, were fairly well controlled.
There’s the problem pinpointed by any volume on war crimes, despite any and all efforts to make such crimes out to be the creation of megalomaniac politicians and heartless military functionaries. Mainstream writers, liberal and conservative alike, on the subject continue to operate within bipartisan defense of Empire. In this view, imperial self-defense occasionally oversteps accepted boundaries but more often operates within normal boundaries.
The starvation of impoverished sections of populations (especially the very young and old) in unfriendly regimes; the reintroduction of nuclear weapons (i.e., depleted uranium); and during the invasion/occupation process, the usual torture, physical and mental, upon the civilian population — none of these are beyond the purview of proper global action, or at any rate not very far beyond the correctable limits.
In the Name of Democracy is a fine summary and synthesis of the particulars since 9/11 on the U.S. side. The definition of war crimes, going back to the 1940s, was further clarified at least in some respects over subsequent decades by U.N. decisions and proclamations.
Nevertheless, as Bill Clinton demonstrated in the NATO bombing of Serbia without U.N. approval, the architects of empire could never be expected to accept their own actions as illegal, any more than George W. Bush can accept legal limits upon his power today.
On the contrary: liability is logically non-existent. If a wrong has been done, then the officials of the empire will investigate and correct such. No one else has jurisdiction, the moral right even to question directly those in charge. Harry Truman would never have accepted such questioning on the introduction of atomic warfare.
Why, then, should subsequent presidents have accepted hard questions on the reintroduction of the nuclear battlefield or anything else? And they have not. All future war crimes, by the United States at any rate, are certain to be accompanied by insistence of human rights improvements and limits upon U.S. projects to exercise hegemony viewed as the very source of future trouble.
That’s where the issue of war crimes stands today, and the proof is in the pudding of Iraq. Here is the reason why In the Name of Democracy should be on the desk of every activist.
Paul Buhle is a historian of the left and is currently involved with the re-launch of Students for a Democratic Society.