War Crimes and Double Standards

Robert Parry March 8, 2009

New York Times colum­nist Nicholas D. Kristof – like many of his Amer­i­can col­leagues – is applaud­ing the Inter­na­tion­al Crim­i­nal Court’s arrest order against Sudanese Pres­i­dent Omar Has­san al-Bashir for his role in the Dar­fur con­flict that has claimed tens of thou­sands of lives.

No one in a position of power in American journalism is demanding that former President Bush join President Bashir in the dock at The Hague.

In his Thurs­day col­umn, Kristof describes the plight of an eight-year-old boy named Bak­it who blew off his hands pick­ing up a grenade that Kristof sus­pects was left behind by Bashir’s forces oper­at­ing on the Chad side of the bor­der with Sudan.

Bak­it became, inad­ver­tent­ly, one more casu­al­ty of the hav­oc and bru­tal­i­ty that Pres­i­dent Bashir has unleashed in Sudan and sur­round­ing coun­tries,” Kristof wrote. So let’s applaud the I.C.C.’s arrest war­rant, on behalf of chil­dren like Bak­it who can’t.”

By all accounts, Kristof is a well-mean­ing jour­nal­ist who trav­els to dan­ger­ous parts of the world, like Dar­fur, to report on human rights crimes. How­ev­er, he also could be a case study of what’s wrong with Amer­i­can journalism.

While Kristof writes mov­ing­ly about atroc­i­ties that can be blamed on Third World despots like Bashir, he won’t hold U.S. offi­cials to the same standards.

Most notably, Kristof doesn’t call for pros­e­cut­ing for­mer Pres­i­dent George W. Bush for war crimes, despite hun­dreds of thou­sands of Iraqis who have died as a result of Bush’s ille­gal inva­sion of their coun­try. Many Iraqi chil­dren also don’t have hands – or legs or homes or parents.

But no one in a posi­tion of pow­er in Amer­i­can jour­nal­ism is demand­ing that for­mer Pres­i­dent Bush join Pres­i­dent Bashir in the dock at The Hague.

Tor­tured Commission

As for the unpleas­ant real­i­ty that Bush and his top aides autho­rized tor­ture of war on ter­ror” detainees, Kristof sug­gests only a Repub­li­can-dom­i­nat­ed com­mis­sion, includ­ing peo­ple with close ties to the Bush Fam­i­ly and to Bush’s first nation­al secu­ri­ty advis­er Con­doleez­za Rice.

It could be co-chaired by Brent Scow­croft and John McCain, with its con­clu­sions writ­ten by Philip Zelikow, a for­mer aide to Con­doleez­za Rice who wrote the best-sell­ing report of the 911 com­mis­sion,” Kristof wrote in a Jan. 29 col­umn enti­tled Putting Tor­ture Behind Us.”

If the three most promi­nent mem­bers were all Repub­li­cans, no one on the Right could denounce it as a witch hunt – and its crit­i­cisms would have far more cred­i­bil­i­ty,” Kristof wrote.

Democ­rats might begrudge the heavy Repub­li­can pres­ence on such a com­mis­sion, but sure­ly any pan­el is bet­ter than where we’re head­ed: which is no inves­ti­ga­tion at all. …

My bet, based on my con­ver­sa­tions with mil­i­tary and intel­li­gence experts, is that such a com­mis­sion would issue a sting­ing repu­di­a­tion of tor­ture that no one could light­ly dismiss.”

In an ear­li­er for­mu­la­tion of this plan, Kristof sug­gest­ed that the truth com­mis­sion be run, in part, by Bush’s first Sec­re­tary of State Col­in Powell.

One of the obvi­ous prob­lems with Kristof’s timid pro­pos­al is that Rice and Pow­ell were among the senior Bush offi­cials who alleged­ly sat in on meet­ings of the Prin­ci­pals Com­mit­tee that chore­o­graphed the abuse and tor­ture of spe­cif­ic detainees.

Zelikow remained a close asso­ciate of Rice even after she replaced Pow­ell as Sec­re­tary of State. And Scow­croft was Pres­i­dent George H.W. Bush’s nation­al secu­ri­ty advis­er and one of Rice’s key mentors.

It’s also not true that any inves­ti­ga­tion is always bet­ter than no inves­ti­ga­tion. I have wit­nessed cov­er-up inves­ti­ga­tions that not only failed to get any­where near the truth but tried to dis­cred­it and destroy whistle­blow­ers who came for­ward with impor­tant evidence.

In oth­er words, bogus and self-inter­est­ed inves­ti­ga­tions can advance bogus and self-inter­est­ed his­to­ry, which only embold­ens cor­rupt offi­cials to com­mit sim­i­lar crimes again.

No Oth­er Context

Kristof’s vision of hav­ing Pres­i­dent Bush’s friends, allies and even co-con­spir­a­tors han­dle the inves­ti­ga­tion of Bush’s crimes would be con­sid­ered laugh­able if placed in any oth­er context.

But Kristof’s cock­eyed scheme pass­es almost as con­ven­tion­al wis­dom in today’s Washington.

On Wednes­day, the Wash­ing­ton Post assigned its satir­i­cal writer, Dana Mil­bank, to cov­er – and mock – Sen. Patrick Leahy’s Judi­cia­ry Com­mit­tee hear­ing on his own plan for a truth com­mis­sion to exam­ine Bush-era abuses.

Milbank’s clever arti­cle opened with the knee-slap­ping obser­va­tion: Let’s be truth­ful about it. Things aren’t look­ing so good for the Truth Commission.”

The deri­sive tone of the arti­cle also came as no sur­prise. Mil­bank has made a cot­tage indus­try out of ridi­cul­ing any­one who dares think that Pres­i­dent Bush should be held account­able for his crimes.

In 2005, when the Democ­rats were in the minor­i­ty and the Repub­li­cans gave Rep. John Cony­ers only a Capi­tol Hill base­ment room for a hear­ing on the Down­ing Street Memo’s dis­clo­sures about fixed” intel­li­gence to jus­ti­fy the Iraq War, Milbank’s col­umn dripped with sarcasm.

In the Capi­tol base­ment yes­ter­day, long-suf­fer­ing House Democ­rats took a trip to the land of make-believe,” Mil­bank wrote. They pre­tend­ed a small con­fer­ence room was the Judi­cia­ry Com­mit­tee hear­ing room, drap­ing white linens over fold­ing tables to make them look like wit­ness tables and bring­ing in card­board name tags and extra flags to make the whole thing look official.”

And the insults – espe­cial­ly aimed at Cony­ers – kept on com­ing. The Michi­gan Demo­c­rat banged a large wood­en gav­el and got the oth­er law­mak­ers to call him Mr. Chair­man,’” Mil­bank wrote snidely.

Then, last July, Mil­bank ridiculed a reg­u­lar House Judi­cia­ry Com­mit­tee hear­ing on Bush’s abus­es of pres­i­den­tial pow­er. The col­umn ignored the strong case for believ­ing that Bush had vio­lat­ed a num­ber of inter­na­tion­al and domes­tic laws, the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion, and hon­or­able Amer­i­can tra­di­tions, like George Washington’s pro­hi­bi­tion against torture.

Instead, it was time to laugh at the peaceniks. Mil­bank opened by agree­ing with a put-down from Rep. Lamar Smith, R‑Texas, call­ing the ses­sion an anger man­age­ment class.” Mil­bank wrote: House Democ­rats had called the ses­sion … to allow the left wing to vent its col­lec­tive spleen.”

Mil­bank then insult­ed Rep. Den­nis Kucinich, who had intro­duced impeach­ment res­o­lu­tions against Bush, by call­ing the Ohio Demo­c­rat diminu­tive” and not­ing that Kucinich’s wife is much taller” than he is.

What Kucinich’s height had to do with an issue as seri­ous as abus­es of pres­i­den­tial pow­er was nev­er made clear. What Mil­bank did make clear, through his deri­sive tone and repeat­ed insults, was that the Wash­ing­ton Estab­lish­ment takes none of Bush’s crimes seriously.

So, Milbank’s mock­ing of Leahy’s lat­est ini­tia­tive fits with this pat­tern of the past eight years – pro­tect­ing Bush from the nut cas­es” who think inter­na­tion­al law and war-crimes tri­bunals should apply to lead­ers of big coun­tries as well as small ones.

The pat­tern of Amer­i­can excep­tion­al­ism” also can be seen in Kristof cheer­ing the appli­ca­tion of inter­na­tion­al law against an African tyrant but sug­gest­ing that Bush’s offens­es should be han­dled dis­creet­ly by his friends.

Jour­nal­ist Mur­ray Waas often used the say­ing, all pow­er is prox­i­mate.” I nev­er quite under­stood what he meant, but my best guess was that Waas was say­ing that careerists – whether jour­nal­ists or from oth­er pro­fes­sions – might have the guts to take on some­one far away or who lacked pow­er, while ignor­ing or excus­ing sim­i­lar actions by some­one close by with the pow­er to hurt them.

That seems to be espe­cial­ly true about Wash­ing­ton and its cur­rent cast of respect­ed” jour­nal­ists. They can be very tough on Pres­i­dent Bashir but only make excus­es for Pres­i­dent Bush.

Robert Par­ry broke many of the Iran-Con­tra sto­ries in the 80s for the Asso­ci­at­ed Press and Newsweek. He is the author of Neck Deep: The Dis­as­trous Pres­i­den­cy of George W. Bush and Secre­cy and Priv­i­lege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Water­gate to Iraq. He is the edi­tor of Con­sor­tium News.
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