The U.S. government views itself as the global arbiter of human rights, righteously throwing stones at other nations for their misbehavior and most recently imposing sanctions on a group of Russians accused of human rights crimes. That move prompted a tit-for-tat response from Moscow, barring 18 current and former U.S. officials from entering Russia.
The predictable response from the U.S. news media to the Russian retaliation was to liken it to the Cold War days when the United States would catch a Soviet spy and Moscow would retaliate by grabbing an American and arranging a swap.
But several of the Americans targeted by Moscow this time were clearly guilty of human rights crimes. John Yoo and David Addington were former legal advisers to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, respectively. The two lawyers were famous for inventing new excuses for torture. Two other Americans on Moscow’s list – Major General Geoffrey D. Miller and Rear Admiral Jeffrey Harbeson – commanded the extralegal detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In particular, Yoo and Addington stand out as smug apologists for torture who twisted law and logic to justify waterboarding, painful stress positions, forced nudity, sleep deprivation and other techniques that have been historically defined as torture. In a society that truly respected human rights, they would have been held accountable – along with other practitioners of the “dark side” – but instead have been allowed to walk free and carry on their professional lives almost as if nothing had happened.
The Russians were polite enough only to include on the list these mid-level torture advocates and enablers (as well as some prosecutors who have led legal cases against Russian nationals). They left off the list many culpable former senior officials, such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, CIA Director George Tenet, Cheney and Bush. Obviously, the Russian government didn’t want an escalation.
It’s also undeniably true that Moscow does not come to the human rights issue with clean hands. But neither does the United States, a country that for generations has taken pride in its role as the supposed beacon of human rights, the rule of law, and democratic principles.
Acting as a prosecutor at the Nuremberg Tribunals after World War II, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson famously denied that punishing the Nazi leaders as war criminals was simply victor’s justice. He insisted that the same principles would apply to the nations sitting in judgment, including the United States and the Soviet Union. However, that has turned out not to be the case.
The real principles of today’s international law could be described as dragging petty warlords from Africa or Eastern Europe off to The Hague for prosecution by the International Criminal Court, while letting leaders of the Big Powers – with far more blood on their hands – off the hook. Jackson’s “universal principles” of human rights now only apply to the relatively weak.
A History of Double Standards
Of course, one could argue that double and triple standards have always been the way of the world. What often seems to really matter is who has the most powerful friends, the best P.R. team, and the greatest number of “news” organizations in their pocket. Plus, lots of cognitive dissonance helps, too.
For instance, you must forget the role of the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, the Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt and other mainstream media stars in rallying the American people to get behind the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2002-2003 – when the same pundits now fold their arms in disgust at some other nation’s violation of international law.
It’s also handy if you can forget much of American history. You can fondly recall the stirring words about liberty from the Founding Fathers, but it’s best to forget that many owned African-Americans as slaves and that their lust for territorial expansion led them and their descendants to wage a cruel genocide against Native Americans.
There also were the repeated military interventions in Latin America and the brutal counterinsurgency campaign in the Philippines (which applied some of the same tactics that the U.S. military had perfected in crushing uprisings by Native Americans). Then, there were the militarily unnecessary atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the mass slaughters in Indochina in the 1960s and 1970s; and the “death squad” operations in South and Central America in the 1970s and 1980s.
One can trace a direct correlation from American sayings like “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” in the 19th Century to “kill them all and let God sort them out” in the 20th Century. And U.S. respect for human rights hasn’t improved much in the new century with George W. Bush’s “war on terror” and his invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and with Barack Obama’s extrajudicial killings by drone attacks.
So, when the United States strides from its glass house to hurl stones at Russians over repression in Chechnya, it’s not at all surprising that the Russians would return the volley by singling out some of the Americans clearly implicated in war crimes under George W. Bush. The only real question is why did the Russians stop with a handful of apparatchiks? Probably they didn’t want to escalate this exchange of Big Power hypocrisies.
The hard truth is that if the United States had a functioning criminal justice system for the powerful – not just for run-of-the-mill offenders – former Vice President Cheney and ex-President Bush would have convicted themselves with their own public comments defending their use of torture.
For instance, in February 2010, on ABC’s “This Week,” Cheney pronounced himself “a big supporter of waterboarding,” a near-drowning technique that has been regarded as torture back to the Spanish Inquisition and that has long been treated by U.S. authorities as a serious war crime, such as when Japanese commanders were prosecuted for using it on American prisoners during World War II.
Cheney was unrepentant about his support for the technique. He answered with an emphatic “yes” when asked if he had opposed the Bush administration’s decision to suspend the use of waterboarding. He added that waterboarding should still be “on the table” today.
Admitting the Sham
But Cheney went further. Speaking with a sense of legal impunity, he casually negated a key line of defense that senior Bush officials had hidden behind for years – that the brutal interrogations were okayed by independent Justice Department legal experts who gave the administration a legitimate reason to believe the actions were within the law.
However, in the interview, Cheney acknowledged that the White House had told the Justice Department lawyers what legal opinions to render. In other words, the opinions amounted to ordered-up lawyering to permit the administration to do whatever it wanted.
In responding to a question about why he had so harshly attacked President Obama’s counterterrorism policies, Cheney explained that he was concerned about the new administration prosecuting some CIA operatives who had handled the interrogations and “disbarring lawyers with the Justice Department who had helped us put those policies together. … I thought it was important for some senior person in the administration to stand up and defend those people who’d done what we asked them to do.”
Cheney’s comment about the Justice lawyers who had “done what we asked them to do” was an apparent reference to John Yoo and his boss, Jay Bybee, at the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), a powerful Justice Department agency that advises the President on the limits of his power.
In 2002, Yoo – while working closely with White House officials – drafted legal memos that permitted waterboarding and other brutal techniques by narrowly defining torture. He also authored legal opinions that asserted virtual dictatorial powers for a President during war, even one as vaguely defined as the “war on terror.” Yoo’s key memos were then signed by Bybee.
In 2003, after Yoo left to be a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley and Bybee was elevated to a federal appeals court judgeship in San Francisco, their successors withdrew the memos because of the sloppy scholarship. However, in 2005, President George W. Bush appointed a new acting chief of the OLC, Steven Bradbury, who restored many of the Yoo-Bybee opinions.
In the years that followed, Bush administration officials repeatedly cited the Yoo-Bybee-Bradbury legal guidance when insisting that the “enhanced interrogation” of “war on terror” detainees – as well as prisoners from the Iraq and Afghan wars – did not cross the line into torture.
In essence, the Bush-Cheney defense was that the OLC lawyers offered honest opinions and that everyone from the President and Vice President, who approved use of the interrogation techniques, down to the CIA interrogators, who conducted the torture, operated in good faith.
If, however, that narrative is indeed false – if the lawyers had colluded with the policymakers to create legal excuses for criminal acts – then the Bush-Cheney defense would collapse. Rather than diligent lawyers providing professional advice, the picture would be of Mob consiglieres counseling crime bosses how to skirt the law.
Hand in Glove
Though Bush administration defenders have long denied that the legal opinions were cooked, the evidence has long supported the conspiratorial interpretation. For instance, in his 2006 book War by Other Means, Yoo himself described his involvement in frequent White House meetings regarding what “other means” should receive a legal stamp of approval. Yoo wrote:
“As the White House held its procession of Christmas parties and receptions in December 2001, senior lawyers from the Attorney General’s office, the White House counsel’s office, the Departments of State and Defense and the NSC [National Security Council] met a few floors away to discuss the work on our opinion. … This group of lawyers would meet repeatedly over the next months to develop policy on the war on terrorism.”
Yoo said meetings were usually chaired by Alberto Gonzales, who was then White House counsel and later became Bush’s second Attorney General. Yoo identified other key players as Timothy Flanigan, Gonzales’s deputy; William Howard Taft IV from State; John Bellinger from the NSC; William “Jim” Haynes from the Pentagon; and David Addington, counsel to Cheney.
In his book, Yoo described his work swatting down objections from the State Department’s lawyer and the Pentagon’s judge advocate generals – who feared that waiving the Geneva Conventions in the “war on terror” would endanger U.S. soldiers – Yoo stressed policy concerns, not legal logic.
“It was far from obvious that following the Geneva Conventions in the war against al-Qaeda would be wise,” Yoo wrote. “Our policy makers had to ask whether [compliance] would yield any benefit or act as a hindrance.”
What Yoo’s book and other evidence make clear is that the lawyers from the Justice Department’s OLC weren’t just legal scholars handing down opinions from an ivory tower; they were participants in how to make Bush’s desired actions “legal.” They were the lawyerly equivalents of those U.S. intelligence officials, who – in the words of the British “Downing Street Memo” – “fixed” the facts around Bush’s desire to invade Iraq.
In the case of waterboarding and other abusive interrogation tactics, Yoo and Bybee generated a memo, dated Aug. 1, 2002, that came up with a novel and narrow definition of torture, essentially lifting the language from an unrelated law regarding health benefits.
The Yoo-Bybee legal opinion stated that unless the amount of pain administered to a detainee led to injuries that might result in “death, organ failure, or serious impairment of body functions” then the interrogation technique could not be defined as torture. Since waterboarding is not intended to cause death or organ failure – only the panicked gag reflex associated with drowning – it was deemed not to be torture.
The “torture memo” and related legal opinions were considered so unprofessional that Bybee’s replacement to head the OLC, Jack Goldsmith, himself a conservative Republican, took the extraordinary step of withdrawing them after he was appointed in October 2003. However, Goldsmith was pushed out of his job after a confrontation with Cheney’s counsel Addington. Bradbury then enabled the Bush White House to reinstate many of the Yoo-Bybee opinions.
Cheney’s frank comments on “This Week” in 2010 – corroborating that Yoo and Bybee “had done what we asked them to do” – reflected the confidence that former Bush administration officials felt by then that they would face no accountability from the Obama administration for war crimes.
Surely, if a leader of another country had called himself “a big supporter of waterboarding,” there would have been a clamor for his immediate arrest and trial at The Hague. That Cheney felt he could speak so openly and with such impunity was a damning commentary on the rule of law in the United States, at least when it comes to the nation’s elites.
John Yoo apparently shares Cheney’s nonchalance about facing accountability. This weekend, when Yoo was asked about the Russians banning him as a human rights violator, he joked about the athletic skills of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Darn,” Yoo wrote in an e-mail, “there goes my judo match with Putin.”
Perhaps the ultimate measure of America’s current standing as a promoter of human rights is that it’s difficult to judge which government is the bigger hypocrite: the one in Moscow or the one in Washington.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
While a number of mainstream media pundits have acknowledged that the neocons played a major role in bringing about the war on Iraq (though usually without mentioning their connection to Israel or their predominantly Jewish ethnicity), there are stringent critics of Israel and US policy in the Middle East who totally reject this interpretation. One of the most notable of these is Norman Finkelstein, who expounds on his view in his latest book, “Knowing Too Much.” Because I must limit the length of this article, my argumentation must be kept to a minimum. My book, “The Transparent Cabal: The Neoconservative Agenda, War in the Middle East, and the National Interest of Israel,” provides a detailed and extensively-documented account of all the issues covered here. It should be added that Finkelstein has labeled my book as conspiratorial—which is just the opposite of what the word “transparent” in the title conveys and what is explicitly stated in the book—and he denies that there is any evidence for my contentions. It does not appear that Finkelstein has actually read my book; he probably considers it not worth reading.
Despite denying that the neocons had an effect on US Middle East policy, Finkelstein does grant that the “Jewish neocons pushed long and hard for an attack on Iraq.” (p. 75, “Knowing Too Much”) Contrary to Finkelstein, the very fact that for many years the neocons had been the major exponents of an attack on Iraq, which did become US policy, is at least prima facie evidence for their vital role in bringing about the war. Finkelstein, however, firmly holds that the neocon agenda was irrelevant to US policy, and that what was achieved was done by others and would have occurred even if the neocons had not existed.
Finkelstein does accurately point out that “Every reconstruction of the 2003 war places Cheney and Rumsfeld at the helm of the decision-making process.” (p. 76, “Knowing Too Much”) Then he devotes some space to refuting John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt’s alleged insinuation that the two officials were “duped” by the neoconservatives. (The two academic scholars wrote the bombshell essay, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” later expanded into a book. And I should add that it is not apparent from my reading of their book that Mearsheimer and Walt necessarily imply that Cheney and Rumsfeld were “duped.”) Finkelstein maintains that “Cheney and Rumsfeld did not only partake of the ‘belief’ of Jewish neoconservatives that Saddam posed a mortal danger. Their own ‘American nationalist’ strategic vision also largely coincided with the neoconservative agenda.” In essence, they “shared basic assumptions.” (p. 78, “Knowing Too Much”) From these claims, which I would qualify but not fundamentally differ with, Finkelstein manages to derive the idea that Cheney and Rumsfeld were not influenced by the neocons, but somehow came up with the same war agenda independently. Evidence would indicate that this is highly unlikely to have been the case.
Undoubtedly, Cheney and Rumsfeld, rather than being tricked by the neocons, were in league with them, but it also seems almost certain that they were actually influenced by the neocon agenda. For Rumsfeld and, even more so, Cheney were personally close to the neocons. Prior to the start of the George W. Bush administration, Cheney, for example, was involved in a number of key neoconservative organizations: the board of advisors of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA); the board of trustees of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI); and the Project for a New American Century (PNAC). It would seem reasonable to believe that, instead of independently fashioning their own “strategic vision” that harmonized completely with that of the neocons, Cheney and Rumsfeld were influenced by the neocons’ well-developed positions, including specific strategies for action, which meshed with their own more general foreign policy attitudes—e.g., a proclivity for unilateral, aggressive action.
Although Cheney had for years identified with a tough-minded, militaristic foreign policy, he had, as Secretary of Defense, loyally adhered to the George H.W. Bush administration policy in 1991 of eschewing an occupation of Iraq, and continued to identify with that position after the end of the administration. As late as a 1996 interview for a documentary on the 1991 Gulf War for PBS’s “Frontline” program, Cheney declared: “Now you can say well you should have gone to Baghdad and gotten Saddam, I don’t think so [rather] I think if we had done that we would have been bogged down there for a very long period of time with the real possibility we might not have succeeded.”
In short, it seems reasonable to conclude that during the latter 1990s, Cheney was persuaded by neocon claims backed by numerous facts and factoids that Saddam was dangerous—though whether he really believed that Saddam was a “mortal danger” is questionable—and that his removal would be good thing for the United States that would outweigh the costs of a war. Although Cheney undoubtedly must have realized that the neocons had cherry-picked and exaggerated the intelligence claims, his involvement in the highest levels of government and partisan politics for many years had habituated him to having the truth twisted to advance policy goals.
Furthermore, Cheney was known to pick up newer views expressed in conservative circles that entailed marked changes in his actual policy prescriptions, though leaving his overall conservative attitude unaffected. For example, in regard to economic policy, he moved from being a budget-balancer to a supply-sider willing to tolerate large budget deficits. (Barton Gellman, “Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency,” 2008, pp. 257-259) And, as Vice President, Cheney specifically relied on advice from the eminent historian of the Middle East, Bernard Lewis, a right-wing Zionist and one of the neocons’ foremost gurus, who strongly advocated war against Iraq and other Middle Eastern states. (Gellman, “Angler,” p. 231) So while the neocon Middle East war agenda did resonate with Cheney’s general militant stance on foreign policy, there is little reason to think that he would have come up with the specifics of the policy, including even the identification of Iraq as the target, if it had not been for neocon influence.
The influence of ideas per se was not the only factor that likely motivated Cheney. The fact that Cheney and his wife, Lynne, who was with the American Enterprise Institute (known as “neocon central”), had close personal and professional relations with the neocons also would have predisposed him to give his support to the neoconservatives and their agenda.
There is certainly no inherent reason why “American nationalists” (as Finkelstein styles Cheney and Rumsfeld) qua “American nationalists” would identify with Israeli interests and pursue wars in the Middle East against the Islamic states. If global power were the American nationalist goal, one could easily argue that supporting the Islamic world would best serve its advancement. For by pursuing such an alternative policy, the United States would have the support of the major oil-producing region of the world. And if the more than one billion Muslims were friendly to the United States, they could be used, if such a weapon were necessary, to undermine America’s most powerful military adversaries—Russia and China—since both have restive Muslim populations.
It should be noted that representatives of the “realist” camp of foreign policy, which focuses on concrete national interests rather than ideals—and includes such luminaries as Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor for George H. W. Bush; James Baker, Secretary of State for George H. W. Bush; and Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter—did not push for the war on Iraq, and Brzezinski and Scowcroft openly opposed it.
Furthermore, large numbers of nationalist conservatives, such as Pat Buchanan and other traditional conservatives, have opposed globalist American intervention and believed from the outset that wars in the Middle East were not in America’s interest. These conservative nationalists had supported a hard-line Cold War policy long before the neoconservatives came onto the scene—though while opposing Communism they were wary of American global involvement, especially nation-building, perceiving the global policy against Communism as a something of a necessary evil. During most of the Cold War, they had been the dominant face of American conservatism, but the neocons, by the end of the 1980s, would achieve a leading position in the conservative movement. They quickly purged or marginalized those who dissented from their positions, especially in regard to Israel, and mainstream conservatism itself was transformed in a neoconservative direction, a change which has been lauded by the neocons and lamented by those purged and marginalized conservatives and their followers, now called paleoconservatives. The upshot of all of this is that being an “American nationalist” did not ipso facto make one a supporter of the neoconservative Middle East agenda, as Finkelstein would imply.
Being in charge of the incoming Bush administration transition team, Cheney used that position to staff national security positions in the government with his neocon associates. While the neocons could not actually make the ultimate decisions in the Bush administration, they were in sufficiently authoritative positions inside the administration to influence the decisions that would be made. And the anger and fear resulting from the 9/11 terror attacks enabled the neocons, with their already existing war agenda, to markedly increase their influence in the administration. Significantly, the administration’s neocons were not only providing what was regarded by President Bush as expert advice but, as mentioned above, they also cherry-picked the spurious intelligence that depicted Saddam Hussein as a threat to the United States.
The formidable power of the neoconservatives in the Bush administration derived from the fact that they worked in unison to advance their war agenda and override and marginalize all opposition. Not only was there no consensus for war in the foreign policy and national security components of the executive branch, but crucial aspects of the neocon war agenda were opposed by significant elements of the military brass, the State Department, and the CIA.
Bob Woodward in his “Plan of Attack” (p. 292) notes that Secretary of State Colin Powell saw a “separate little government,” consisting of “Wolfowitz, Libby, Feith,” and what Powell privately called Feith’s “Gestapo office.” According to Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as Powell’s chief of staff, “There were several remarkable things about the vice president’s staff. One was how empowered they were, and one was how in sync they were. In fact, we used to say about both [Rumsfeld’s office] and the vice president’s office that they were going to win nine out of ten battles, because they are ruthless, because they have a strategy, and because they never, ever deviate from that strategy . . . . They make a decision, and they make it in secret, and they make [it] in a different way than the rest of the bureaucracy makes it, and then suddenly foist it on the government – and the rest of the government is all confused.”
Regarding the concomitant loss of power by the State Department, Wilkerson remarked: “I’m not sure the State Department even exists anymore.”
Also of vital importance was a cohesive neocon network outside the Bush administration, which helped to mobilize crucial public support for the war. Social anthropologist Janine R. Wedel in her book, “The Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market,” provides a detailed description of the neoconservatives as an example of an interlocking network of organizations, agencies, and think tanks united behind a shared agenda that was capable of driving government policy.
It seems apparent that without all-out support from the neocon network, Cheney and Rumsfeld could not have brought about the attack on Iraq, even if that had been their goal. For the neocon network had to overcome significant opposition to achieve the implementation of their war agenda, as well as generate public and congressional support for war. For example, the neocons had championed Ahmed Chalabi and enabled much of his spurious intelligence to receive the imprimatur of the US government—though the established intelligence community regarded him as a con man.
Although Cheney and Rumsfeld could not have brought off the war without the neocon network, those two were not indispensable to the neocons, who could have likely achieved war with other individuals at the helm. For example, the hawkish pro-Israel John McCain was the favorite Republican candidate for numerous neocons in 2000 (and, of course, was the Republican presidential nominee in 2008). Given McCain’s penchant for neoconservative foreign policy advisors, his advocacy of forcible regime change in Iraq prior to 2001, and his staunch support for the attack on Iraq during the war build-up (and his later hawkishness on Iran), there is no reason to think that a President McCain, surrounded by neocon advisers, would have avoided a war on Iraq.
Nothing of what I have written is intended to imply that the neoconservatives were the sole cause for the war on Iraq or that they single-handedly drove the country to war. While neoconservatives spearheaded the war on Iraq, and without the neoconservatives the war would have been highly improbable, they obviously needed auxiliary support, in which category I would include Cheney and Rumsfeld. Most significantly, the 9/11 terror attacks created the ideal milieu to generate government and popular support for such a military endeavor, as those attacks certainly enabled the neocons’ Iraq war agenda to move to the forefront in the Bush administration. Without the popular fear and anger generated by the 9/11 attacks, it is unlikely that the neocons would have been able to successfully promote a war on Iraq. Nonetheless, the neoconservatives were the primary actors. It was they who created the war agenda, and it was they who played a key role in its implementation.