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William Shawcross’s central concern: how best, within a coherent legal framework, to deal effectively with combatants and terrorists.
Justice and the Enemy: Nuremberg, 9/11, and the Trial of Khalid
By William Shawcross
(PublicAffairs, 256 pages, $26.99)
STRANGE, how little real discussion there has been of foreign policy in the current presidential campaign. Four years ago, with George W. Bush still in office, it was, until the economy began its swoon, the only issue. Obama and his vociferous supporters loudly opposed every aspect of the Bush policies, whether support for established allies in the Middle East, treatment of prisoners captured on the battlefield, Guantanamo, civil court trials, or military tribunals. The expectation, certainly among the most dedicated Obama supporters, was that the new administration would sweep away the old policies, programs, and involvements, and establish an era of new initiatives and international good feelings. But after a full term, the Obama administration until recently was in most respects carrying out the policies of the Bush administration.
However, faced with an economy unresponsive to presidential rhetoric, plunging poll numbers, and growing alienation among his base, the president made a snap election-year decision to pull all American troops out of Iraq immediately, and damn the consequences. And if things don’t improve politically well before next November, expect a similar snap decision to be made about troops in Afghanistan.
In the meantime, there have been other foreign policy developments. Thanks to the president’s apparent sympathy for rebellion for its own sake in the Arab world, combined with an unprecedented coolness toward Israel, the region has become seriously destabilized, as we wait to see which of our erstwhile friends is next to go. His rear-guard gamble on Libya has paid off with the assassination of Gaddafi, the unstated objective of the war, although it would have been much cheaper and more efficient to send the SEALs. And just for the record, there’s another small new policy wrinkle—the president, for no discernible policy reason, is sending a small group of military advisers into central Africa, the Heart of Darkness, much as President Kennedy sent a small group of military advisers into Vietnam. No direct combat role, of course. Just advice.
But no matter. William Shawcross, a distinguished British journalist, author of a number of well-received books on international conflicts and conflict resolution, champion of human rights throughout the world, and son of a lead prosecutor at Nuremberg, obviously didn’t intend Justice and the Enemy to be a colloquy on policy inconsistency among professional politicians. But inconsistencies and vacillation at the top of the current administration do bear directly on Shawcross’s central concern—how best, within a coherent legal framework, to deal effectively with combatants and terrorists, among them the repulsive Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, planner of the 9/11 attacks.
One such instance of political vacillation, writes Shawcross, occurred on March 7, 2011, when “President Obama signed an executive order lifting the freeze on military trials that he himself had imposed… and acknowledging that Guantanamo would remain open for the foreseeable future. Thus he had abandoned two of the signature policies on which he had campaigned… and promulgated with great fanfare in January 2009.”
Obama, he continues, “was bowing to the political realities that he had created. He and many of his supporters…. had treated George Bush as an idiot and his policies in the War on Terror as more or less evil.” But since 2008, when he claimed that Bush’s military courts “undermined ‘our Constitution and our freedom,’ Obama had traced their history back to George Washington and declared, ‘They are an appropriate venue for trying detainees for violations of the laws of war.’”
Thus, it appears that Bush may have been right all along. Then, a month later, on April 15, 2011, Obama added “to the anguish of many of his old supporters and new critics on the left by performing another painful somersault. He announced the start of his campaign for reelection…and on the same day [had] his Attorney General, Eric Holder, reverse himself on the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-conspirators.”
Previously, “Holder had promised ‘the trial of the century’ in federal court on Manhattan, but now he announced that the trial….would take place before a military commission in Guantanamo, after all.” In his announcement, Holder had blamed a partisan Congress for preventing the administration from transferring prisoners to federal courts around the country. That was true enough, writes Shawcross, but “in fact many Democrats, like Senator Charles Schumer of New York, had taken the lead, insisting that the terrorists should not enjoy all the constitutional protections of American citizens.”
Shawcross is rightly critical of the administration’s indecisiveness, brought on for the most part by political expediency. But he also gives credit to Obama where due, especially in the operation targeting Osama bin Laden, which demonstrated the president’s “courage in authorizing a dangerous mission that had no guarantee of success.”
He also pays tribute to the SEALs who carried out the mission, and “were lauded across the political spectrum. It was about time they had such impartial recognition—in another example of the disproportionate abuse which the Bush administration had endured, on the wilder shores of the left the SEAL Team 6 has sometimes been described as ‘Cheney’s Death Squad.’”
But approval of the execution wasn’t universal. Among the jihadist sympathizers, Shawcross writes, was “Noam Chomsky—one of the Americans, along with Jimmy Carter, whom bin Laden liked to quote with approval….Chomsky demanded to know ‘how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic. Uncontroversially, his crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s.’”
As Shawcross puts it, “Chomsky’s pronouncements can be treated with contumely, but he has a following far larger than he deserves….He gives an academic and intellectual justification for hatred of the United States, however spurious, even dishonest, his arguments may be. The fact that he is so celebrated is a sad testament to the wide and shallow nature of anti-Americanism.”
In another age, Chomsky would have been a candidate for tar and feathers and a free ride out of town on a rail. But no matter. There will always be semi-deranged turncoats, delusional tenured academics with too much time on their hands, and, as Lenin put it, “useful idiots.”
SHAWCROSS MAKES telling points on a variety of issues and sub-issues, from waterboarding and the hard intelligence it has provided, to the ramifications of warfare by drone, to the reasons for the kid-glove treatment afforded by the West to Islamic fanatics, who worship, as he puts it, in “a cult of death,” while many among us insist on pretending it’s really “a religion of peace.”
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