Al Gore’s May 26 speech at New York University pointed the finger at the Bush Administration for its bald-faced violations of international law. Bush “decided not to honor the Geneva Convention. Just as he would not honor the United Nations, international treaties, the opinions of our allies, the role of Congress and the courts, or what Jefferson described as ‘a decent respect for the opinion of mankind,'” Gore argued. The Bush foreign policy is “an exotic new approach that assert[s] a unique and unilateral U.S. right to ignore international law wherever it wished to do so and take military action against any nation, even in circumstances where there was no imminent threat. All that is required, in the view of Bush’s team is the mere assertion of a possible, future threat–and the assertion need be made by only one person, the President.”
While I was watching this speech, I at first found myself quite taken with Gore’s rhetoric. I too feel that the crucial failing of US foreign policy is the abandonment of the rule of law in favor of “might makes right.” “One of the clearest indications of the impending loss of intimacy with one’s soul is the failure to recognize the existence of a soul in those over whom power is exercised, especially if the helpless come to be treated as animals,” argued Gore, before making this specious conflation: “There is good and evil in every person. And what makes the United States special in the history of nations is our commitment to the rule of law and our carefully constructed system of checks and balances.” Obviously, there is a large difference between the struggle between good and evil in an individual and that same struggle within a group of individuals (such as the United States). Organizations, by their nature, vitiate individual moral responsibility; indeed, I feel that this is the key factor in the human desire to belong to any “group.”
Regardless, I agree that the idea of the rule of law and a system of checks and balances, while certainly not unique to the US, is a good one. Here, however, is where Gore began to lose me. I recalled an episode recounted by Richard Clarke in his recent book “Against All Enemies” (which Gore mentions in his speech, leading us to believe that he has certainly read it). President Clinton was hedging on approval of a “snatch” (the surreptitious capture of a suspected terrorist by US commando forces in a foreign country, in this case, Khartoum, Sudan) that Clarke was urging. White House counsel Lloyd Cutler had “demanded a meeting with the President to explain how it violated international law.” When Gore joined the meeting and was brought up to speed by Clinton, “Gore laughed and said, ‘That’s a no-brainer. Of course it’s a violation of international law, that’s why it’s a covert action. The guy is a terrorist. Go grab his ass.'” This sounds much like the glib response of the Bush Administration to international law. By this same logic of practicality, Haitian special forces would be justified in kidnapping Emmanuel Constant from his refuge in Queens, New York. Having already been convicted of mass murder of thousands during the first ouster of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Constant could very easily be the subject of a “snatch” as well. Gore calls us to action against Bush with the words “We, as a people, at least the overwhelming majority of us, do not endorse the decision to dishonor the Geneva Convention,” yet when he was in a position of power, he gave international law little more that lip service.
Gore correctly points out that “the administration has also set up the men and women of our own armed forces for payback the next time they are held as prisoners. And for that, this administration should pay a very high price.” But let us look at the possible consequences of Gore’s disregard for international law. A few paragraphs later in Clarke’s book, the author describes some of the events leading to Clinton’s decision to bomb the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. Clarke tells us that satellite imagery of the plant showed it to be like many others around the world–most likely capable of both humanitarian and military production. To confirm benign purpose, Clarke helped construct “an international chemical ban with an inspection procedure that could verify compliance.” Because of the possible “dual use” of chemical plants, “The Chemical Weapons Convention Treaty. . . provided for international inspection of ‘innocent’ chemical plants to insure they had not recently been used to make weapons material.” Clarke concludes, somewhat ominously, “Sudan refused to sign the treaty.”
Given the Clinton/Gore Administration’s willingness to flout international law in its “snatch” attempt (the approved kidnapping in Khartoum failed; apparently US special forces were unable to “grab his ass”), it is little wonder that Sudan would not want to enter into a treaty with the US. The Sudanese most likely felt that in international relations, a state is as good as its word. (Of course, one need only go to the nearest American Indian reservation to learn the value of US treaties.)
Thus, when the US ignores international law, it undercuts its authority to disrupt peacefully the production of chemical weapons. The US instead used a military strike (see my article “Al Franken and Al-Shifa” for a discussion of the international law ramifications of this action) to destroy the pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, when it could have had a chance for peaceful resolution of the problem of chemical weapons proliferation (though one wonders if, under the Treaty, Sudanese inspectors would be allowed to roam, say, DuPont or Monsanto factories in the US.) This long-standing US policy of “do as I say, not as I do” will lead to increased risk of terrorist attack, just as Gore charges that future US POW will be pay the price of the failure to follow international law at Abu Ghraib.
I have often wondered what Gore’s reaction to 9/11 would have been had he been president. He has said he would have done exactly the same as President Bush in invading Afghanistan. If one reads the chapter “The Price Is Worth It” in Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair’s examination, “Al Gore: A User’s Manual,” it is difficult to see how Gore would have done any less than Bush when it came to Iraq. This is a purely academic argument, however; Gore was not president on September 11, 2001, and it is entirely possible that Bush’s actions over the last three years have opened his eyes to the dangers of unbridled empire. Was this the case though, one might hope to see some sign of contrition on Gore’s part for his own rejections of the rule of law.
(This essay is dedicated to the memory of David Dellinger. I don’t believe in having heroes, the same way I don’t believe in God, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.)
TOM GORMAN is a writer and activist living in Glendale, California. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org.