When photographs of Iraqi prisoners being systematically tortured and humiliated at Abu Ghraib prison were first published the George W. Bush administration claimed it reflected an administrative problem of a few low-level soldiers exceeding their authority. Mr. Bush reiterated his claim that ‘America does not torture’ and set about prosecuting those so unworldly as to have had their pictures taken committing crimes. However, prior to the release of the photographs Mr. Bush had secured legal judgments from his subordinates in the Justice Department approving what was clearly torture in contravention of the Geneva Conventions to which the U.S. is signatory. Torture in the context of legal documents approving it makes it official U.S. policy for which Mr. Bush is legally culpable. More broadly, the fraudulent ‘facts’ Mr. Bush used to sell his war of ‘pre-emptive self defense’ were a thin veil over the gravest of war crimes, launching aggressive war. Had Mr. Bush been prosecuted for these crimes at Nuremberg he very likely would have been hanged.
When Barack Obama took office as President the U.S. was widely viewed as a pariah state, a lawless backwater capable of murdering innocents on an industrial scale, of rogue bankers crashing the global economy, and not much more. Mr. Obama brought a patina of legitimacy as he revived rogue banks and bankers to resume their economic carnage and he ‘rationalized’ America’s military machine to better hide the ongoing torture, extraordinary rendition, illegal detentions and robotic murders. Mr. Obama’s main innovation was to bring the citizens who elected him into the purview of illegal surveillance, detention and murder. While this had long been standard practice toward the ‘lower’ classes at the state and local levels, Mr. Obama brought the heft of the Federal security apparatus to bear against the broader citizenry. That Mr. Obama’s crimes are expressly forbidden under the governing document of the nation, the Constitution, necessitated an entirely new regime of legal sophistry to assert they were legal. But if stating so made crimes legal, there would be no crimes.
With Bradley Manning convicted by a military court of espionage for releasing evidence of war crimes and misrepresentations by the U.S. government of the war on, and occupation of, Iraq the question of national ‘betrayal’ has again been raised. In the case of Mr. Bush, it is difficult to imagine more egregious betrayal of ‘the nation’ than his construction and promotion of a fraudulent premise to prosecute his war of aggression. In terms of past and ongoing destruction, the modern nation-state of Iraq was substantially destroyed with over one million innocent Iraqis slaughtered and over four million displaced. In terms of direct costs to the U.S., an estimated three trillion dollars was squandered, thousands of Americans are dead or permanently disabled and a political chasm was created between the military-police-surveillance state and the citizenry. The state of affairs Mr. Bush left behind was of criminal and lawless leadership that ‘the world,’ including the U.S., is better off without. As current evidence has it, Mr. Obama picked up where Mr. Bush left off in hurling the nation toward police-state dystopia.
What Bradley Manning has admitted he is guilty of is releasing a large quantity of official documents of great importance to the American people in understanding the actions of ‘their’ government. The video footage he provided (it had been previously released by other sources) of U.S. helicopter gunners casually slaughtering innocent Iraqi civilians and reporters and grievously injuring young children made concrete the insane slaughter George W. Bush had unleashed. And while in terms of real politick these are crimes of empire that fit both the trajectory and continuum of American history, they are also crimes committed by specific people against specific people, the material foundation that ties legal principles to the acts they proscribe. When associated with Mr. Obama’s ‘kill lists’ that guide his murders conducted without due process, with his ‘signature strikes’ that are war crimes under international law, with his illegal surveillance of citizens here and abroad, and with his torture of illegally detained persons at America’s gulag at Guantanamo Bay, Mr. Obama has perpetuated and expanded Mr. Bush’s legacy of rogue criminality.
That Bradley Manning has been prosecuted for making official crimes visible as the high-placed officials whose crimes he revealed continue their lawless behavior with impunity recovers from history the claim of the Nazis about to be hanged at Nuremberg that the international ‘law’ under which they were prosecuted was a thin gloss over explicit power relations. The real ‘crime’ Messrs. Manning, Snowden, Assange and others are being prosecuted / persecuted for is impudence, the refusal of the ruled to bow in submission before their rulers. And more to the point, they’ve acted as free citizens, the greatest threat of all to totalizing power. Was the punishment of grave crimes the goal, George W. Bush would most likely have already been hanged and Mr. Obama would be occupying a prison cell awaiting trial for torture, murder and crimes against the Constitution. Not only will Messrs. Bush and Obama and their cohorts not be held to account, they represent an entire class, a ruling class, at present immune from prosecution. And should raising the issue of war crimes read as unduly moralistic in the context of the real politick of nations, it was the unimaginable suffering and slaughter of the twentieth century that led to the creation of international law, not armchair moralizing.
The charge of espionage, of acting on behalf of a ‘foreign’ power to undermine the United States, goes some distance toward illuminating the dynamic at work here—the foreign power in whose interests Bradley Manning, in his own words, was acting is the American people. You need not agree with his actions to accede this point. Mr. Manning reportedly joined the military in earnest to support the interests of the U.S. through military service. What Mr. Manning found, again from his own words, was U.S. officials acting against what he believed to be the interests of the American people. And given the Bush administration’s crimes of launching aggressive war and torture, there is copious evidence outside of the information Mr. Manning provided that crimes had been, and were continuing to be, committed by the U.S. political and military leadership in Iraq and Afghanistan. And as Mr. Bush’s effort to pin his administration’s official policy of torture on low-level functionaries illustrates, those in power have no intention of assuming legal culpability for the crimes they commit.
What the U.S. military asserts in prosecuting Bradley Manning is that it is the revelation of criminal acts that harms U.S. ‘interests,’ and not the crimes themselves. But were the crimes never committed there would have been nothing for Mr. Manning to reveal. And by asserting that their revelation caused harm, the U.S. admits the crimes by themselves caused harm in creating the risk of revelation. More broadly, American crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan are well known outside the U.S. and were widely reported by Al Jazeera and other non-captive (by the U.S.) news sources. And it is well understood outside the U.S. that Mr. Bush’s war of aggression was (is) a war crime under international law. The apparent goal of Mr. Manning’s prosecution then is to divide those ignorant of official crimes, largely confined to Americans who get their ‘news’ from the corporate media, on the side of officialdom against those revealing these crimes. But as no foreign power has been shown to benefit from Bradley Manning’s revelations, and the official crimes revealed were crimes regardless of whether or not they were revealed, it is again apparently the American people considered the foreign power being asserted to benefit from Mr. Manning’s revelations.
The charge on which Mr. Manning was found innocent, that of ‘aiding the enemy,’ enlarged a narrow state security issue into a full-blown philosophical quandary. Little was it known when the CIA organized al-Qaeda to lure the Russians into military quagmire in Afghanistan during the (Jimmy) Carter administration that it would one day accomplish the geographically challenging feat of launching a limited attack (‘9/11’) within the continental U.S. While ‘creating the enemy’ is not likely an ‘official’ charge, if it were former President Carter and the CIA operatives behind the creation of al-Qaeda might be charged. And the additional ‘innovation’ the Bush and Obama administrations appear to have achieved is to turn al-Qaeda into the international jihadi equivalent of a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise operation complete with websites, local chapters and trans-national organizational structure. While dim fools behaving thuggishly have a long tradition of producing not-useful outcomes, recent U.S. administrations appear to have outdone themselves when it comes to creating ‘enemies’ they then use their international murder machines to fight.
The not-usefulness of creating ‘enemies’ would have seemingly found a ready audience amongst ‘pragmatic’ Americans. The point has been made so many times it is at risk of becoming a cliché—how exactly would you respond if arrogant fools slaughtered your family, friends, neighbors and communities to steal oil or to further some vague geo-political goal from which you’ve seen no benefit and have no interest? American and British intelligence overthrew the democratically elected and democratically acting government in Iran to create a police-state hell complete with cartoon-puppet leaders and externally written ‘history’ to secure oil for British Petroleum. When the Iranian people rebelled by supporting religious-political leadership that effectively tossed the Anglo-American oil mafia out, the oil mafia responded by turning to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party in Iraq and arming it to launch a war of aggression against Iran decidedly not in either Iraq’s or Iran’s interests. A decade later the George H.W. Bush administration invaded Iraq under false pretenses and buried upwards of 200,000 Iraqi conscripts in the desert. And a decade later still baby Bush invaded Iraq under the pretext of recovering the weapons Poppy (George H.W.) Bush had provided and in so doing killed and displaced upwards of five million people.
Given this tiny sliver of America’s contribution to global peace and prosperity, how is it precisely that Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, Daniel Ellsberg, or any of the myriad other citizens acting in the interests of the American people by bringing to light America’s true role in international affairs have ‘aided the enemy?’ At a minimum they put the lie to inane idiocy like George W. Bush’s ‘they hate us for our freedoms.’ More pointedly, and likely behind the U.S. ‘leadership’s’ panic to shut disclosure of actual U.S. foreign policy down, is that knowledge of actual foreign policy raises fundamental questions about whose interests the American (Western) leadership is acting in? When the charge was made that Iraqi ‘weapons of mass destruction’ posed a threat to the U.S., it would have been helpful to the people sent to die, be maimed and turned into mass murderers, to know that George H.W. Bush had provided Iraq with ‘weapons of mass destruction.’ Likewise, when Barack Obama assures Americans only ‘terrorists’ are being slaughtered with his ‘signature strikes’ it is helpful to understand the practice of labeling all killed by the U.S. in wholesale slaughters of innocent civilians ‘terrorists.’ And as with the tortured legal rationales for what are clearly crimes, just because American authorities assert something to be ‘fact’ doesn’t make it so.
The faux ‘wisdom’ behind the assertion real politick explains most of what need be known about American foreign policy takes history to be deterministic. The reach of its descriptive power leaves out the possibilities illuminated by people like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden who demonstrate it is a self-limiting concept. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, as if history did have an end, it is deeply nihilistic. Given their revelations, and ‘the Executive’s’ recovered romance with fascist law notwithstanding, enough is now known thanks to their revelations to shift responsibility for America’s ongoing foreign policy ever so slightly back toward ‘the people.’ For those still looking to the existing political-economic leadership in the West for ‘rational’ governance, what you see is what you get. President Barack Obama knows exactly how many children he has murdered. This has had no effect on his willingness to kill more. Senator Diane Feinstein has detailed knowledge of the corporate-state’s mechanisms of domestic political control and she remains its staunch defender. And a look across history has the last time America’s leadership ‘adjusted’ foreign policy to reflect the will of the people was when Richard Nixon was in the White House and enough people were in the streets to pose a real threat of burning it to the ground.
Unless people are willing to take up his cause Bradley Manning will likely die in prison. And were it his cause alone, this would be unjust. But given his motive, and the facts revealed by his actions, Mr. Manning is a living incarnation of the democratic instinct and his imprisonment ‘the state’s’ response to his lived expression of self-rule in the interest of community. His story, along with the long history of liberation movements in the U.S. and around the world, demonstrates the monumental gap between empire as it is and the realm of possibilities for political-economic organization. Furthermore, the breadth of Mr. Manning’s revelations illustrates the breadth of the challenge—reform won’t provide the political-economic, socio-historical break needed to create the act of just living, of lived justice as functional governance. In fact, the surest way to never get there is to leave the political economy that put Mr. Manning in prison in place. Bradley Manning and all political prisoners must be freed.
Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York. His book Zen Economics will be published by Counterpunch / CK Press in Spring 2014.