A Transfer of Power, Sort Of

“The government is the potent omnipresent teacher. For good or ill it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.”

Justice Louis D. Brandeis, Olmstead v. United States, 1928

Since first grade our teachers have intoned: “We’re a government of law, not of men.” After endless repetition, we almost believed that crap. Sure, rich and poor people alike get arrested and jailed for sleeping under the bridge, begging without a license and stealing a loaf of bread.

Try to find a rich white man in a state penitentiary! Nevertheless, the old “nation of law” saw begets endless repetition. Even Bush said it at the June 10, G-8 Summit in Sea Island, Georgia. Snapping at intimations that he might have authorized torture at Abu Ghraib prison, Bush lectured reporters that “we’re a nation of law. We adhere to laws.”

Maybe he forgot the atrocities carried out in Vietnam — not just at My Lai with no one punished for carpet bombing cities, massacring villages and defoliating the countryside with poison. Did the Abu Ghraib affair snap people back to consciousness? The White House and Pentagon responded to the torture photos and videos with the traditional: a few bad apples at the bottom of the command barrel did it on their own (Saddam Hussein might try that for his defense). Then blame fell on Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who “didn’t have her act together” and, by sexist implication, shouldn’t have been in charge of a man’s job.

The pass-the-buck scenario evolved into a question of whether the military police or intelligence service should have controlled prison interrogations. Did Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have advance knowledge of the malfeasance? Although the media continues to carry the story, its very confusion has led editors to hide it on more remote pages.

On June 23, the public received a dramatic lesson in how law applies only to others when it conflicts with US imperial ambitions. When US soldiers or contract workers torture Iraqis, they should be tried, but by US courts. Foreigners accused of torture can go to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

So, Bush’s UN Ambassador twisted some arms to “persuade” the UN Security Council to pass a resolution extending another year’s immunity for US troops in Iraq and other peacekeeping operations. Already, the US has negotiated bilateral agreements with Israel, India and the Philippines that provide US nationals immunity from the ICC’s jurisdiction.

When the Security Council refused to pass the resolution, appropriately explained by Chilean UN Ambassador Heraldo Munoz as a “vote for international law,” the White House withdrew it, but then petulantly cast doubt on whether the US would contribute troops to future UN missions — if subject to ICC review.

An even more blatant show of imperial chutzpah ensued. Army General George Casey, the incoming commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq, stated that the United States will extend legal immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts to all currently serving coalition personnel. In early June, US officials had asked Iyad Allawi, our appointed Iraqi Prime Minister and former CIA Agent, to also include foreign contractors in the immunity shield. So much for Iraqi judicial sovereignty!

The mixture of concern for international law and simultaneous exemption for US bad behavior has historical precedent. President Theodore Roosevelt encouraged the formation of a Central American Court of Justice in 1907 for maintaining peace and hearing disputes between Central American states. But in 1910 President William Howard Taft twice dispatched US troops to Nicaragua “to protect American interests.”

In 1911, Secretary of State Philander Knox epitomized US simul-opting, advocating law while flouting law. To justify the obvious US snub of law by its planned Nicaragua invasion, he asserted: “We are in the eyes of the world, and because of the Monroe Doctrine, held responsible for the order of Central America.”

In 1912, Taft again sent marines under General Smedley Butler to invade and occupy Nicaragua “as a promoter of peace and governmental stability.” The Court concluded that the US invasion and occupation violated Nicaraguan sovereignty. But newly elected President Woodrow Wilson, the oratorical champion of self-determination and League of Nations architect, essentially destroyed the Court’s legitimacy and efficacy.

In 1913, Wilson declared that US-Latin America cooperation remained contingent upon “…orderly processes of just government based upon law, not upon arbitrary or irregular force.” In practice he intervened repeatedly in Mexico, Haiti, Nicaragua, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Cuba.

Marines remained in Nicaragua until 1933 when they “transferred power” to General Anastasio Somoza, whose family ruled Nicaragua as a military fief until overthrown by the 1979 Sandinista revolution.

In response to Sandinista disobedience, President Reagan authorized covert intervention during the 1980s, which included financing a secret army to destabilize the country. In 1987, Nicaragua filed suit. The World Court condemned US mining of Nicaraguan harbors and other acts of war. Predictably, Washington again ignored the Court’s ruling.

Hence, when the very principles enunciated by US power and the Court it had helped establish to enforce them became an obstacle to imperial impulses, the United States simply dispensed with them and established new principles: invade and occupy a country and then create the facade of a power transfer to an “appointocracy” and call it democratic government.

US Marines trained the Nicaraguan National Guard and established links with “our” thugs to maintain “our order” a stable environment for US interests.

General Butler understood. “I helped make Mexico… safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street…I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1912.”

Just as the Nicaragua example exemplified duplicity between the high principles of law and the grubby profits of empire, so too does Washington’s “transfer of power” to Iraq stand out as hypocrisy to the nth degree. Look at Bechtel, Halliburton and CACI International Inc., private contractors hired by the Defense Department to “rebuild the new Iraq” after the US Military destroyed the old one as reincarnations of Brown Brothers and First National City Bank.

Independent Iraq will house 14 “enduring” military bases — now under construction. These bases adjoin Iraq’s major cities and oil reserves. In addition, Baghdad will become home to the world’s largest US embassy, with over 3,000 personnel.

In case anyone misses the meaning of this “construction,” Deputy Director of US military operations in Iraq, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, clarified: The creation of bases “is a blueprint for how we could operate in the Middle East” (March 23, 2004 Chicago Tribune).

Are you listening, Syria and Iran?

Before leaving Iraq, Coalition Provisional Authority administrator Paul Bremer “issued 97 legal orders…’binding instructions or directives to the Iraqi people’ that will remain in force even after the transfer of political authority.” These include an elections law sanctioning a seven-member commission to disqualify political parties and candidates, a law that caps tax rates at 15% and a “76-page law regulating private corporations and an amended industrial-design law to protect microchip designs.” This will hasten Iraq’s entry into the World Trade Organization. These orders won’t be easy to reverse, a senior US official in Iraq told the Washington Post (June 26, 2004).

Iraqi “independence” has become part of a history of schizophrenia by US Presidents who insist on upholding the rule of law while simultaneously creating exceptions to their own rules. “Let freedom reign,” Bush scribbled on a note National Security Adviser Condi Rice passed to him at the June 28 NATO Summit in Istanbul, confirming the transfer of power. He didn’t finish the sentence. It should have concluded: “For American companies who contributed to my campaign.”

Historians will note similarities between the Iraqi “transfer of power” to the 1901 ritual in Cuba. After the United States intervened in the 1898 War for Cuban Independence (Spanish-American War in US textbooks), the US military occupied Cuba. Before “transferring” power, the United States placed in the new Cuban Constitution the Platt Amendment (abrogated in 1933), which sanctioned US intervention when necessary. The United States then withdrew from Cuba, but marines returned two more times. More than 100 years later, only one permanent US naval base remains, in Guantanamo; Iraqi sovereignty comes replete with 14 US bases. In the Philippines, US troops remained for thirty four years and killed tens of thousands of Filipinos before “transferring power.” Washington only recently closed its two major bases there.

Lady Macbeth’s words should ring loud in the ears of skeptical Iraqis: “Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”

Farrah Hassen graduated from Cal Poly Pomona University.

Saul Landau is the Director of Digital Media and International Outreach Programs for the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences. His new book is The Business of America.


SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.