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This article, by Fred Branfman, was published by Truthdig, October 9, 2009
[Under Vice President Joe] Biden’s approach … American forces would concentrate on eliminating the Qaeda leadership, primarily in Pakistan, using Special Operations forces, Predator missile strikes and other surgical tactics. — The New York Times, Sept. 30, 2009
Biden has argued against increasing the number of U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan. …— The Washington Post, Oct. 2, 2009
Statesmen must be judged by the consequences of their actions. Whatever Nixon and Kissinger intended for Cambodia, their efforts created catastrophe. — William Shawcross, “Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia” (2002)
“I think you’re closer to the World War II generals than you are to the Vietnam ones.” Dwight Eisenhower was the obvious model. “You may not realize it, but you have more influence than any other military leader in this country right now. More than the Joint Chiefs. You can make a case for you not staying, because there’s no job after this that will compare to it.” The implied suggestion was politics. — Bob Woodward quoting Gen. Jack Keane mentoring his protégé, Gen. David Petraeus, in “The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008” (2009)
The Oct. 7 Wall Street Journal reports that President Barack Obama is reading Gordon Goldstein’s “Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam,” a warning against heeding inevitable military requests for more troops. But however valuable Goldstein’s book might be, William Shawcross’ book “Sideshow: Nixon, Kissinger and the Destruction of Cambodia” is far more relevant and significant. For no matter how much Gen. David Petraeus, Gen. Stanley McChrystal and other hawks disagree with the Biden doves on troop increases, both sides reportedly concur on the importance of going after Taliban and al-Qaida “sanctuaries” in Pakistan, a policy eerily reminiscent of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s disastrous decision to widen the Vietnam War into Cambodia in 1969. The Obama administration has already begun to escalate the fighting in Pakistan, a policy that could make even the Nixon-Kissinger destruction of Cambodia seem like a pleasant memory.
If U.S. military leaders are right that they cannot prevail in Afghanistan without escalating into Pakistan, this is the strongest possible argument for withdrawing from Afghanistan. For nothing, not even Taliban rule in Kabul, could justify allowing the tiny Afghan tail to wag a giant, nuclear-armed Pakistani dog whose stability is clearly America’s very top priority in the region. Further instability in Pakistan would only benefit al-Qaida, which has already made deep inroads into Pakistan and is unlikely to return to Afghanistan even if the U.S. withdraws from there. Former N.Y. Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer is right: “It should be engraved on the minds of every American diplomat: Do nothing that will further destabilize Pakistan” (from the “Rethink Afghanistan” video).
Irving Kristol’s recent death reminded us of his phrase “the law of unintended consequences,” referring to neoconservative attacks on well-meaning liberal domestic policies. Both neo- and garden-variety conservatives, however, have never been willing to apply this same “law” to their far greater international disasters. There is no record, for example, of Kristol’s son Bill or his fellow conservatives acknowledging the blow to U.S. interests and the enormous human suffering—including over 1 million Iraqis dead, wounded or made homeless—caused by the neoconservative-engineered invasion of Iraq.
As indifferent to non-American human suffering as have been conservatives, neoconservatives and neo-Stalinists like Dick Cheney, however, they presumably did not intend to see their invasion of Iraq destroy the Bush presidency, bring to power Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, strengthen anti-American terrorist forces around the globe, and vastly increase worldwide hatred for America due to the Bush administration’s making torture an official state policy for the first time in American history.
Given the U.S. history of unintended consequences in Cambodia and Iraq, not to mention Iran and dozens of other instances, it seems at first glance incredible that so-called Obama doves are seriously calling for increasing drone strikes and clandestine U.S. ground incursions into Pakistan, while pressuring the Pakistani army to expand fighting even though its campaign into the Swat Valley has already produced Pakistan’s greatest humanitarian disaster since 1947. The most likely explanation for this irrationality is at least partly that they see escalation in Pakistan as a necessary political counterweight to the Petraeus-McChrystal push for a troop buildup in Afghanistan, which they oppose.
Their concern is understandable. Bob Woodward has reported how Petraeus mentor Gen. Jack Keane has already begun prepping Petraeus for a run for president. A Republican Party desperate for leaders other than Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee will probably draft him as a presidential candidate if he can continue to avoid blame for his disastrous mismanagement of the Af-Pak theater. Petraeus protégé McChrystal’s disloyal and unprecedented public pressure on Obama for a troop buildup has clearly functioned as an attempt to blame Obama for the inevitable Afghan disasters to come even if Petraeus does not run for president. Obama’s aides are undoubtedly desperate to find a credible alternative to a growing U.S. troop buildup and skyrocketing American casualties in Afghanistan.
Though understandable, however, escalating in Pakistan would be dangerously and foolishly myopic, risking “unintended consequences” far exceeding even the disasters of Indochina and Iraq, and crippling the Obama presidency even more than if it were to withdraw from an Afghanistan where al-Qaida is no longer present and to which it is unlikely to return.
Petraeus, as the military chief of the Af-Pak theater enjoying even greater “influence” than the Joint Chiefs, has already seen his forays into Pakistan drive the Taliban and al-Qaida eastward, vastly increase both their strength and that of homegrown terrorists, create a vast upsurge in popular anti-American feeling, divide the Pakistani military, and destabilize an already unpopular and corrupt Pakistani government. Further destabilizing a nuclear-armed Pakistan already engaged in a cold and sometimes hot war with India could lead to a U.S. foreign policy crisis dwarfing Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
Shawcross’ “Sideshow” provides a cautionary tale of the kind of unintended consequences that going after enemy “sanctuaries” can lead to. President Nixon, after taking office in January 1969, and Henry Kissinger, who directed U.S. policy and bombing in Cambodia, decided to go after North Vietnamese “sanctuaries” in the sparsely populated northeast regions of an otherwise neutral and peaceful Cambodia. They began by unilaterally conducting secret and massive B-52 bombing raids, violating both the U.S. Constitution and the Nuremberg principles. When the bombing raids did not succeed, they invaded Cambodia with U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. When that failed they escalated their bombing, using B-52s against civilian targets in one of the most savage bombing campaigns of civilians in history. They also created and propped up the corrupt and totally incompetent regime of Gen. Lon Nol, who had overthrown Prince Sihanouk, until Nol’s loss to the murderous Khmer Rouge in April 1975.
The “unintended consequences” of the Nixon-Kissinger attempt to destroy North Vietnamese “sanctuaries” in Cambodia included:
Driving the North Vietnamese westward into Cambodia, weakening and destabilizing the Lon Nol government.
Transforming the Khmer Rouge from a small and ineffectual force numbering no more than a few hundred into a large army capable of defeating the combined forces of U.S. airpower and the Lon Nol army. Had Nixon and Kissinger respected Sihanouk and not bombed and invaded Cambodia, there is little reason to believe that the Khmer Rouge would have taken power.
Fostering widespread pogroms and massacres of Vietnamese citizens of Cambodia, poisoning Vietnamese-Cambodian relations even further.
Murdering, maiming, impoverishing and starving countless Cambodians, even before the Khmer Rouge came to power.
And this occurred in a nation of only 7 million that posed little threat to anyone beyond Vietnam. The Pakistan issue, of course, is far, far more serious.
Interestingly enough, Kissinger—like so many others, including his protégé Richard Holbrooke—appears to have learned nothing from his destruction of Cambodia. Writing in Newsweek on Oct. 3, Kissinger opined that “a sudden reversal of American policy would fundamentally affect domestic stability in Pakistan by freeing the Qaeda forces along the Afghan border for even deeper incursions into Pakistan, threatening domestic chaos.” Of course, the opposite is true in reality. It is the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan that has driven “the Qaeda forces”—and the Taliban—further east into Pakistan, threatening the same kind of “domestic chaos” that Kissinger produced 40 years ago when his bombing drove the North Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge further west into Cambodia.
But Kissinger’s remark about what al-Qaida might do in the event of a U.S. withdrawal is more to the point. He is fatuous in suggesting that an American withdrawal from Pakistan would “free” al-Qaida to move more deeply into Pakistan. Al-Qaida is already making deep inroads into Pakistan beyond the Northwest Frontier Territories and is likely to continue to do so whatever happens in Afghanistan. But if so, this raises a basic question: Why are we fighting in Afghanistan if “Qaeda forces” are unlikely to return there even if the Taliban wins?
It is impossible at this point to predict the precise “unintended consequences” of further U.S. escalation in Pakistan. Experts worry that dissident elements in the Pakistani military might supply one or more of Pakistan’s dozens of nuclear weapons to terrorists; that anti-American terrorist forces could increase as unexpectedly as did the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; that a further strengthening of al-Qaida could lead to new 9/11s; that the Pakistani government could be weakened from within; and that tensions between Pakistan and India could reach unprecedentedly dangerous level.
Two things are certain at this point, however.
First, the U.S. has even less control over events in Pakistan than it does in Afghanistan. It is the height of hubris, the arrogance of power and sheer folly to continue unleashing forces there which it cannot control.
Second, despite the horror of the Nixon-Kissinger destruction of Cambodia, it did indeed remain a “sideshow.” Today, it is Afghanistan which is the sideshow. Allowing Pakistan to become the main event would constitute the greatest U.S foreign policy error of the post-World War II era, destroy the Obama presidency and lead to the election of an authoritarian Republican president in 2012 who could make us yearn for the days of George W. Bush.
This article, by Alan Koenig, was publishedin the CUNY Graduate Center Advocate, February 2009
“I admire President Nixon’s courage. It is difficult for me to understand . . . why people are still criticizing his foreign policy — for example, the bombing in Cambodia.” — Lt. John McCain, 1973
“Collective guilt is . . . partly constituted by individual shame.” — Peter Forrest
In the aftermath of Barack Obama’s exhilarating victory, many on the Left are wondering how much of their agenda he’ll fight for, and as the early exaltations cool, progressives and militant liberals are staking positions, mustering arguments, and searching for the pressure points necessary to impel President Obama to hold war crimes trials for the Bush administration’s most appalling deeds. How far President Obama is willing to go in battling the inertia of a political culture that never seems willing to confront the sins done in its name is not yet clear, but the early signs don’t look promising. As Newsweek recently reported, “Despite the hopes of many human-rights advocates, the new Obama Justice Department is not likely to launch major new criminal probes of harsh interrogations and other alleged abuses by the Bush administration.”
As far back as July, Cass Sunstein, an informal Obama advisor, set off progressive alarms by warning The Nation magazine that war crimes prosecutions against the Bush administration might set off a “cycle” of criminalizing public service, and that only the most “egregious” crimes should be pursued. Faced with such early hedging, those dedicated to pursuing war crimes against American officials must fight a two-front war: the first against those timid moderates within the center-left who shy away from the political costs of war crimes prosecutions, and the second against the reactionary nationalism of the American right, which still needs to be persuaded as to the moral necessity of such a campaign.
Integral to both fronts will be a task requiring unusual imagination and finesse, framing the issues surrounding war crimes in such a way that a majority of the American public feels a collective sense of responsibility to redress them. Developing a narrative to inspire the American public to hold war crimes for its own elected officials treads on some exceedingly difficult ideological terrain, for there are no readily accessible frames to incorporate such a dark history of America into a positive sense of contemporary patriotism. An effort to introduce the public to the repressed regions of its historical consciousness all at once would shut down discussion. What, for instance, is the worst atrocity America has perpetrated since World War II? The question doesn’t inspire easy conversation; even asking can invite reproach for being rude, jarring, perhaps challenging to one’s patriotism. There’s no polite way to ease into those vile parts of American historical memory that most citizens don’t dwell on as they go about their days. Many people, however, on some level of consciousness, are aware and that might be the place to start.
Students from the seventies onward have graduated from liberal arts colleges having learned the whole Leftist litany of American war crimes and atrocities, and that horrific history is extremely depressing to ponder: coups, assassinations, massive bombing campaigns against neutral South East Asian countries, Central American death squads, ad nauseum. What is one to do with this knowledge? Or, more importantly, what is one to do with it upon realizing that the public doesn’t want to hear about—and our politicians don’t want to deal with—our shameful history of atrocities?
In puzzling through this dilemma, the genocide scholar Ernesto Verdeja uses an important distinction between public knowledge and acknowledgment first made by NYU’s Thomas Nagel. While the raw information about official complicity and culpability is readily available in a robust historical record, Verdeja sees the difficulty of pursuing higher justice less in the dissemination of that knowledge than the moral awareness that follows.“The problem,” he told me in a recent interview, is not public ignorance, rather it is
“the assumption by many human rights activists and critics of the administration that knowledge equals acknowledgement; in other words, that when people know how bad things are, they will ‘do something’ about it, or demand that something be done. Acknowledgement implies moral awareness, a willingness to reflect on the moral consequences of actions and behavior and take responsibility—or demand accountability—for the commission of violations.”
Until that connection is developed on an explicitly moral basis, all sorts of crimes can fall through the cracks—and already have.
Back in December of 2000, while the Supreme Court was still deliberating over who would be our next president, Bill Clinton took a farewell tour through South East Asia. As a diplomatic gesture, Clinton released previously classified Air Force data to the Cambodian government about the true extent and targets of the so-called “secret” bombing campaign conducted by the Johnson and Nixon administrations. According to an article written by two members of the Yale Genocide Studies program for The Walrus, the tonnage of bombs dropped on neutral Cambodia was five times greater than previously realized, and exceeded the combined tonnage of bombs dropped on both Germany and Japan during World War II—including the two atomic bombs: “Previously, it was estimated that between 50,000 and 150,000 Cambodian civilians were killed by the bombing. Given the fivefold increase in tonnage revealed by the database, the number of casualties is surely higher.”
Though Clinton’s revelatory report was briefly covered, no major news media or watchdog group paid sustained attention to the new bombing figures or what the moral implications might be. What does it mean that massacres on an industrial scale can be committed by American democracy and the perpetrators go…unpunished? Or, like Henry Kissinger, are feted as the wise old men of America’s foreign policy establishment? There’s a certain futility in posing these questions. Since Vietnam, there has been no place to go with a politics that seeks justice for American war crimes at the highest levels of the government. To broach these topics is to touch upon larger questions of democratic culpability and national shame, and avoiding such themes has been a political no-brainer. Shame does not sell in American politics.
Indeed, in America, the cachet of war crimes can even provide fleeting glamour. Against the wishes of much of the Army brass, President Nixon pardoned Lt. William Calley, the officer convicted in a military tribunal of the command responsibility for mass rape and slaughter of hundreds of defenseless old men, women and children in Vietnam’s My Lai massacre. Calley, while awaiting trial, appeared in an issue of Esquire; the cover shot showed him in dress uniform, grinning like a demonic chipmunk while holding a lapful of Asian children. According to Time magazine, after details emerged about the atrocity during his trial—and his own soldiers testified that he personally shot a child attempting to crawl out of a trench of corpses—Calley was flooded with thousands of letters of support, personal checks, and flowers. Though controversial, the President’s decision to commute his sentence proved popular, as an overwhelming 79 percent of Americans polled disapproved of Calley’s conviction. Upon being partially pardoned, Calley enjoyed a brief stint as a minor celebrity, a far right rallying figure and lecturer, before slipping into wealthy obscurity.
The journalist and polemicist Christopher Hitchens notes a somewhat similar phenomenon in the career of Henry Kissinger, in that the hints of shamelessness and past atrocities adds a bit of bad boy swagger or frisson to Kissinger’s persona. It’s the kind of buzz that’s good for both cocktail parties and TV appearances with Jay Leno, and the ancient guru’s reputation remains exalted enough that this year’s first presidential debate showed both candidates’ efforts to claim his ideas as closer to their own brand of foreign policy. Even Hitchens’s endeavors to popularize Kissinger’s crimes have run afoul of this bizarre resiliency, providing another cautionary tale of thwarted accountability. Hitchens’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger, a concise and scathing indictment of the former Secretary of State, was released in May of 2001 and was soon followed by a by-the-book BBC documentary. The charges range widely: sabotaging President Johnson’s peace negotiations in Vietnam; cynically leading the Nixon administration’s escalation of bombings throughout Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia; plotting the overthrow of a democratically-elected government in Chile; complicity with the Greek Colonel’s regime and their nefarious machinations in Cyprus; tacitly backing Pakistan’s genocidal civil war against Bangladesh; and giving the go-ahead to Suharto’s atrocity-ridden invasion of East Timor. Written to inflame moral outrage, Hitchens’s slim book portended a long campaign, but 9/11 ripped apart American politics and Hitchens broke with his narrow vision of the American Left in order to embrace the Bush administration and its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. After five years of praising various “Pentagon intellectuals” (and somehow missing the presence of Kissingerians like L. Paul Bremer and John Negroponte throughout the administration), Hitchens was devastated to discover in late 2006 that Bush still took advice from the old monster himself. Kissinger still had the ear of the president. “Will we never be free of the malign effect of this little gargoyle?” Hitchens wailed in a Slate column.
Aside from the relatively rare Hitchensian amputation of Leftist sentiment and sense, and those limp moderates fearing a cycle of prosecutions for unspecified future crimes, Leftists concerned about American war crimes must trim another untidy feather of their own right wing; a Left interventionism that grew up in Bosnia and Kosovo and flew on to Iraq. Not all Left interventionists took this bellicose flight path, but a predominate form of Liberal hawkishness arising in the ’90s focused on the exigency of foreign atrocities at the price of forgetting the dark side of American military might, and too many ended up supporting the crusades of the Bush administration with too few caveats. The Canadian parliamentarian Michael Ignatieff, a prototypical Liberal Hawk, wrote in The Warrior’s Honor, that for the interventionist the mid-90s NATO incursions into Bosnia were:
“a theater of displacement, in which political energies that might otherwise have been expended in defending multiethnic society at home were directed instead at defending mythic multiculturalism far away. Bosnia became the latest bel espoir of a generation that had tried ecology, socialism, and civil rights only to watch all these lose their romantic momentum.”
Many of those Left hawks, like Ignatieff, who joined forces with neocon intellectuals over the “bel espoir” of Bosnia, rode that “romantic momentum” all the way to the Iraq War—only to later recant. (Ignatieff finally retracted his own support in 2007). Some of these Left hawks, in the first years of the Iraq War, got flirtatiously close to supporting the efficacy of torture as a means to combat a greater evil. In 2005, Hitchens praised Terrorism in the Grip of Justice, a ghoulish Iraqi TV-reality show featuring the renunciations of various battered insurgents and terrorists—some of whom, as the journalist Peter Maas has reported, turned up dead after their confessions were broadcast. Hitchens, while acknowledging in Slate that “the possibility exists that other confessions are either staged or coerced,” and that “[the] United States could not have put any of these people on television, because the Geneva Conventions forbid the exhibiting of prisoners,” nevertheless boldly concluded: “[in] my opinion, at any rate, the elected Iraqi authorities are well within their rights in using this means of propaganda.” Evidently snuff films are wrong for America, but some exceptions can be made for allied countries on the battlefront. For his part, Ignatieff wondered in The New York Times in early 2004 to what degree “[to] defeat evil, we may have to traffic in evils: indefinite detention of suspects, coercive interrogations, targeted assassinations, even pre-emptive war,” before disavowing torture much more forcefully in The Prospect in 2006. Regeneration of liberal energies and policies starts at home and has a lot of housecleaning to do before it can confidently travel abroad. While the lesson may be learned, that doesn’t mean it won’t have to be repeated.
Aware of such fissures, how can the Left cultivate the moral awareness necessary to bring more attention to war crimes and call their perpetrators to justice? When it comes to questions of collective shame, the American media environment has always been awful, and since the rise of right-wing radio, FOX News and the trogosphere, the Left must contend with an even more amplified caricature of the shrieking liberal. Condemned by the Right for an apparent lack of sound bite patriotism, and for only harping on the ugly side of American politics that no one wants to see, the Left lacks a compelling frame to raise such dire issues, and it has been a surefire recipe for political disaster when it comes to electoral politics. John Kerry touched this third rail when the Bush campaign merely reminded voters of Kerry’s youthful participation in the Winter Soldier Project, a protest group in which the young Lieutenant acted as a spokesman for veterans who publicly admitted to atrocities in Vietnam. Attacked in the Swift Boat ads, Kerry could never construct a convincing narrative that bridged his youthful anti-war activism and his evolution into a bland US Senator, and his campaign sunk between those contradictions. Indeed, Kerry appeared so spooked by attacks on his past denunciations of American atrocities that he never made Abu Ghraib a major campaign issue.
Clearly then, American queasiness over confronting war crimes doesn’t have to emerge solely from the unhealed scars of the ’60s and ’70s in order to be politically perilous. In June of this year, Major General Anthony Taguba, the officer tasked with investigating the Bush administration’s culpability in the Abu Ghraib horror, publicly accused the sitting president of war crimes in a preface to a Physicians for Human Rights report. Taguba’s bold, declarative statement of guilt once more pointed to the gap between knowledge and acknowledgement:
“After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts, and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”
Now, if you were a foreign journalist covering American politics you might think this political bombshell would searingly seal the gap between knowledge and acknowledgement and become a major issue dividing the nation in the 2008 election. No such luck. Taguba’s report received little sustained attention, and though candidate Obama critiqued Bush for his torture policies and vowed to end them, he was protected on his right flank by John McCain’s rhetorically similar position, and Obama never combined the words war crimes and prosecution in the same sentence. After all, he wanted to win. Having won, his administration will have to decide whether Taguba’s unequivocal statement rises to the standard of what Sunstein labeled “egregious” enough for prosecution.
A potential frame that is truly interested in “change” may reside not in the standard repertoire of Leftist tactics, but deeper in America’s Christian heritage—if moral awareness is to breach the stultifying cloud of cheap patriotism. Some genocide scholars, like Verdeja, remain cynical about the ability of the Left to strengthen its own resolve and win over the American public as to the necessity of pursuing war crimes. “The Left can’t touch these people [perpetrators],” he asserts. “The Right will have to do it, for only Nixon can go to China. It will take a rising, younger generation of conservatives. This has to be a self-critique within the Right, has to be a movement from the Right and this can only happen after a schism.” If there is to be a schism, and that looks tantalizingly apparent, there must be some way for the Left to win over the schismatics, the whole gamut from anti-war libertarians like Justin Raimondo to social conservatives truly concerned with moral values—perhaps like the conservative intellectuals Rod Dreher and Ross Douthat.
The renowned Christian political theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, in his Moral Man and Immoral Society, recognized the value of patriotism but cautioned that American Christians must put their first allegiance above any worldly nation bounded by geography and time and dedicate themselves to the community of Christ. Niebuhr preached the necessity of using power to confront evil, but the wielder of that power must be constantly aware, as if through spiritual exercise, of how easily power corrupts and how badly it is perceived by those it is used against, no matter the moral claims. Christians must fight against the profound selfishness and delusion that accompany patriotism, and guard constantly against the imperial impulse that so easily flows from national self-righteousness. Obviously, this is not Sarah Palin’s Christianity, but the potential tools to bridge the gap between public knowledge and acknowledgement could reside in the broadly ecumenical Christian theology practiced by the majority of Americans. Leftists interested in advancing the moral imperative of bringing war crimes trials home would be negligent to overlook these opportunities. Conceptions of shame and redemption are present all throughout most Christian denominations, and a first step to utilizing them would be familiarity, while a second lays in making such appeals to audiences that claim to hold them. Successful examples of progressive moral movements run all throughout American history from the abolitionists to Martin Luther King Jr. and shouldn’t be forgotten in a more secular age.
If this really is a bridge too far, a rearguard strategy would be a prophylactic one of simply ending criminal policies such as torture, even if their perpetrators go unpunished. Verdeja notes that Americans
“have no history or stomach to put our leaders on trial for this sort of behavior, and clearly there will never be an international tribunal to hold them accountable. Nevertheless, it is important that we don’t simply assume that nothing can be done: we need to continue forcefully discussing and criticizing these policies, with the aim of putting an end to them under the new administration.”
By this logic, bruiting about the sins of war crimes, even if we never hold actual trials, could focus moral awareness to a degree that future crimes can be prevented at conception. A public campaign of shaming would be needed, and while it would require a new cultivation of moral awareness, it’s the least we could do.
If, however, the bridge between knowledge and acknowledgement is never built on Christian ethics, and waiting for a new generation on the Right willing to countenance criminal prosecution is futile, and promises of future abstention are not preventative enough, then maybe a thought experiment is in order. What if the Left were to encourage President Obama to just pull the trigger: institute war crimes tribunals for past officials through constitutional means and just eat the backlash as the price of higher justice? After all, if “we are the change we’ve be waiting for,” then who are the reactionary politicians—or what really are the political considerations—to say otherwise? As Niebuhr himself noted:
“Politics will, to the end of history, be an area where conscience and power meet, where the ethical and coercive factors of life will interpenetrate and work out their tentative and uneasy compromises. The democratic method of resolving social conflict, which some romanticists hail as a triumph of the ethical over the coercive factor, is really much more coercive than at first seems apparent.”
There are many forms of coercion. Coercion wielded through democratically attained political power, constitutionally undertaken and with a full Niebuhrian awareness of its dangers—though never an unalloyed good—may be a necessary one. Arrest and prosecution are forms of legal coercion, and if the longstanding critique is that the Left never knows how to wield power to protect or enact what it holds dear, then demanding the exercise of our political power on an issue of such import and moral clarity would be a strong proclamation of political arrival. It might even provide “change we can believe in,” as other progressive causes could be weighed in relation to the shame not solely of war crimes, but of poverty, inequality, or that of our vast and reprehensible prison-industrial complex. The precursor to this legal and political clash between conscience and power is that the moral exigency of prosecuting war crimes rises to the level of social conflict. The payoffs for such a mobilization and contestation might not be all bad. After all, nothing helps to advance previously resistant conceptions of shame quite like a conviction.
Maybe. While tempting, such an optimistic scenario cannot account for the shock waves sure to follow from the psychic detonation of seeing a former President of the United States in the dock. Or looking bewildered in a prison jumpsuit. This would be so startling, so previously unimaginable, that there’s no telling how the public would react or what the political reverberations might be. While a great precedent in terms of the power of the constitution, many Americans would view it as an assault on patriotism, on the pervasive view that America is fundamentally good. Would such an astonishing event be seen by the majority as a great cleansing, a release from past sins, or an egregious national humiliation enforced by a puritanical few?
It would be the emotional equivalent of regicide, and while our political ancestors, the British, beheaded their king only once in their history, they’ve been pretty uptight about it ever since. If we successfully pressed for war crimes trials for America’s former leaders, we’d have to accept the consequences that go along with a brand of justice for which the public is not yet prepared. Perhaps then, the best way to prepare would be start small, a few degrees of distance from the present regime. Henry Kissinger still breathes in freedom and that could be corrected.