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John Bolton Declares War on International Law

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ICC, The Hague, Netherlands © robert paul van beets

September 18, 2018 16:30 EDT

Thanks to John Bolton, we seem to have entered a new universe of primordial punishment, directed at anyone unwilling to conform to US dictates or bow down before its global authority.

Hired in March as national security adviser to give new impetus to Donald Trump’s foreign policy, John Bolton has finally come out of the wings to show the world what it means to make policy that truly accords with the gospel according to Fox News. He made his major public debut at a Federalist Society lunch on September 10, where he not only warned about an imminent threat from a sinister global network of malign forces seeking to undermine the US Constitution and fragment the integrity of the nation. Not content to simply issue warnings and demonstrating he was ready for the fight, he formulated very specific threats of his own against the new evil empire, of which few Americans are aware. It is known as the ICC.

Had we been back in the “great” old days of the 1950s, everyone would have immediately understood that ICC meant the International Communist Conspiracy. Perhaps it still does in Bolton’s subconscious. But today’s ICC — the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Netherlands — was only created in 2002, as an initiative of the United Nations to respond to the needs of global justice in the face of genocide and war crimes. The creation of the tribunal was adopted by a vote of 120 to 7. In democratic terms, that was a resounding consensus. In diplomatic terms, less so, as the seven nations voting against it were China, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Qatar, the United States and Yemen.

Yemen may one day have good reason to regret not signing on to the Rome Statute that founded the court. That poor country at the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula is currently the victim of ongoing war crimes, conducted on an unprecedented scale, perpetrated principally by Saudi Arabia (who did not sign the Rome Statute), with substantial technical and logistical support provided by the United States.

Two other nations that refused to sign on, Iraq and Libya, had, at the time, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi as their leaders, both of whom have since disappeared from the international scene in circumstances most people are familiar with. Qatar, once the rising star of the Arabian Peninsula, has since been branded a traitor to the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and may soon be turned into an island by Saudi engineers.

Inadvertent Truth Bearer

There are currently 123 nations that are party to the Rome Statute. The ICC has actively investigated and prosecuted alleged war criminals from all continents, and though it has convicted only a handful of the accused, it has provided an important platform for exposing the existence and nature of such crimes. More significantly, it offers an internationally recognized and apolitical tribunal for examining cases that could degrade even further, such as President Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous war on drugs in the Philippines. Two years ago, Duterte launched a campaign that authorizes and perpetrates extrajudicial assassination of suspected drug dealers and drug users. As Philip Gourevitch writes in The New Yorker, “Maybe the best that one can hope for the court, in its current form, is that it can yet inspire some people who seek the rule of law to find a way to achieve it.”

The Duterte case illustrates both the utility and weakness of the ICC. Two Filipino senators brought the case against Duterte before the international tribunal in 2017, leading to the decision to conduct a preliminary investigation. Earlier this year, Duterte reacted. As head of state, he announced the Philippines’ withdrawal from the Rome Statute and then threatened to arrest the ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda — appointed to head the investigation — if she were to conduct any activities in the Philippines. Duterte may thus have provided a model of resistance, or rather refusal, that has inspired Bolton. But Bolton’s threats, as we shall see, are far more elaborate.

Despite Donald Trump’s apparent addiction to “alternative facts” and his propensity for outright misrepresentation of reality (sometimes called “lies” but, in his case, more of a psychological compulsion), to some observers, the Trump administration has become a model of transparency. At least in the sense that thanks to his actions and speech, we can see more of what goes on in the US government than under previous administrations. The observable chaos within the White House, thanks to which so much of what was designed to be concealed has been revealed, accounts for only one small part of this unexpected transparency.

The successive waves of leaks, shocking insider revelations, salacious anecdotes, “gutless” op-eds in The New York Times and blockbuster books by Pulitzer Prize winners about the surreal goings-on of a group of dysfunctional actors in search of a non-existent script entitled “America First” tell only the anecdotal part of the story. That isn’t transparency: It’s just the gossip that provides late-night talk show comedians with their scripts.

Trump and now Bolton have done much more than open up the White House to the media’s scrutiny and television satirists’ derision. Through their actions and pronouncements, they have progressively and convincingly revealed what was previously hidden by the carefully scripted “good intentions” of the entire political and diplomatic class: the workings of the global American empire as it has developed and expanded over the past seven decades. In a betrayal of Teddy Roosevelt’s oft-quoted wisdom, faithfully followed by previous presidents, Trump has consistently spoken loudly (and repetitively) and wielded two shaky sticks: sanctions and tariffs.

A summary of his time in office so far would reveal a clown skipping across the globe, cursing and insulting his allies, and using his dreaded “sanctions” to punish not only his enemies but also those among his allies who refuse to assist him in punishing his enemies. The case of India comes to mind, compelled to respect US sanctions against Iran, compromising its own economy, following Trump’s unilateral betrayal of the five other signatories of the Iran deal.

Imposing sanctions and tariffs in all directions might appear to be a step forward from the costly, disastrous wars George W. Bush initiated and Barack Obama prolonged and perpetuated. But Trump has kept those fires burning as well, though with less fanfare. And though sanctions and tariffs do real damage, especially to civilian populations, Trump’s innovation has been largely rhetorical and symbolic as he seeks to realize his otherwise nonsensical dream of “America First.”

Being first may not be as enviable a position as Trump thinks. Those in the administration who have actually read the Bible — rather than just paying lip service to it in a ploy to secure the evangelical vote — may be in a position to understand one of the stated paradoxes of divine justice that “The last shall be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16). Getting one’s wish — or rather trying to impose it through force — may lead straight to the hell of international humiliation.

The deepest irony lies in the fact that using sanctions and tariffs to demonstrate Trump’s goal of putting America first has revealed to the world a feature of the long-standing Pax Americana that has remained true but was hidden from view: that every other nation, including historical allies, is a competitor with the US and potentially, when push comes to shove, an enemy. Trump is right to think that leaders across the globe understand that they live in a competitive world, but his actions and words — now underlined and even exaggerated by Bolton — have helped ordinary people to understand that as well.

Attitudes May Vary

Leaders of any nation or institution are, by definition, power brokers. They know how interests are evaluated, how the balance of power is managed in backroom diplomacy, how trade-offs and compromises are quietly negotiated and how — in all cases except war — face must be saved in the media, if only to keep the critics at bay.

Philip Gourevitch reminds us that, speaking to the Federalist Society, John Bolton “failed to mention … how dramatically Washington’s hostility to the court inspired greater support for it in international opinion, and complicated relations on many fronts with our allies, particularly as the extent of the Bush Administration’s policy of torturing detainees in the so-called global war on terror became widely known.” Bolton’s speech has already provoked a new round of hostility from around the world. Newsweek dares to predict that “The world will see this new policy for what it is: an outrageous attack on the institutions of global cooperation, and a worrisome sign that a United States led by President Trump cannot be counted on to lead the fight for global justice, but instead poses a terrible threat to it.”

Newsweek’s take reflects the current “mainstream” position in US politics that seeks to put all the blame on Trump and promote the illusory belief that if the president were replaced, all would be well again. Gourevitch reminds those who may not have noticed of the more flexible but equally cynical approach of the Obama administration, when it attempted to use the ICC for its own purposes while remaining uncommitted to it: “Just as the antagonism from the Bush Administration’s first term had won the I.C.C. favor in much of the rest of the world, the Obama Administration’s practice of publicly embracing the court, which it furtively tried to exempt itself from, engendered resentment that the court was being co-opted as an instrument of U.S. hegemony.”

In other words, from president to president, the attitude may vary, but the message received by the rest of the world is the same: All administrations are committed to using whichever tools they possess to promote US hegemony. Where previous administrations — including the Bush Jr. White House — took the trouble to invoke higher principles while following the same underlying logic, Trump and Bolton’s transparency about hegemony constitutes an innovation. And though many in the establishment hope for a return to the status quo ante Trump, the Trump team has exposed, with admirable transparency, the underlying logic of the US commitment to what Newsweek euphemistically and patriotically calls “the fight for global justice.”

In his speech, Bolton returned to his own themes from the past about evil conspiracies seeking to undermine US sovereignty, but added to them a new ingredient: the Trumpian obsession with economic punishment and humiliation, especially in the form of sanctions. Before Trump, back in the days of George W. Bush, Bolton’s position was just to deny the authority of any international organization, starting with the United Nations, to which Bush, in one of his numerous hyperreal moments, appointed Bolton ambassador to the UN. Bolton has learned the lessons taught to him by his new master in the White House: “It’s the sanctions, stupid!”

Former presidents — notably Bill Clinton in Iraq — routinely sought to define sanctions in an international context, appealing to multilateral authority. When leveling sanctions against non-compliant nations, they justified it as a moral act, underpinned by the somewhat fanciful idea that the more a population suffers, the more likely it will be to accept regime change favorable to US interests, Trump has taken it one step further — thanks to his belief in exceptionalism and the notion of “America First” — by discarding the need for a consensus and acting unilaterally.

Bolder than Trump and resolved to show his teeth under his drooping moustache, Bolton applies the logic of sanctions not just to nations and institutions alone, as he has now promised to do with regard to the ICC, but also to the individual members of the court. As mentioned above, Duterte may have inspired this innovation. Al Jazeera summarized Bolton’s original suggestions, saying that “the Trump administration will consider banning judges and prosecutors from entering the country, put sanctions on any funds they have in the US financial system, and prosecute them in US courts.”

Thanks to Bolton, we seem to have entered a new universe of primordial punishment, for the first time directed at anyone, in any form — nation, population, government, individual — who is not willing to conform to US dictates or bow down before its global authority. In a certain sense this is a mere extension of what already existed. Bush’s war on terror opened the doors to secretly punishing, torturing and assassinating people without due process (for example, the CIA black sites), a practice chillingly extended by Obama with his Tuesday morning kill lists. The major difference is that, until now, the practices were not proclaimed as policy.

Obama banished torture and then, when confronted with the historical facts, regretfully admitted that “We tortured some folks” and “did some things that were contrary to our values.” The acts contradicted the policy, which purportedly reflected our moral values. Perhaps under Trump “our values” have now changed. But in both cases, there appears to be an overriding principle: that Americans involved in military operations should never be prosecuted or punished even for recognized crimes. The first step is to deny the crimes themselves. If discovered, as Obama demonstrated, we let them go because that was then, and this is now. They belong to chapter of a history that no one can rewrite.

Moral Context

Bolton’s words make clear the moral context as he sees it. He fumed that “the I.C.C. may announce the start of a formal investigation against these American patriots, who voluntarily signed on to go into harm’s way to protect our nation, our homes, and our families in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.” The rhetoric is admirable: The war criminals cannot be criminals because they are “American patriots” who must be goodhearted and generous because they volunteered to “go into harm’s way.”

Harm’s way, we assume, is a geographical term for a place that is typically another faraway country populated by people we know, and want to know, little about. And the noble aim of these patriots, transported to the other side of the globe, is “to protect our nation, our homes and our families.” Any crimes they happen to commit along that stretch of road called harm’s way must be understood to have been for a noble cause, which automatically exempts them from both investigation and eventual punishment.

Some commentators suspect that Bolton was less concerned about the ICC’s threat to accuse Americans of war crimes than he was about Israel, a nation occasionally suspected of mistreating other people (especially those living as captives within its borders). As he states, echoing previous presidents and practically every politician in the US, that “the United States will always stand with our friend and ally, Israel.”  Once again, this means “no investigation, no trial, no punishment.” ABC News reports: “He said the U.S. would use ‘any means necessary’ to protect Americans and citizens of allied countries, like Israel, from unjust prosecution by this illegitimate court.”

Although he invokes “allied countries” in the plural, Israel is the only one he mentions. Does anyone seriously imagine that the US would consider using “any means necessary” to protect citizens of France, Canada or Mexico from prosecution by the ICC? (Note that prosecution, when conducted by the ICC, is necessarily “unjust,” and the court itself is, by definition, “illegitimate.”)

Therein, with particular thanks to Bolton for his clarity, we see how the Trump administration has made things considerably more transparent. Israel is not just an ally. It is the ally, perhaps the only real one. Israel’s interests and US interests are identical and can never be separated. This has been obvious for some time, but Bolton wants to make sure that we all understand that.

Bolton’s real purpose in the speech had less to do with the illegitimate meddling of the ICC than to announce the punishment of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) with the closing of its office in Washington and banishing it from American shores. The PLO stands accused of the capital crime of soliciting the ICC to investigate what multiple observers have qualified as likely war crimes by Israel against the Palestinian people. And it’s all in the interest of future peace. Just as Trump claimed that moving the US embassy to Jerusalem was intended, almost comically, to remove an obstacle to the advancement of peace talks, Bolton claims that the punishment of the PLO — its exclusion from the US, ending its role of representation even of Palestinians living in the US — will serve to convince the Palestinians to engage in peace talks with Israel, presumably on terms defined, but not yet announced, by Jared Kushner.

A Learning Experience

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat’s more realistic assessment of this move is that “this is an affirmation of the US administration’s determination to continue its policies of blackmail and extortion.” Blackmail and extortion have been part of the diplomatic toolkit of the US empire for decades, long before Trump, alongside invasion, war, regime change, “fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex, and murder,” to quote John Perkins in Confessions of an Economic Hitman.

Nobody builds an empire only out of good wishes and generous acts. There is always dirty work to be done. Imperial governments and media concert to build a public image around the positive effects of empires, many of which are real. But enough of the bad effects are equally real, inciting serious people to wonder whether it is all worth it, and whether it doesn’t reach a point at which abuse becomes its dominant trait. The public image of the good American empire remained largely intact for some 50 years, but began to fray, as historian Alfred McCoy has remarked, with George W. Bush’s neocon inspired invasions of the Middle East.

In many ways, the Trump administration is the messenger who has now shed bright light on the underpinnings of an increasingly out-of-control empire. Not many Americans — and especially not Trump’s own base — are ready to admit that the message is worth paying attention to. Trump’s opponents, both Democrat and Republican, and a good part of the citizenry, are equally committed to denying the tenor of the message. They desperately want to believe that Trump is the cause and not the (unwitting, and probably witless) messenger who has come forward to reveal the complex of related causes.

Bolton and Trump have provided, and are continuing to provide, a service we should all be grateful for, which would have some meaning if we could take the time to understand what it signifies and how to act on it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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