August 20, 2006

Taking Nuremberg Seriously

The Nuremberg Principles say that you can’t defend yourself from war crimes charges by saying that you were just following orders. Each individual has to make sure that they are not committing war crimes, or they can be held accountable, as the Nazi’s were after WWII and as Slobodan Milosevic and others have been in recent years.

The first four Principles lay this out very clearly:

Principle I
Any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefor and liable to punishment.
Principle II
The fact that internal law does not impose a penalty for an act which constitutes a crime under international law does not relieve the person who committed the act from responsibility under international law.
Principle III
The fact that a person who committed an act which constitutes a crime under international law acted as Head of State or responsible Government official does not relieve him from responsibility under international law.
Principle IV
The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.

All of this is taught to US soldiers as part of their basic training and is incorporated into military law. Recently some soldiers are taking this seriously. Confronted by a war that certainly appears to violate prohibitions against ill treatment of prisoners, unnecessary killing of civilians and wanton destruction of cities or towns, they are starting to refuse to fight. Lt. Ehren Watada, who refused orders to Iraq, in a speech to the Veterans for Peace Convention in Seattle said, “to stop an illegal and unjust war, the soldiers can choose to stop fighting it.” He goes on to say, “The oath we take swears allegiance not to one man but to a document of principles and laws designed to protect the people. Enlisting in the military does not relinquish one's right to seek the truth - neither does it excuse one from rational thought nor the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. "I was only following orders" is never an excuse.”

Kevin Benderman, now serving time in the Fort Lewis brig because his Conscientious Objector claim was refused, wrote ”As I went through the process which led to my decision to refuse deployment to Iraq for the second time, I was torn between thoughts of abandoning the soldiers that I serve with, or following my conscience, which tells me: war is the ultimate in destruction and waste of humanity.”

The military makes provision for soldiers who, like Kevin Benderman, come to the belief that all war is wrong. They can apply for CO status and, if it is approved receive discharges. However, it is a difficult process and, as Sgt. Benderman can attest, the application may be turned down. If that happens, there are few options for someone whose conscience says not to fight. Sgt. Benderman was sentenced to 15 months in prison for his refusal.

Other soldiers, including Lt. Watada, come to the conclusion that the war in Iraq is wrong, even though they cannot in good conscience say that they oppose all wars. For them, the military has no recourse. Soldiers can’t pick and choose which orders to obey. Discipline demands that they be ready to go where they are sent. Lt. Watada, having concluded that the war in Iraq is illegal, expressed his willingness to fight in Afghanistan or anywhere else he was needed. The Army could have chosen a less confrontational course and posted him where he was willing to go, but perhaps they feared having to negotiate with each soldier. They know that, given a choice, there are plenty of GIs who would prefer to stay away from Iraq. They don’t want to make that choice easy.

Thousands have simply walked away. Over 200 are estimated to be in Canada, remembering that during the Vietnam war, thousands of war resisters were given refuge in Canada. Today the situation is not so clear cut. The first applications for refugee status were denied by the current Conservative government, but the appeals process is ongoing, so it is unclear what, ultimately, will be the result. The Canadian War Resisters Support Campaign hopes that ultimately resisters will be allowed to stay.

One of the things that helped end the Vietnam War was a large antiwar movement within the military. The new film, “Sir, No Sir” documents that movement and hopes to encourage antiwar GIs today to take action.

Of course, it is not just up to the soldiers. All Americans are being called to take more vigorous action against the war. For them too, the Nuremberg Principles require action against it. Antinuclear protesters from the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action at the Bangor, WA Trident submarine base carried copies of the Principles as justification for blocking the entrance to the base.

Voters For Peace ask all voters to take the following pledge: "I will not vote for or support any candidate for Congress or President who does not make a speedy end to the war in Iraq, and preventing any future war of aggression, a public position in his or her campaign." And voters are taking this seriously, as Joe Leiberman can attest.

By signing The Declaration of Peace citizens commit themselves to take action to end the war. Some will lobby Congress, some will march and some will commit themselves to nonviolent civil disobedience if Congress does not act by September 21, 2006 to set a timetable for withdrawing the troops. After that date people will take action in their communities and in Washington DC to increase the pressure on Congress to end the war. We have already seen pro-war Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Washington’s Maria Cantwell, who are up for reelection, starting to modify their rhetoric in response to an electoral base that is increasingly critical of the war. If citizens follow up on their frustration with visible actions against the war and a determination to make the war their top issue in the voting booth, then politicians may respond. If not they may find themselves out of office.

Lt. Watada ended his speech with these words, “Many have said this about the World Trade Towers, "Never Again." I agree. Never again will we allow those who threaten our way of life to reign free - be they terrorists or elected officials. The time to fight back is now - the time to stand up and be counted is today.”

August 13, 2006

Karl Rove’s Bookcase: Machiavelli and Iraq

Last week I talked about how Karl Rove might find Machiavelli useful in his job of winning elections. However, on reading The Prince, I was struck by his foreign policy advice, which this Administration might do well to heed. While Rove would have to stretch a little to apply these lessons to domestic political races, Machiavelli writes at length about how to conquer and occupy other countries. Since the Bush Administration is heavily into the conquering business; Afghanistan, Iraq ... and since it isn’t going very well, perhaps they could use some advice.

I have to stress here that Machiavelli takes a very self-centered approach to the whole subject. He is not concerned with the morality of what he is doing, or how the people being conquered suffer. He doesn’t even discuss why one might want to engage in a conquest of another country. His only concern is how to do it effectively. For this the Bush Administration ought to love him, because they have their agenda and all they want to do is put it into effect. The plan was to take over Iraq, and if a lot of people suffer and die in the process, it doesn’t matter because the overall goal is “worthy”. However, they don’t even seem to understand the process well enough to do it well.

In The Prince, Machiavelli talks about the different ways to rule a country that has been conquered. The worst is to maintain an army of occupation, “But in maintaining armed men there in place of colonies one spends much more, having to consume on the garrison all the income from the state so that the acquisition turns into a loss, and many more are exasperated, because the whole state is injured; through the shifting of the garrison up and down all become acquainted with hardship, and all become hostile, and they are enemies who, whilst beaten on their own ground are yet able to do hurt. For every reason, therefore, such guards are as useless as a colony is useful.” He goes on to say that discontented subjects will flock to the banner of a leader who professes to free them from the occupying state.

All of this, of course, has direct relevance to Iraq. The military campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime was easy, given the overwhelming superiority of forces. Much of the Iraqi army simply melted away into the population, rather than confront the American tanks head on. However the US then proceeded to try to rule Iraq with an army of occupation. This is where they ran into trouble for two reasons. One, the quality of life had been degraded for most people there. This started with the bombing campaign of the first war that targeted the civilian infrastructure of power plants, sewage treatment and water purification plants and continued with a decade of sanctions that crippled the country economically. The invasion of 2003 once again put many of these same plants out of commission, leaving most people with very limited access to clean water and electricity, even compared to the sanctions period. Economic opportunities are also extremely limited due to the continued fighting. As Machiavelli had predicted, the growing number of people who were discontented with the state of affairs have come to blame the occupying forces for their troubles. They have thus tended to rally around those who are willing to stand up to the Americans. This fuels the resistance in a spiral of violence, response and revenge that has only gotten worse as it becomes clear that there is no end in sight.

Machiavelli supposes two kinds of state which you might want to conquer. One has a strong central ruler, who controls the whole of the state apparatus. This kind of state can be difficult to conquer because it is united, well organized and strong. However, once you do succeed, it is easy to take over the top post in government and control the rest, more or less as the previous ruler had. The daily life for most people doesn’t change, so they have little reason to resist. In the other case, there are many power centers that are independent of the central authority. It is easy to manipulate these conflicts to pit one against the other, thus dividing and conquering. However, the occupation is much more difficult because these same rivalries tend to make some support you and some oppose you, so whatever you do there is bound to be opposition.

Iraq was more the first type under the Baath Party. The sheer superiority of forces guaranteed a quick victory but the US made a fatal error. Rather than preserving the government as it was, simply supplying a new ruler more compliant to American wishes, they destroyed the whole government apparatus, creating a power vacuum that came to be filled by Iraqi nationalist resistance fighters, Islamic fundamentalists and Kurdish nationalists. The Kurds are willing to go along with the Americans as long as their goal of greater Kurdish autonomy is realized. The Americans accept this, even though it requires finessing Turkey’s opposition to Kurdish nationalism, which they have been brutally fighting, with US support, for years in Turkey. The other power centers have not been dealt with as successfully. The inability of the US to supply normal governmental services turns people to the resistance, in one form or another, as an alternative.

Machiavelli’s conclusion is that in this situation the occupying power will be driven out sooner or later. Furthermore, their position at home is weakened by the strain of the continuing war. Their popularity is down and the upcoming elections will likely weaken, if not break, the Republicans’ hold on all three branches of government. For this reason, Karl Rove might wish that he had lent Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney his copy of The Prince before they got themselves into such a mess.


Most Democrats have been gleefully engaging in this kind of analysis that criticizes the Administration for mishandling the war, and God knows they have, while staying away from the more basic question of why we are there in the first place. At one extreme is Joe Leiberman, who went so far in supporting the whole enterprise that he lost his primary and abandoned the Democratic Party. But others, such as New York’s Hillary Clinton and Washington’s Maria Cantwell, who are both up for re-election, are trying to have it both ways. They are fast to criticize the administration, with Clinton, seeing the handwriting on the wall after Leiberman’s loss, calling for Rumsfeld to resign, but slow to question the legitimacy of the war or present any meaningful alternative to the President’s “stay the course” policy. A professed desire to bring the troops home at some unspecified time in the future after the Iraqi government has control of the situation is not a policy. It is a pipe dream. Anti-war voters (and a majority now oppose the war) are losing patience with these fence straddlers. It remains to be seen how this will all play out in November. Whatever happens here, the prognosis is bleak and getting bleaker in Iraq.

August 06, 2006

Karl Rove’s Bookcase: Machiavelli

Rumor has it that Karl Rove keeps a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince on his office bookshelf. I have been wondering what Mr. Rove might get out of the work of a 16th Century Italian political observer. Now it is true that Machiavelli is mostly loved and hated by those who have never actually read any of his writings and it is possible that Rove cultivates this story as a way of building a myth of himself as a ruthless and masterful political operative. On the other hand, Machiavelli’s observations often ring true in a way that could well resonate with a strategist who values winning above all.

The Prince is above all about power. It is dedicated to Lorenzo Medici, the grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent, in the hopes of gaining favor with the Prince. He outlines a strategy for success that deliberately flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Rather Machiavelli draws on examples from his contemporary society and history to elaborate on a politics of practicality. It is really very simple. A Prince has power. A Prince wants to hold onto power by whatever means he can. In 15th and 16th C Italy Machiavelli paints a picture of a number of rulers jockeying for position, conquering their neighbors, making alliances, being overthrown. The question is how to thrive in this atmosphere.

For Karl Rove, the first question is how that political landscape relates to contemporary America. Rove isn’t concerned with conquering other states with military power, as Machiavelli was. His Prince is the Candidate and the power he seeks to maintain is the political office. His Candidate enlarges his power by running for higher office, rather than actually conquering his neighbors. As an aside it must be noted that this administration does engage in conquering and occupying foreign lands but not generally in accordance with Machiavelli’s advice and not under the direction of Karl Rove, except as it relates to the American political landscape. In fact, it is possible that Cheney and Rumsfeld might have avoided some of the pitfalls they stumbled into in Iraq through study of The Prince.

The first point that would appeal to Karl Rove is that you have to rely on your own strength. Although it is tempting to find an ally that will supply the troops needed for a campaign, that will ultimately put you at your ally’s mercy. If you have your own power base, you need not fear that your troops will turn against you. Rove has had great success in cultivating the religious right as a strong base that can be counted on to turn out and fight for him when needed. He has, consequently been able to defeat opponents with a less committed base.

Machiavelli didn’t think that virtue was its own reward. He did think that it was well for rulers to be thought virtuous but if there was a conflict between virtue and success, “He need not make himself uneasy at incurring a reproach for those vices without which the state can only be saved with difficulty, for if everything is considered carefully, it will be found that something which looks like virtue, if followed, would be his ruin; whilst something else, which looks like vice, yet followed brings him security and prosperity.” As an example, he cites Hannibal, whose success in maintaining order in his heterogeneous army is attributed to “his inhuman cruelty, which, with his boundless valor, made him revered and terrible in the sight of his soldiers, but without that cruelty, his other virtues were not sufficient to produce this effect.”

Karl Rove’s campaign strategy often seeks victory by undermining the reputation of his opponent, often through the use of half truths or surrogates as we saw in the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry. Although voters say that they are turned off by these negative attacks, they can be effective, especially if the attacks appear to come from a third party and not the campaign itself. This preserves the appearance of virtue in the candidate while allowing the attacks to damage the opponent, Rove’s specialty. As Machiavelli says, “ It is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them.”

In all things, Machiavelli holds that it is possible to be overcome by a less virtuous and more ruthless opponent. The appearance of weakness that comes of an unwillingness to violate common decency can lead to a breakdown of order that in the end leads to more suffering that could have been avoided by a little judicious betrayal, lies or viciousness that would have avoided large scale lawlessness. It is easy to see Karl Rove, and indeed the whole administration taking heart from this lesson.

Perhaps the final lesson is that when Machiavelli presented his ideas to Medici, he was spurned. He had to satisfy himself with the role of analyst, rather than be the king maker he aspired to. He might have done a better job selling his services by following his own advice and not being quite so direct. It may have been his blunt amoral approach that turned off his potential benefactor. Rove may have been wise to start with Bush at the beginning of his career, when he didn’t have to explain his philosophy in so many words. He could simply use these techniques successfully to push a compliant candidate up the political ladder, rising with him to the top.