War Crimes and Double Standards

York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof - like many of his American
colleagues - is applauding the International Criminal Court's arrest
order against Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for his role in
the Darfur conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

In his Thursday column,
Kristof describes the plight of an eight-year-old boy named Bakit who
blew off his hands picking up a grenade that Kristof suspects was left
behind by Bashir's forces operating on the Chad side of the border with

"Bakit became, inadvertently, one more
casualty of the havoc and brutality that President Bashir has unleashed
in Sudan and surrounding countries," Kristof wrote. "So let's applaud
the I.C.C.'s arrest warrant, on behalf of children like Bakit who

By all accounts, Kristof is a
well-meaning journalist who travels to dangerous parts of the world,
like Darfur, to report on human rights crimes. However, he also could
be a case study of what's wrong with American journalism.

While Kristof writes movingly about
atrocities that can be blamed on Third World despots like Bashir, he
won't hold U.S. officials to the same standards.

Most notably, Kristof doesn't call for
prosecuting former President George W. Bush for war crimes, despite
hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have died as a result of Bush's
illegal invasion of their country. Many Iraqi children also don't have
hands - or legs or homes or parents.

But no one in a position of power in
American journalism is demanding that former President Bush join
President Bashir in the dock at The Hague.

Tortured Commission

As for the unpleasant reality that Bush
and his top aides authorized torture of "war on terror" detainees,
Kristof suggests only a Republican-dominated commission, including
people with close ties to the Bush Family and to Bush's first national
security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

"It could be co-chaired by Brent Scowcroft
and John McCain, with its conclusions written by Philip Zelikow, a
former aide to Condoleezza Rice who wrote the best-selling report of
the 9/11 commission," Kristof wrote in a Jan. 29 column entitled "Putting Torture Behind Us."

"If the three most prominent members were
all Republicans, no one on the Right could denounce it as a witch hunt
- and its criticisms would have far more credibility," Kristof wrote.

"Democrats might begrudge the heavy
Republican presence on such a commission, but surely any panel is
better than where we're headed: which is no investigation at all. ...

"My bet, based on my conversations with
military and intelligence experts, is that such a commission would
issue a stinging repudiation of torture that no one could lightly

In an earlier formulation of this plan, Kristof suggested that the truth commission be run, in part, by Bush's first Secretary of State Colin Powell.

One of the obvious problems with
Kristof's timid proposal is that Rice and Powell were among the senior
Bush officials who allegedly sat in on meetings of the Principals
Committee that choreographed the abuse and torture of specific

Zelikow remained a close associate of
Rice even after she replaced Powell as Secretary of State. And
Scowcroft was President George H.W. Bush's national security adviser
and one of Rice's key mentors.

It's also not true that any investigation
is always better than no investigation. I have witnessed cover-up
investigations that not only failed to get anywhere near the truth but
tried to discredit and destroy whistleblowers who came forward with
important evidence.

In other words, bogus and self-interested
investigations can advance bogus and self-interested history, which
only emboldens corrupt officials to commit similar crimes again.

No Other Context

Kristof's vision of having President
Bush's friends, allies and even co-conspirators handle the
investigation of Bush's crimes would be considered laughable if placed
in any other context.

But Kristof's cockeyed scheme passes almost as conventional wisdom in today's Washington.

On Wednesday, the Washington Post
assigned its satirical writer, Dana Milbank, to cover - and mock - Sen.
Patrick Leahy's Judiciary Committee hearing on his own plan for a truth
commission to examine Bush-era abuses.

Milbank's clever article
opened with the knee-slapping observation: "Let's be truthful about it.
Things aren't looking so good for the Truth Commission."

The derisive tone of the article also
came as no surprise. Milbank has made a cottage industry out of
ridiculing anyone who dares think that President Bush should be held
accountable for his crimes.

In 2005, when the Democrats were in the
minority and the Republicans gave Rep. John Conyers only a Capitol Hill
basement room for a hearing on the Downing Street Memo's disclosures
about "fixed" intelligence to justify the Iraq War, Milbank's column
dripped with sarcasm.

"In the Capitol basement yesterday,
long-suffering House Democrats took a trip to the land of
make-believe," Milbank wrote. "They pretended a small conference room
was the Judiciary Committee hearing room, draping white linens over
folding tables to make them look like witness tables and bringing in
cardboard name tags and extra flags to make the whole thing look

And the insults - especially aimed at
Conyers - kept on coming. The Michigan Democrat "banged a large wooden
gavel and got the other lawmakers to call him 'Mr. Chairman,'" Milbank
wrote snidely.

Then, last July,
Milbank ridiculed a regular House Judiciary Committee hearing on Bush's
abuses of presidential power. The column ignored the strong case for
believing that Bush had violated a number of international and domestic
laws, the U.S. Constitution, and honorable American traditions, like
George Washington's prohibition against torture.

Instead, it was time to laugh at the
peaceniks. Milbank opened by agreeing with a put-down from Rep. Lamar
Smith, R-Texas, calling the session "an anger management class."
Milbank wrote: "House Democrats had called the session ... to allow the
left wing to vent its collective spleen."

Milbank then insulted Rep. Dennis
Kucinich, who had introduced impeachment resolutions against Bush, by
calling the Ohio Democrat "diminutive" and noting that Kucinich's wife
is "much taller" than he is.

What Kucinich's height had to do with an
issue as serious as abuses of presidential power was never made clear.
What Milbank did make clear, through his derisive tone and repeated
insults, was that the Washington Establishment takes none of Bush's
crimes seriously.

So, Milbank's mocking of Leahy's latest
initiative fits with this pattern of the past eight years - protecting
Bush from the "nut cases" who think international law and war-crimes
tribunals should apply to leaders of big countries as well as small

The pattern of "American exceptionalism"
also can be seen in Kristof cheering the application of international
law against an African tyrant but suggesting that Bush's offenses
should be handled discreetly by his friends.

Journalist Murray Waas often used the
saying, "all power is proximate." I never quite understood what he
meant, but my best guess was that Waas was saying that careerists -
whether journalists or from other professions - might have the guts to
take on someone far away or who lacked power, while ignoring or
excusing similar actions by someone close by with the power to hurt

That seems to be especially true about
Washington and its current cast of "respected" journalists. They can be
very tough on President Bashir but only make excuses for President Bush.

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