Asked whether Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was a war criminal, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Senate Appropriations Committee that "Based on definitions of war criminal and crimes against humanity, there would be an argument to be made that he would fit into that category," although she downplayed the idea of charging him as such, in the interest of persuading him “perhaps to step down from power.” And with maybe 7,000 Syrian civilian deaths in the past year, probably few outside of al-Assad’s power apparatus would argue strenuously with her characterization. There was a rather large elephant in that committee room, though. The Senate and the Administration are accustomed to thinking that they define and enforce justice on a global basis, but doesn’t justice, like charity, begin at home?
Like perhaps with George W. Bush? Prosecuting the former U.S. President for the crime of invading Iraq would, of course, be considered absurd on Capitol Hill and is virtually ignored in the mainstream American media, yet the matter is not taken so lightly everywhere. Last November, for instance, a War Crimes Tribunal in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia convicted both Bush and former United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair of “crimes against peace.” The verdict concluded that “Weapons investigators had established that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Iraq was also not posing any threat to any nation at the relevant time that was immediate that would have justified any form of pre-emptive strike.”
Few Americans have ever heard of this tribunal, which was initiated by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, and it possesses no enforcement powers. Yet while official America may not take the idea of Americans being charged with war crimes seriously, it’s not absolutely clear that George W. Bush counts himself among that consensus. In February, 2011, he cancelled a trip to a charity gala in Switzerland for reasons that are disputed. Event organizers attributed the cancellation to demonstrations planned to protest the alleged torture of U.S.-held detainees during his presidency. Human rights groups, however, thought the cause was their announced intention to file an official criminal complaint against him with Swiss prosecutors upon his arrival (along with the call for his arrest by a right-wing member of the Swiss parliament.) A Bush spokesman declined comment at the time, but in a later story about Amnesty International’s call for his arrest during an upcoming visit to Africa, CBS News attributed the Switzerland cancellation to “fears that he may have faced legal action there.”
And the elephant in that committee room wasn’t entirely Republican, either. For Clinton, justice could literally begin at home – with her husband, Bill Clinton, who’s also been accused of war crime complicity. Now, this can be a very touchy subject because the source of the war crimes allegations is the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and that was the campaign that made a lot of liberals like war again. So a substantial portion of those willing to consider Bush a war criminal entertain no such notions about Clinton.
And yet, in 2000, Amnesty International, an organization that enjoys wide respect in the U.S. when it criticizes other countries (and winner of the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize), charged that civilian casualties ''could have been significantly reduced if NATO forces had fully adhered to the laws of war.'' Human Rights Watch, claimed that half of the 500 Yugoslav civilians killed by NATO bombs died because of NATO violations of law and failures to protect civilians – not an insignificant number in that the total of civilian deaths specifically charged to Yugoslav leader Slobodon Milosevic was under 800. Amnesty specifically cited the April 23 bombing of a Belgrade TV station that killed 16.
Milosevic died in 2006 while on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and relatively few would argue that his indictment was not justified. But no charges were filed against NATO, despite the fact that ICTY acknowledged an attack against a “propaganda” target rather than a military target would constitute a war crime and Tony Blair had described the attack on the Belgrade TV station as just that. The incident was not even investigated. Likewise, Yugoslavia and NATO both used cluster bombs, yet only side was indicted for their use.
Why the one-sidedness? Well, in his 2004 book, “Getting Away With Murder,” Canadian law professor Michael Mandel reported that for a considerable period of time a hyperlink actually connected the ICTY and NATO web sites, suggesting that they pretty much considered themselves partners. And you don’t indict a partner, do you?
At NATO and in Washington, this all fits into the Leona Helmsley theory of international law. In case you’ve forgotten Helmsley, who died in 2007, she was a real estate entrepreneur who was convicted of federal income tax evasion in 1989. The highpoint of her trial came when a former housekeeper alleged she had heard Helmsley say: "We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes."
And so far as foreign policy goes in the U.S., no matter whether the Secretary of State be Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell, or Madeline Albright, the operative principle is the same – the Leona Helmsley theory of international law: We are not guilty of war crimes. Only little countries are guilty of war crimes. We don’t go to war crimes tribunals. Only little countries go to war crimes tribunals.