Is Obama committing crimes? He might someday be prosecuted for ordering drone attacks
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The coincidence in time of an international court sentencing former Liberian President Charles G. Taylor to 50 years in prison for war crimes and the detailed account in The New York Times of how President Barack Obama decides which foreign and U.S. citizens to kill with drones, without trial, makes me nervous.
Mr. Taylor was not the first major political leader tried for crimes in an international court. Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was on trial when he died in 2006. Former Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadjic and Ratko Mladic are currently on trial. Former Chad President Hissene Habre and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir are candidates for such trials.
Any prosecutor involved in international law is fully aware of one of the major difficulties of bringing off successful war crimes prosecutions -- tying the actions of the accused directly to the crimes committed.
Mr. Karadjic was president and Mr. Mladic military commander of the armed forces of Bosnian Serbia when some 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were massacred at Srebrenica in 1995. There is no question they were responsible for the slaughter. However, showing a clear link between their orders and what took place will require days of testimony by numerous witnesses, particularly if there is no paper trail. Fortunately, there does exist relevant film footage.
Mr. Milosevic's trial had gone on for five years when he died. Mr. Karadjic was apprehended in 2008; Gen. Mladic, last year. Taylor's trial took six years. Much of this time was occupied by prosecutors putting together a chain of evidence that would hold up in court.
Now, putting aside whether it is legal for Mr. Obama to order the death by drone of al-Qaida and other figures, numbering now around 2,000 in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, plus whoever happens to be nearby when a rocket hits -- associates, friends, wives, children -- he is clearly responsible for doing so. The president is described in the Times piece as personally choosing the targets.
Few have said yet that these killings are war crimes, but one day someone is likely to deem them so and Mr. Obama may even be charged in an international court, probably after he has left office. He clearly is taking direct responsibility because he sees the drone killings as something that only a president can order.
Since this has been going on for a while, why have the details surfaced now? Probably because Mr. Obama is running for re-election.
Republicans traditionally have accused Democrats of being soft on defense, of being wusses when dealing with America's enemies. The picture of Mr. Obama sitting in the White House last year signalling "Go get him" when it was time to carry out the operation to capture or kill Osama bin Laden is one example of the Democrats' preemptive defense strategy on national security. Another obvious example is the apparent cooperation of a number of senior administration officials in the preparation of the Times account of Mr. Obama's "making a list and checking it twice" approach to drone assassinations.
But there is also evidence of White House and Democratic queasiness about the strategy. They have been careful to point out that President George W. Bush pursued a comparable approach, although he apparently was considerably less "hands-on" than Mr. Obama.
The public response to the laying out of Mr. Obama's participation in the weekly "kill" meeting has been mixed. Few if any Americans questioned the elimination of Osama bin Laden, though the Pakistanis kicked up sand about it. They didn't like being unmasked as protectors of the vicious bearded one who had been so arduously hunted by their alleged American allies. They also didn't like the United States paying Pakistanis to help bag bin Laden -- Pakistanis who didn't inform their government of what they were doing.
Americans continue to have trouble with Mr. Obama's having ordered the killing of three U.S. citizens in Yemen without due process of law. The idea of any American president simply deciding to kill an American citizen is repugnant to most Americans.
One is reminded of the line by the Hitler-era German theologian, Martin Niemoller, to the effect that when the Nazis came for the Socialists, trade unionists and Jews, I didn't act because I wasn't one. Then they came for me and there was no one left to act.
If Mr. Obama's dictum of "I decide who deserves to be killed" stands into future presidencies, what happens if someone less benign uses that power on Americans, even in the United States?
At the very least American presidents who take it upon themselves to selectively assassinate those they see as enemies of the state will need to be careful about where they travel, particularly after leaving office. International courts can hand down secret indictments enforceable in certain countries.
Americans might be inclined to believe that no one would dare charge an American president with war crimes, and that may be true at the moment due to the preeminence and power of the United States today. But will that always be true?
Mr. Obama's role in passing death sentences on those whom he considers to be America's enemies is out there now. One could even make up a witness list from The New York Times account.
Have he and the White House really thought this one through? I wonder.
First Published June 6, 2012 10:49 am