Thursday, September 18, 2008



Written August 14, 2008

I have grown accustomed to absurd statements issuing from the Bush Administration. But yesterday’s gaffe bears mention for its sheer hypocrisy. Sadly, it underscores the damage Bush has done to America’s international credibility; the damage is so severe, in fact, that America is virtually disqualified from invoking international law.

While Bush watched swimmers at the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing, Russia launched an attack on its southern neighbor, Georgia—a new American ally and aid recipient. The conflict arose over a Georgian province called South Ossetia, which is ethnically Russian and has strong ties with Moscow. Georgia moved to expel Russian peacekeepers from South Ossetia, leading to a Russian intervention and encroachment onto Georgian territory. After several bloody days and numerous casualties through Russian air and artillery bombardment, Georgia called for a cease-fire. Russia agreed, but the atmosphere remained tense. Russian troops continued to advance into Georgia. After returning to Washington, President Bush demanded that Russia “adhere to the cease-fire agreement with Georgia.” Meanwhile, U.S. aid arrived at the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice gave a statement announcing the Bush Administration’s approach to the crisis. In a direct rebuke to Russia, she said: “If Russia wants to play on the world stage, it must play by the rules.”

The outrageousness of this statement should be lost on no one who knows recent American foreign policy. Today, America is the last country on earth that should feel entitled to assert international law. Bush and his Administration have repeatedly shown that they do not care about “rules,” whether international (Treaties and the United Nations) or domestic (The Constitution). It is therefore extremely hypocritical for Bush now to insist that Russia refrain from an invasion. After all, America did not “play by the rules” in 2003 when it invaded Iraq on false pretenses and without approval from the United Nations. Similarly, America did not play by its own constitutional rules when it held citizens and foreign nationals without charge at Guantanamo Bay, wiretapped phone calls without warrant or probable cause and authorized its executive agents to hand prisoners over to foreign allies to circumvent domestic bans on torture. Furthermore, Bush’s Administration showed contempt for the rules of international law. The Administration actually requested that lawyers seize upon linguistic ambiguities in treaties such as the Protocol Against Torture and the Geneva Convention (to both of which the United States is a signatory) to maintain disingenuous arguments that its practices did not amount to torture. This, in turn, led to the grotesque spectacle of American “jurists” actually debating whether forcibly suspending a person on a declining board with cellophane over his head and pouring water down his face “intentionally inflicts serious pain.” These barely legal methods have earned America a reputation for dishonesty and lawlessness on the world stage. They have undermined America’s credibility on matters of international principle and render her attempt to hold Russia to “the rules” laughable. Russia must now be wondering: “How can the world’s most facetious rulebreaker now insist that we play by the rules?”

America’s take-no-prisoners approach in the War on Terror has created dangerous international precedent. If America plays fast and loose with international law and faces no consequence, should it surprise us that other powerful countries may wish to do the same without fear? Whether it knows it or not, America has a responsibility—as the world’s preeminent economic and military power—to adhere to principle, if for no other reason than to take the moral high ground over more unscrupulous world powers. America has always prided itself as the world’s beacon for democracy, freedom, justice and right, even if its own history reveals a checkered record on these issues. Yet America’s recent contempt for international rules has badly tarnished whatever reputation it may have had as the “White Knight” of world powers. When our public officials speak now about “international rules” on the “world stage,” their words ring hollow and warped.

This is the price Nations must pay for obtaining results “by any means.” While such an approach may guarantee victory in one confrontation, it stains the Nation’s image for all time, weakening any attempt to assert principles that it ignored in other circumstances. Such damage can only heal with time and conscientious, genuine effort. Of course, a Nation may take the haughty road and admit no fault, pressing onward as if it did nothing wrong. But to press on without acknowledging unjust conduct is a hallmark of tyranny, for nothing will deter that Nation from resorting to the same conduct—or worse conduct—when the next crisis arises. And what is tyranny, if not the raw assertion of power in conscious disregard of established rules?

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