Wednesday, July 4, 2007

America and The Law of War

One of the more obscure, but important, areas of the law that I had to master was the Law of War. I was General Counsel of the Army and taught National Security Law at Arizona State University. One of my biggest frustrations with the Bush Administration has been that it acts and talks as if the Geneva Conventions (and the other international law frameworks that govern law in wartime) were imposed on the United States by foreign powers. Wrong. These frameworks were largely created and pushed by us, and they have been strongly supported by every modern Administration--until this one.

John Fabian Witt a professor of law and history at Columbia University, says it well in a Washington Post oped:

The declaration [of independence] was the beginning of a remarkable but now little-remembered American tradition in the laws of war. In the 1780s, a treaty with Prussia committed the United States to follow European rules of warfare. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln published a code for the Union Army that serves to this day as the foundation for the law of war around the globe.

In the 20th century, Americans took a lead role in establishing the modern law of war. Franklin Roosevelt directed the creation of the Nuremberg tribunal for high-ranking German war criminals, and his aides wrote the U.N. charter's rules for the use of force. In this century we can see traces of Jefferson's charges in the law of naval warfare, in the distinction between combatants and civilians, in international law restricting the use of mercenaries and in the Third Geneva Convention's rules on prisoners of war.

Today, of course, much of the world thinks that the United States has traded places with George III's British Empire. We are the global hegemon, and since Sept. 11, 2001, we have become infamous the world over for eschewing the law of war in the name of patriotic self-defense. At Guantanamo, in shadowy secret CIA prisons, at Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere, leaders in the White House, the Justice Department, and the intelligence agencies have disowned the laws of war as unacceptable constraints on the pursuit of national security.

The tragedy of the post-Sept. 11 American assault on the laws of war is that it seems to have been not only shameful but self-defeating. Disrespect for what the declaration called "the Opinions of Mankind" has fueled anti-American sentiment and spurred terrorist recruitment in North Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Illegal interrogation tactics seem to have produced disappointingly little intelligence. And extraordinary renditions to secret prisons have disrupted the cooperation of many of our most important allies in the war on terrorism, producing arrest warrants against U.S. intelligence agents in Germany and Italy. Patriotism at the expense of the laws of war seems to have gone badly awry.

For the delegates to the Continental Congress in 1776 -- as for Lincoln and Roosevelt in subsequent centuries -- patriotism and the laws of war went hand in hand. Since the revolution, Americans have helped shape a law of war that advanced the nation's interests. In moments of great crisis, our finest leaders have forged a powerful union between the security of the nation and the laws of war. It's a lesson from the first July 4 that we could sorely use again this year.

Read it all here.

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