From the Archive: After 9/11, President George W. Bush expanded his powers to act unilaterally abroad and encroach on constitutional rights at home, a process that Congress continues in the just-approved National Defense Authorization Act of 2012. Nearly a decade ago, Nat Parry examined Bush’s grim vision.
By Nat Parry (Originally published on June 21, 2002)
In the nine months since Sept. 11, George W. Bush has put the United States on a course that is so bleak that few analysts have – as the saying goes – connected the dots.
If they had, they would see an outline of a future that mixes constant war overseas with abridgment of constitutional freedoms at home, a picture drawn by a politician who once joked, “If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier – so long as I’m the dictator.”
The dots are certainly there. Bush’s speech at West Point on June 1, 2002, asserted a unilateral U.S. right to overthrow any government in the world that is deemed a threat to American security, a position so sweeping that it lacks historical precedent.
“If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long,” Bush said in describing what he calls a “new doctrine” and what some acolytes have dubbed the “Bush Doctrine.”
In a domestic corollary to this Bush Doctrine, Bush is asserting his personal authority to strip even U.S. citizens of due-process rights if he judges them “enemy combatants.” With Vice President Dick Cheney and Attorney General John Ashcroft warning critics not to question Bush’s policy, it’s not too big a jump to see a future where there will be spying on dissenters and limits on public debate, especially now that Ashcroft has lifted restrictions on FBI surveillance activities.
That possibility would grow if the Republicans succeed in regaining control of the Senate and place more of Bush’s conservative political allies in the federal courts. [Both prospects did materialize after the congressional elections in 2002.]
Bush’s grim vision is of a modern “crusade,” as he once put it, with American military forces striking preemptively at “evil-doers” wherever they live, while U.S. citizens live under a redefined Constitution with rights that can be suspended selectively by one man.
Beyond the enormous sacrifices of blood, money and freedom that this plan entails, there is another problem: the strategy offers no guarantee of greater security for Americans and runs the risk of deepening the pool of hatred against the United States.
With his cavalier tough talk, Bush continues to show no sign that he grasps how treacherous his course is, nor how much more difficult it will be if the U.S. alienates large segments of the world’s population.
One of the most stunning results of Bush’s behavior over the past nine months since the 9/11 attacks has been the dissipation of the vast reservoir of goodwill that sprang up toward the United States. In cities all over the world, people spontaneously carried flowers to the sidewalks outside U.S. embassies and joined in mourning for the more than 3,000 people murdered in New York, at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania.
I joined a kind of pilgrimage in Copenhagen, Denmark, as people carried bouquets, a New York Yankees cap and other symbols of sympathy to the U.S. Embassy. More substantively, governments around the globe opened their files to help U.S. authorities hunt down those behind the murders.
European nations, which earlier had been alarmed by Bush’s tendency toward unilateralism, hoped the inexperienced president would gain an appreciation for multilateral approaches toward addressing root causes of global problems and finding ways to create a more livable world. Some Europeans, for instance, thought Bush might reverse his repudiation of the Kyoto agreement, which seeks to curb global warming and avoid economic dislocations that would follow dramatic climate changes.
Bush, however, appeared to have learned the opposite lesson. He grew more disdainful of international opinion. He seemed intent on throwing America’s weight around and demanding that other nations follow whatever course he chooses.
As for global warming, his administration accepted the scientific evidence that human activity is contributing to a dangerous heating of the planet, but he continued to favor “voluntary” approaches to the problem and opposed collaborating with other nations to limit emissions to retard those trends.
On the war against terrorism, Bush has asserted that he will judge whether another country is “with us, or you are with the terrorists.” [Sept. 20, 2001] If a country picks the wrong side, Bush will decide when, how or if that country’s government will be overthrown. Bush started with Afghanistan before fingering the “axis of evil” states: Iraq, Iran and North Korea. His supporters have lobbied to expand the list to add nations as diverse as Syria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Cuba.
Bush’s actions have alarmed traditional U.S. allies in Western Europe. To them, the first clear post-Sept. 11 signal that Bush still had little interest in multilateral cooperation was his disregard of international concerns over the treatment of prisoners locked in open cages at Camp X-Ray on the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Bush drew criticism from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights when he effectively waived the Third Geneva Convention’s protections of prisoners of war. The Bush administration announced that contrary to the Convention’s provisions, the United States would unilaterally declare which Guantanamo prisoners qualify for POW status and which POW protections they would enjoy. [See Consortiumnews.com’s Bush’s Return to Unilateralism, Feb. 18, 2002]
Since then, the administration has ignored or renounced a string of international agreements. Bush formally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which had been a bulwark of arms control since 1972. He flouted the nuclear non-proliferation treaty by pointing nuclear warheads at non-nuclear states. He breached World Trade Organization rules by erecting tariffs for foreign steel.
Beyond those policy rebuffs to multilateralism, Bush went on the offensive against individual U.N. officials who have not conformed to his administration’s desires. These officials, who insisted on holding Bush to standards applied to other leaders around the world, soon found themselves out of jobs.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary C. Robinson, was the first to experience the administration’s displeasure. The former Irish president’s efforts had won acclaim from human rights groups around the world. But her fierce independence, which surfaced in her criticism of Israel and Bush’s war on terror, rubbed Washington the wrong way. The Bush administration lobbied hard against her reappointment. Officially, she was retiring on her own accord.
The Bush administration also forced out Robert Watson, the chairman of the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC]. Under his leadership, the panel had reached a consensus that human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, contributed to global warming. Bush has resisted this science, which also is opposed by oil companies such as ExxonMobil. The oil giant sent a memo to the White House asking the administration, “Can Watson be replaced now at the request of the U.S.?”
The ExxonMobil memo, obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council through the Freedom of Information Act, urged the White House to “restructure U.S. attendance at the IPCC meetings to assure no Clinton/Gore proponents are involved in decisional activities.”
On April 19, 2002, ExxonMobil got its wish. The administration succeeded in replacing Watson with Rajendra Pachauri, an Indian economist. Commenting on his removal, Watson said, “U.S. support was, of course, an important factor. They [the IPCC] came under a lot of pressure from ExxonMobil who asked the White House to try and remove me.” [Independent, April 20, 2002]
The next to go, on April 22, 2002, was Jose Mauricio Bustani, the head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons [OPCW]. Bustani ran into trouble when he resisted Bush administration efforts to dictate the nationalities of inspectors assigned to investigate U.S. chemical facilities. He also opposed a U.S. law allowing Bush to block unannounced inspections in the United States.
Bustani came under criticism for “bias” because his organization had sought to inspect American chemical facilities as aggressively as it examined facilities of U.S.-designated “rogue states.” In other words, he was called biased because he sought to apply the rules evenhandedly.
The final straw for Bush apparently was Bustani’s efforts to persuade Iraq to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which would allow the OPCW to inspect Iraqi facilities. The Bush administration denounced this move an “ill-considered initiative” and pushed to have Bustani deposed, threatening to withhold dues to the OPCW if Bustani remained.
Critics said Washington’s reasoning was that Bush would be stripped of a principal rationale for invading Iraq and ousting Saddam Hussein if the Iraqi dictator agreed to join the international body designed to inspect chemical-weapons facilities, including those in Iraq. A senior U.S. official dismissed that interpretation of Bush’s motive as “an atrocious red herring.”
Accusing Bustani of mismanagement, U.S. officials called an unprecedented special session to vote Bustani out, only a year after he was unanimously reelected to another five-year term. The member states chose to sacrifice Bustani to save the organization from the loss of U.S. funds. [Christian Science Monitor, April 24, 2002]
“By dismissing me,” Bustani told the U.N. body, “an international precedent will have been established whereby any duly elected head of any international organization would at any point during his or her tenure remain vulnerable to the whims of one or a few major contributors.” He said that if the United States succeeded in removing him, “genuine multilateralism” would succumb to “unilateralism in a multilateral disguise.”
Despite Bush’s success bending some international organizations to his will, Europe and other parts of the world have continued to promote multilateral strategies, even over Bush’s objections.
On April 11, 2002, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court was ratified by enough countries to make the court a reality. Treaty ratification surged past the necessary 60 countries with the approval of Bosnia-Herzogovina, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ireland, Jordan, Mongolia, Niger, Romania and Slovakia — to go along with the support of all the nations of Western Europe and virtually every major U.S. ally.
Taking effect on July 1 – with an inaugural ceremony of the International Criminal Court expected as early as February 2003 – the court will try people accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Amnesty International has called the court “a historic development in the fight for justice.” Human Rights Watch has called it “the most important new institution for enforcing human rights in 50 years.”
Reacting hostilely to the Rome Statute’s ratification, Bush reiterated his opposition and repudiated President Bill Clinton’s decision to sign the accord. “The United States has no legal obligations arising from its signature on Dec. 31, 2000,” the Bush administration said in a May 6, 2002, letter to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. “The United States requests that its intention not to become a party … be reflected in the depositary’s status lists relating to this treaty.”
While the “unsigning” was a remarkable snub at the world’s diplomats and at principles of civilized behavior that the U.S. has long championed, it will not itself stop the court’s creation, nor does it legally absolve the United States from cooperating with it. But the letter signaled Bush’s intent to undermine the court at every turn (except when its actions fit with U.S. strategic interests).
With strong administration support, House Republicans promoted a bill that would allow U.S. armed forces to invade The Hague, Netherlands, where the court will be located, to rescue U.S. soldiers if they are ever prosecuted for war crimes. The bill, sponsored by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, would bar U.S. military aid to countries that ratify the treaty.
The bill also would prevent the U.S. from participating in peacekeeping missions that might put American soldiers under the court’s jurisdiction. DeLay’s bill even would prohibit the U.S. from sharing intelligence with the court regarding suspects being investigated or prosecuted.
The Bush administration’s active campaign against the court places the U.S. alongside only one other country, Libya.
Washington’s opposition to the court contrasts, too, with the staunch U.S. support for the war crimes tribunal that was created to try former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. In that case, the U.S. threatened to withhold financial aid to Yugoslavia if it did not hand over Milosevic and cooperate with the tribunal.
When Yugoslavia complied, Bush hailed the move as “a first step toward trying him for the crimes against humanity with which he is charged.” Bush’s opposition to a permanent war crimes court seems driven by fear that his freedom to wage war around the world might be proscribed by fear of war-crime charges.
Bush’s selective unilateralism has sparked anti-Americanism even among former close allies. Reflecting the widespread view that Bush is asserting an American exceptionalism disdainful of world opinion, critics have come to routinely refer to the United States as “the empire.”
During his May 2002 trip to Europe, demonstrators went into the streets to protest Bush’s policies. The scene that I witnessed in Berlin in late May was almost the opposite of what I had observed in Copenhagen in mid-September. Instead of a warm affection for the United States, there was ridicule and contempt.
At the “Cowgirls and Cowboys Against the War” protest march in Berlin, demonstrators wearing cowboy outfits followed a truck with a country music band mocking Bush’s Wild West approach to foreign relations. At the protest, I saw people holding signs that read, “George W. Bush: Usurper, Oil Chieftain, Super-terrorist” and “Bush: System Robot.” Another sign I saw had a photograph of Bush with a goofy expression on his face and a caption reading, “Do you really want this man to lead us into war?”
The estimates of the Berlin protests ranged from 20,000 to 50,000 people. But it is clear from opinion polls and press commentaries that the protesters were expressing sentiments widely held in Europe. According to European polls, approval ratings of Bush’s international policies hover at around 35 percent. [http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=153 ]
Many Europeans believe Bush offered only lip service to the American ideal of democracy. Not only was Bush building alliances with undemocratic human rights violators, such as Uzbekistan and Georgia, but Bush’s diplomats were supportive when coup plotters briefly ousted the elected president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, on April 12, 2002.
The Bush administration viewed Chavez as a troublesome populist who threatened the stability of Venezuela’s oil industry. Washington retreated only when Chavez backers poured into the streets and reversed the coup.
Now, Bush has established a domestic corollary to the worldwide “Bush Doctrine.” Along with asserting his unilateral power abroad, Bush was limiting freedoms within the United States.
The expansion of police powers began immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks when Middle Easterners living in the U.S. were swept off the streets and held incommunicado as “material witnesses” or for minor visa violations. Attorney General John Ashcroft likened their detentions to arresting gangsters for “spitting on the sidewalk.”
The total number and the identities of those arrested remained state secrets. Government officials estimated that about 1,100 people, mostly Middle Eastern-born men, were caught up in the dragnet. Some legal observers outside the government put the number much larger, at about 1,500 to 2,000 people. Only one of these detainees has been charged with a crime connected to the Sept. 11 attacks, Zacarias Moussaoui, who was in custody before the attacks. [For details, see Salon.com’s The Dragnet Comes Up Empty, June 19, 2002]
Next came the hundreds of combatants captured in Afghanistan and put in cages at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Bush refused to grant them protections under the Geneva Conventions and said they could be tried by a military tribunal established by his fiat.
Initially, many Americans reconciled themselves to the array of post-Sept. 11 detentions and the Guantanamo cages, believing that the arrests without trial only affected foreigners and were a reaction to a short-term emergency. But that comfort level shrank when Jose Padilla, a 31-year-old U.S.-born citizen who had converted to Islam, was arrested on May 8, 2002, in Chicago.
Ashcroft announced the arrest at a dramatic news conference in Moscow more than a month later, on June 10, 2002. Ashcroft depicted Padilla’s capture as a major victory in the “war on terror.” Administration officials said Padilla had met with al-Qaeda operatives abroad and was in the early stages of a plot to develop a radiological “dirty bomb” that would be detonated in a U.S. city.
But Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said later that the bomb plot amounted only to “some fairly loose talk.” [Washington Post, June 13, 2002] Nothing concrete had occurred. Padilla had no bomb-making materials, no target, no operational co-conspirators, no plan. Beyond assertions, the administration offered no evidence of Padilla’s guilt.
Bush described Padilla as an “enemy combatant” and ordered him detained indefinitely at a military prison in South Carolina. No trial, not even one before the military tribunal, was to be held. Attempting to justify this extra-constitutional detention, Bush explained that Padilla was a “bad guy” and “he is where he needs to be, detained.” The Bush administration said Padilla would be jailed for as long as the war on terrorism continues, potentially a life sentence given the vague goals and indefinite timetable of this conflict. [http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/americas/newsid_2039000/2039214.stm]
Even though the Clinton administration had succeeded in winning convictions against both Islamic and domestic terrorists in open court, Bush was demonstrating his Clint-Eastwood-style impatience for such legal niceties. [Ultimately, the U.S. government backed away from the “dirty bomb” allegations but prosecuted Padilla in a Miami federal court for collaborating with a different group of alleged Islamic terrorists. Padilla was convicted and sentenced to 17 years in prison.]
Though many Americans may feel little sympathy for Padilla, a street tough who allegedly consorted with al-Qaeda terrorists, the principle behind the case was clear: Bush was arrogating to himself the unilateral right to judge whether an American citizen was part of a terrorist cabal and thus could be stripped of all constitutional rights.
Under this precedent, a U.S. citizen can be denied his right to an attorney, his right to a speedy trial before a jury of peers, his right to confront accusers, his right against self-incrimination, even his right to have the charges against him spelled out. Simply on Bush’s say-so, an allegation of conspiracy could become grounds for unlimited imprisonment, even with no overt acts and no public evidence.
A Bleak Future
It no longer seemed farfetched to think that George W. Bush might someday expand his extraordinary powers to silence those who ask difficult questions or criticize his judgment or otherwise give aid and comfort to the enemy.
When some Democrats demanded to know what Bush knew about the terror threats before Sept. 11, Cheney delivered a blunt warning. “My Democratic friends in Congress,” Cheney said, “they need to be very cautious not to seek political advantage by making incendiary suggestions, as were made by some
today, that the White House had advance information that would have prevented the tragic attacks of 9/11.” [Washington Post, May 17, 2002]
Bush, the first man in more than a century to take the White House after losing the popular vote, seemed to have developed an abiding trust in his personal right to wield unlimited power. After succeeding in getting his allies on the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the counting of votes in Florida in December 2000, Bush may have felt confident that he would have their help, too, in redefining the U.S. Constitution. Bush also may have been confident that a frightened American populace would support his every move, regardless of how many freedoms they must surrender in the name of security.
Unthinkable a year earlier before 9/11, there was now the shape of an American Gulag where people could disappear without public legal proceedings or possibly no legal proceedings at all.
The American people may learn too late that relying on repression to gain security can mean sacrificing freedom without actually achieving greater security. As counterinsurgency experts have long argued, only a wise balance between reasonable security and smart policies to address legitimate grievances can reduce violence to manageable levels over the long term. Often, repression simply breeds new generations of bitter enemies.
In the nine months since 9/11, George W. Bush marched off in a political direction so troubling that American editorial writers don’t dare speak its name. He is moving toward a system in which an un-elected leader decides what freedoms his people will be allowed at home and what countries will be invaded abroad. If carried to its ultimate conclusion, this political strategy could degenerate into what would be called in any other country a dictatorship.
–With reporting by Robert Parry