Americans Abandon International Law

After a decade of “war on terror” rhetoric and President Obama’s failure to reverse many of George W. Bush’s extrajudicial policies the U.S. public has come to accept that American “exceptionalism” puts the nation beyond the reach of international law, as Nat Parry explains.

By Nat Parry

Whether they realize it or not, Americans are increasingly embracing policies that undermine the international rule of law, with self-identified liberals, in particular, seemingly reversing their positions on matters such as the Guantanamo prison camp, extrajudicial assassinations and arbitrary detention.

While just six years agothe U.S. public ranked among the world’s most enthusiastic supporters of international law (falling just behind the Germans and the Chinese in global surveys), it now appears that vast majorities of Americans reject the applicability of international law when it comes to the actions of the U.S. government in the “global war on terror.”

President Barack Obama and his national security team monitor the Special Operations raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden. (White House photo by Pete Souza)

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, for example, found that 70 percent of the American public approves of the U.S. government’s decision to indefinitely keep the Guantanamo prison open, despite widespread international condemnation of this policy.

This figure includes 53 percent of self-identified liberal Democrats and 67 percent of moderate or conservative Democrats, “even though it emerged as a symbol of the post-Sept. 11 national security policies of President George W. Bush, which many liberals bitterly opposed,” noted the Washington Post.

In fact, the Post-ABC findings indicate an almost complete reversal of American attitudes on this subject across the political spectrum since the years of the Bush administration. The most pronounced difference has become noticeable in just the past couple years.

In a 2006 poll, for example, 63 percent of respondents said the United States should follow international conventions regarding Guantanamo Bay, while just 30 percent said the U.S. should not be bound by these obligations. The survey also found that Americans generally support giving international courts broad authority to judge U.S. compliance with treaties, with 70 percent rejecting the idea that the United States should receive exceptional treatment under such treaties.

A 2009 survey reconfirmed the strong public support in the U.S. for these principles, finding that 69 percent of Americans agreed with the statement: “Our nation should consistently follow international laws. It is wrong to violate international laws, just as it is wrong to violate laws within a country.” Only 29 percent chose the converse position, “If our government thinks it is not in our nation’s interest, it should not feel obliged to abide by international laws.”

Yet, this is precisely what the U.S. has been doing for over a decade at Guantanamo Bay. On last month’s ten-year anniversary of the prison camp opening, there was a flurry of renewed criticism over the continuing violations of international law by the United States.

On the eve of the anniversary, Human Rights Watch reminded the U.S. of its international obligations: “The practice [of indefinite detention] violates US obligations under international law. Human Rights Watch has strongly urged the US government to either promptly prosecute the remaining Guantanamo detainees according to international fair trial standards, or safely repatriate them to home or third countries.

“We have also called for investigations of US officials implicated in torture of terrorism suspects and for adequate compensation for detainees who were mistreated. Human Rights Watch will continue to press for compliance with these obligations. Failure to do so does enormous damage to the rule of law both in the US and abroad.”

Arbitrary detention, however, isn’t the only area in which Americans are increasingly willing to disregard principles of international law. Regarding torture, a survey conducted last year by the American Red Cross found that 59 percent of American teenagers and 51 percent of adults believe that it is acceptable to torture enemy fighters in order to attain important military information.

Further, 37 percent of youth support “Depriving civilians in combat areas of food, medicine, or water in order to weaken the enemy,” a war crime that is also supported by 29 percent of adults. A whopping 71 percent of youth and 55 percent of adults support “Refusing to allow prisoners to be visited by a representative from a neutral organization to confirm that they are being treated well.”

Extrajudicial assassinations are supported by an even broader majority, with the new Washington Post-ABC News poll finding that 83 percent of Americans approve of the use of unmanned aerial drones to carry out targeted killings of terrorist suspects without due process.

This is despite the fact that Philip Alston, the United Nations special representative on extrajudicial executions, has raised alarms that President Barack Obama’s drone strikes “pose a rapidly growing challenge to the international rule of law.” In a 29-page report to the United Nations Human Rights Council presented in June 2010, Alston called on the United States to exercise greater restraint in its use of drones in places like Pakistan and Yemen.

“They are increasingly used in circumstances which violate the relevant rules of international law,” Alston said. “The international community needs to be more forceful in demanding accountability.” He elaborated:

“I’m particularly concerned that the United States seems oblivious to this fact when it asserts an ever-expanding entitlement for itself to target individuals across the globe. But this strongly asserted but ill-defined license to kill without accountability is not an entitlement which the United States or other states can have without doing grave damage to the rules designed to protect the right to life and prevent extrajudicial executions.”

Last month, Obama for the first time admitted that the U.S. is carrying out drone strikes in Pakistan, and in response Amnesty International immediately requested clarification from the administration on the drone program’s legality.

“The US authorities must give a detailed explanation of how these strikes are lawful and what is being done to monitor civilian casualties and ensure proper accountability,” said Amnesty International’s Sam Zarifi on Jan. 31.

“What are the rules of engagement? What proper legal justification exists for these attacks? While the President’s confirmation of the use of drones in Pakistan is a welcome first step towards transparency, these and other questions need to be answered,” Zarifi said.

So far though, it doesn’t appear that the administration has felt the need to reply, perhaps because it knows it has nothing to lose politically by disregarding these commitments on human rights and international law.

As the Washington Post pointed out, even though “Obama campaigned on a pledge to close the brig in Cuba and to change national security policies he criticized as inconsistent with U.S. law and values, [he] has little to fear politically for failing to live up to all of those promises,” due to the fact that his liberal base has reversed its views on these subjects since George W. Bush was president.

Constitutional lawyer and blogger Glenn Greenwald has attributed these shifting attitudes to “blind leader loyalty,” pointing out that “during the Bush years, Guantanamo was the core symbol of right-wing radicalism and what was back then referred to as the ‘assault on American values and the shredding of our Constitution.’”

But “now that there is a Democrat in office presiding over Guantanamo and these other polices, rather than a big, bad, scary Republican, all of that has changed,” says Greenwald.

While partisan allegiance and liberal hypocrisy may indeed explain the reversal in attitudes to these policies to a large extent, it is also possible that what the shift represents is a subconscious acceptance by the American people of illegal and immoral policies that they would have rejected out of hand ten years ago.

After more than a decade of the “global war on terror,” and years of legitimization of these policies by the media and an overwhelming bipartisan consensus in Washington regarding these policies, it’s possible that the American public has simply grown desensitized to what arbitrary detention, torture and extrajudicial assassinations really mean, and how out of step with civilized values these U.S. policies really are.

With the Obama administration’s failures to prosecute the worst crimes of the Bush years as well as its continuation of many of the same policies, the U.S. government’s routine violations of international norms has seemingly become normalized to a broad cross-section of the American people.

Nat Parry is co-author of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush. [Reposted from with author’s permission.]

9 comments for “Americans Abandon International Law

  1. rharwell
    February 26, 2012 at 06:23

    First off, I don’t believe those poll numbers. Anything coming out of the Washington Post or the New York Times (both Far Right MSM) cannot be trusted as they are slanted toward appropriate propaganda. I have the same thoughts on Obama: if he’s speaking, he’s lying. The majority are fed up with our politicians and the 1 Percenters. The majority want Gitmo closed, renditions to halt, illegal spying stopped, drone wars halted–the list goes on and on and I do not believe the majority has gone to sleep or taken the “I can’t be bothered,” Herod philosophy (Washing his hands of it all). The problem is taking back our country from massive amounts of money and the corporations who run our country now. As they grind us into the ground (Job losses, union busting, gas wars, food wars, etc.) from attacks on all fronts, we are all struggling to survive and this is something “they” have created to keep us occupied from the real war they have declared on all of us. No,I do not believe these numbers. We all know by now the GOP agenda is to create the lies until they become the truth. This is a page taken from the role model for Nazi Germany and Hitler worshippers.

  2. Carax
    February 25, 2012 at 12:49

    America has also abandoned “rule of law” within its own borders. Obama and Presidents before him have reduced the Constitution to nothing less than a meaningless scrap of toilet paper.

  3. RudyM
    February 24, 2012 at 02:35

    Maybe if the youths would spend less time playing video games or chatting on Facebook and spend more time taking advantage of the immense wealth of news and analysis resources online, they would have more decent views on these issues.

    This is based on what I see working in a university library anyway.

    And hardly anyone I meet in real life has any interest in seriously questioning the 9/11 story that made the dramatic political changes of the last decade or so possible.

  4. rosemerry
    February 23, 2012 at 16:08

    Sorry; the Yanks discarded international law decades ago, and the support of Israel right or wrong had compounded it in the last 45 years at least.
    All I can think to blame is the MSM, as I hope the people are not wilfully cruel and unfair, but have had drummed into them the lies which allow such crimes to be committed in their name.
    Thanks to consortiumnews and other sites, Mercans can learn what is really going on, but judging by the other posts today, the “Christians” will not keep to the laws they profess to follow. eg Thou shalt not kill.

  5. bud north
    February 23, 2012 at 15:58

    It would seem that the “dumb ’em down” program that was started so many decades ago, is working pretty well. I figure that for at least 70% of Americans, they’re chances of waking up are slim and nil, and slim just left town.

  6. Dick
    February 22, 2012 at 21:14

    The most important thing the US Government and the American people should do is step down off their pedestal and rejoin the human race. The continuing idea of American exceptionalism within the American psyche is blinding them to the consequences of their governments actions. The US used to be viewed by a large portion of the International community as a source of moral authority and a human rights advocate. Many may contest this view and with justifiable reasons, but this does not change the fact that up until 2002 this view was held by many outside the US. Although, after Guantanamo Bay, Abu Grab, the Patriot Act, and the Iraqi and Afghanistan war,
    the US is no longer seen in this light. I do not claim to speak for the Australian people, but if I mention the US and human rights in the same sentence to friends and others, the most prominent reply is laughter! This is a sad indictment of the US government (who probably do not care) and the American people (who should care).

    It is obvious from the poll numbers quoted in the article that Americans continue to suffer from self-delusion due to ignorance of the world outside their borders, arrogance of their concept of exceptionalism, and an overly emotional sense of patriotism. The ideas ‘My Country, Right or Wrong’, ‘Love it or leave it’, ‘We’re Number 1’ all pervade the American mind and is continual reinforced by the MSM creating a mass of blind patriots. Their is a quote worth mentioning: ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, but blind patriotism is the last refuge of a Fool’. The American people are, I believe, at a major crossroads. They can foolishly continue to believe the MSM flag waving propaganda or seek to change the course their government is leading them. I personally have little faith in their ability to do so, and I hope I am wrong.

  7. charles sereno
    February 22, 2012 at 19:27

    “With the Obama administration’s failures to prosecute the worst crimes of the Bush years as well as its continuation of many of the same policies, the U.S. government’s routine violations of international norms has seemingly become normalized to a broad cross-section of the American people.”

    Way back when, I was a struggling high school student trying to learn Latin. At the time, I thought Latin was really “cool” because it took so many more words to translate it into English. One time, I remember having to translate — “post hoc ergo propter hoc.” OK. One word repeated, alliteration, a cadence, with only five words! How in hell can I ever put this into English? As usual, I started with a word-by-word translation — “after this therefore because of this.” Already, I’m at six words and 31 versus 18 letters and it doesn’t seem to make sense. After a lot of thinking, I came up with — “when something previous happens, that means that it causes what happens later.” Now, I’m up to 12 words and 65 letters. I figure I’d be lucky to get a B. And I also have to say whether the statement is true or false. That part was easy. At least I have a 50/50 chance. (I chose “false” and got an A-.)

    Many years later, I’m glad I took Latin and castor oil, etc. It’s clear to me that Bush didn’t make Obama continue his bad policies. He did it on his own.

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