By Michael Harris
There are many reasons why Barack Obama may not win a second term as president of the United States, but only one which makes him unfit for the office – his contempt for the law.
On first blush, you couldn’t find a candidate less likely to be guilty of judicial contempt. President Obama is both a lawyer and a constitutional expert. He still trades on that reputation as he did this week when he megaphoned assassination allegations against Iran, allegations he characterized as an “outrageous” breach of international law.
By the first sub-headline of the news story, the word “alleged” had been dropped from most of the coverage. The usual suspects are clamoring for reprisals against Iran, dragging out the threat of a military option that remains the favored course of those who continue to see war as the answer despite the last ten years in Afghanistan. Not since George Bush inveighed against Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction has the public quest for a casus belli been so obvious – or so dubious.
The coverage of the alleged Iranian plot contained no context to remind readers of “alleged” U.S. or Israeli black ops inside Iran, from a cyber-attack against that country’s nuclear program to the assassination of several Iranian nuclear scientists.
I will leave it to readers to decide if a plot featuring a used-car salesman from Texas and Mexican drug dealers who turned out to be DEA agents would be mounted by one of the world’s elite intelligence services. After all, the Quds Force is not the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
I will also leave it to readers to determine why the Obama administration chose to distribute the indictment in this case to all the countries at the United Nations. Is this the second coming of those diagrams of WMD that Colin Powell once offered up to the General Assembly to establish Saddam Hussein’s diabolical plans beyond a shadow of a doubt?
President Obama’s reference to an outrageous breach of international law shows what international law has become for this president who once promised a better path – a tool of political opportunism rather than a set of shared precepts for regulating geopolitical behavior in a consistent and peaceful fashion.
If President Obama’s shrill accusations do not have the desired effect, put it down to a country that has cried terrorist one too many times. The world remembers the many occasions when the United States was not as concerned about breaches of international law – outrageous or otherwise. According to the Secretary General of the United Nations, the Iraq War was illegal under international law. The U.S. denounced Kofi Annan.
According to a UN Security Council resolution, Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands are an egregious violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The U.S. does nothing. According to the government of Pakistan, the United States violated that country’s sovereign territory to carry out a clandestine assassination on Pakistani soil. Washington is unapologetic and boastful.
At the time of this writing, the United States deploys both intelligence gathering and weaponized drones in places like Pakistan and Yemen. In fact, President Obama has tripled the number of drone attacks from the days of the Bush presidency, attacks that kill both terrorists and civilians alike. And of course there is the legal wasteland of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
The usual argument to justify extra-territorial killing is that in the War on Terror the president’s “battlefield powers” extend anywhere the enemy can be found. Until recently that provided a fig leaf for the unspeakable. The CIA is not so much an intelligence gathering organization, but Murder Inc.
What is international law compared to the requirements of U.S. foreign policy? Besides, the enemy was far away and the killing took place on someone else’s soil. And then came Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, American citizens who were assassinated in Yemen on the personal order of the president of the United States.
Try as he might to deflect the deadly decision to a team of grim bureaucrats, everything has now changed for Barack Obama. Despite his legal credentials, Obama has violated his oath of office and the Constitution. He has deprived American citizens of their lives and liberty without due process. And unlike the assassination of foreigners in far away places, this giant step down a lawless road for the U.S. president has drawn swift denunciation from every political quarter, including the hard right.
“Who’s next on Obama’s death list?” asked Conservative talk-show host Michael Savage, “You? Me?”
President Obama turned to another of his favorite victims, the language, to defend himself. He torqued the rhetoric to paint both men as al-Qaeda king-pins who planned and directed operations to kill Americans. But when the press asked for the proof to back up the allegations, the president and the White House were silent.
Nor would the president explain what the threshold was to justify ordering the killing of a U.S. citizen. Neither al-Awlaki nor Khan were ever charged with any crime, despite the string of alleged offences listed without proof by the president before he signed their death warrants. It is worth noting that over 70 percent of terror prosecutions fail in court.
This is not the first time that Obama has abridged the legal rights of his own citizens. As a candidate for president, he decried the use of warrantless wiretaps of U.S. citizens by the Bush administration. But when a court found that two Americans had been illegally wiretapped by the National Security Agency, the Obama administration appealed the ruling, arguing that the records that proved the offense were state secrets. Not exactly what you would expect from a candidate who had once objected to Uncle Sam eavesdropping on his own citizens.
During a San Francisco fundraiser, President Obama lit up the Internet with comments he made about alleged Wikileaks source Bradley Manning. Apparently forgetting that Manning had not yet been tried on the charges he faced, the president explained that Manning had “broken the law” by dumping classified documents. Americans who believed that Manning had actually provided evidence of war crimes, just as Daniel Ellsberg had once outed government lies about the Viet Nam War, were taken aback by Obama’s curious assessment. “We’re a nation of laws. We don’t let individuals make their own decisions about how the laws operate. He broke the law.”
As for Obama’s own transgressions against international law, U.S. law, and the Constitution, expect an awkward attempt to follow the doomed Nixon Doctrine as enunciated during the shambolic days of Watergate – if your president does it, it’s not illegal.
It didn’t work then but it remains to be seen if it will work now. After all, fear is still the biggest business in America.