War Crimes? Let’s Start With the Current President

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Perhaps enraged by polls that show Americans, by and large, don’t give a damn if a few terrorists were subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the New York Times editorial board came out swinging this week. Cementing their status as a liberal rag of little interest to readers who haven’t devoted their lives to “ending patriarchy” or whatever idiotic cause the left is currently embracing, they called for the Justice Department to prosecute those in the Bush administration who committed or authorized torture.

Perhaps as a nod to their surely-unbiased examination, the NYT editorial takes aim at the Obama administration as well. Citing their failure “to bring to justice anyone responsible for the torture of terrorism suspects,” the newspaper – headquartered not far from Ground Zero – once again shows how quickly we’ve all forgotten the darkest day in America’s modern history.

But okay. Let’s say we do need to rustle up an investigation. Let’s say we decide to punish CIA agents for following orders. Let’s pretend we’re going to jail Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, and the rest of the administration for protecting the country from further attack. If we’re suddenly so serious about prosecuting war crimes, let’s start with the man currently occupying the White House.

A Series of Unlawful Events

What is the legal justification for our actions in Syria against ISIS? President Obama has claimed that powers left over from the Bush administration give him the authority to wage this war. He sees no need to bring the action before Congress. But as we’ve seen from this president, what he says and what the actual truth is do not always coincide. International law states that a country has the right to use force in self-defense only after a significant armed attack against them has occurred. There must also exist the likelihood of more such attacks. We’ve been in such a situation. It was called 9/11. But while the actions of ISIS may be abominable and while strikes against them may be morally justified, they are, sad to say, quite illegal.

What about the president’s history of drone strikes? According to a study conducted by Stanford University, U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have been an unmitigated humanitarian disaster. “High-level” targets comprise only about 2% of the total casualties of these “surgically precise” strikes. How many civilians can be killed under the justification of going after international terrorists?

But let’s put aside civilian casualties. Even if the strikes were as precise as the White House would like us to believe, they might still fall afoul of international human rights law. At the time of the majority of drone strikes inside Pakistan, the U.S. only had latitude inside Afghanistan – the defined conflict zone. Therefore, any strikes within the sovereign state of Pakistan would only be legal when “strictly unavoidable to protect life.” How many of the strikes would meet that legal standard, I wonder?

Or maybe we can drop the bluster. Maybe we can conclude that the Bush administration was facing a perilous journey into the unknown, confronting not just adversarial governments but an independent network of Islamic extremists. For us to enjoy the safety we’ve had in the years since 9/11 while attacking the means with which it was secured is more than a little ungrateful. I’m not saying our national security agencies, our troops, and our presidents are beyond reproach. But let’s be careful about the roads we choose to pursue. They might lead to a very dangerous place.