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Tomgram: Rebecca Gordon, Making Atrocities Great Again

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

There's been a lot of free-floating fear and horror in the media recently about the appointment as national security adviser of John Bolton, a man who's been itching for war(s) since the 1990s. His approach to Iran and North Korea in particular (not quite nuke 'em!, but not that much short of it either) isn't what you'd call either carefully calibrated or particularly diplomatic. Still, a certain balance in reporting on Bolton has been lacking. You can search in vain for any outlets (other than Fox News) giving President Trump the slightest credit for what he did, which was no mean trick. After all, short of bringing former Vice President Dick Cheney out of "retirement" and making him secretary of defense (as indeed he was for President George H.W. Bush), it's hard to think of a single former official of the George W. Bush administration -- or more or less anyone else -- who would still so vehemently defend the absolute brilliance of the invasion of Iraq and of "preemptive war." On that score, Bolton is as close to the last man standing as you're likely to find and since, in his eagerness for that 2003 invasion (and his willingness to back intelligence information, no matter how false, promoting it), he was also one of the first men standing, which means he is indeed a unique candidate for the national security adviser's job.

Unfortunately, the media (Fox News excepted) just doesn't get the thrill of it all. Keep in mind that President Trump tried "my generals" for more than a year and what did that get him? Deeper into Afghanistan, four dead Green Berets in Niger, stuck in Syria. Now, he's putting the fate of the republic back in the hands of civilians (and in the process, miraculously enough, turning those hawkish generals into the true "adults" in, or presently leaving, or soon to leave the "room"). So some civilians are about to have their moment. Give them nine months at the outside. Bolton, in particular, has a reputation for being acerbic and beyond blunt in his views, so don't expect him to last long with a president who clearly must be pandered to in extreme ways by those who care to survive in office -- or in the Oval Office -- for even modest lengths of time.

Here, then, is the true thrill of it all: imagining what could possibly come next. After the generals, the neocons, the Tea Party right, the Fox News commentators, the Islamophobes and Iranophobes of every sort -- that is, by election time 2018 -- who's going to be left? What pool of Martians could Donald Trump possibly choose from for his next set of appointees? Stay tuned and, while you're waiting, let TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon, author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes, return you to that invasion-of-Iraq moment and remind you of what a thoroughly stellar crew we've had running our ship of state, our own Titanic, for much of the time since. Tom

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Trump's Recycling Program
War Crimes and War Criminals, Old and (Potentially) New
By Rebecca Gordon

A barely noticed anniversary slid by on March 20th. It's been 15 years since the United States committed the greatest war crime of the twenty-first century: the unprovoked, aggressive invasion of Iraq. The New York Times, which didn't exactly cover itself in glory in the run-up to that invasion, recently ran an op-ed by an Iraqi novelist living in the United States entitled "Fifteen Years Ago, America Destroyed My Country," but that was about it. The Washington Post, another publication that (despite the recent portrayal of its Vietnam-era heroism in the movie The Post) repeatedly editorialized in favor of the invasion, marked the anniversary with a story about the war's "murky" body count. Its piece concluded that at least 600,000 people died in the decade and a half of war, civil war, and chaos that followed -- roughly the population of Washington, D.C.

These days, there's a significant consensus here that the Iraq invasion was a "terrible mistake," a "tragic error," or even the "single worst foreign policy decision in American history." Fewer voices are saying what it really was: a war crime. In fact, that invasion fell into the very category that led the list of crimes at the Nuremberg tribunal, where high Nazi officials were tried for their actions during World War II. During the negotiations establishing that tribunal and its rules, it was (ironically, in view of later events) the United States that insisted on including the crime of "waging a war of aggression" and on placing it at the head of the list. The U.S. position was that all the rest of Germany's war crimes sprang from this first "crime against peace."

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Similarly, the many war crimes of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush -- the extraordinary renditions; the acts of torture at Guanta'namo, Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and CIA black sites all over the world; the nightmare of abuse at Abu Ghraib, a U.S. military prison in Iraq; the siege and firebombing (with white phosphorus) of the Iraqi city of Fallujah; the massacre of civilians in Haditha, another Iraqi city -- all of these arose from the Bush administration's determination to invade Iraq.

It was to secure "evidence" of a (nonexistent) connection between Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaeda attackers of 9/11 that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld upped the ante at Guanta'namo in his infamous memo approving torture there. The search for proof of the same connection motivated the torture of Abu Zubaydah at a CIA black site in Thailand. If not for that long-planned invasion of Iraq, the "war on terror" might have ended years ago.

But Wasn't That Then?

Fifteen years is an eternity in what Gore Vidal once called "the United States of Amnesia." So why resurrect the ancient history of George W. Bush in the brave new age of Donald Trump? The answer is simple enough: because the Trump administration is already happily recycling some of those Bush-era war crimes along with some of the criminals who committed them. And its top officials, military and civilian, are already threatening to generate new ones of their own.

Last July, the State Department closed the office that, since the Clinton administration, has assisted war crimes victims seeking justice in other countries. Apparently, the Trump administration sees no reason to do anything to limit the impunity of war criminals, whoever they might be. Reporting on the closure, Newsweek quoted Major Todd Price, who worked at Guanta'namo as a judge advocate general (JAG) defense attorney, this way:

"It just makes official what has been U.S. policy since 9/11, which is that there will be no notice taken of war crimes because so many of them were being committed by our own allies, our military and intelligence officers, and our elected officials. The war crime of conspiring and waging aggressive war still exists, as torture, denial of fair trial rights, and indefinite detention are war crimes. But how embarrassing and revealing of hypocrisy would it be to charge a foreign official with war crimes such as these?"

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Guanta'namo JAG attorneys like Price are among the real, if unsung, heroes of this sorry period. They continue to advocate for their indefinitely detained, still untried clients, most of whom will probably never leave that prison. Despite the executive order President Obama signed on his first day in office to close GITMO, it remains open to this day and Donald Trump has promised to "load it up with some bad dudes," Geneva Conventions be damned.

Indeed, Secretary of Defense James ("Mad Dog") Mattis has said that the president has the right to lock up anyone identified as a "combatant" in our forever wars, well, forever. In 2016, he assured the Senate Armed Services Committee that any detainee who "has signed up with this enemy" -- no matter where "the president, the commander-in-chief, sends us" to fight -- should know that he will be a "prisoner until the war is over." In other words, since the war on terror will never end, anyone the U.S. captures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Niger, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, or elsewhere will face the possibility of spending the rest of his life in Guanta'namo.

Recycling War Criminals

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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