The chief people who will care are other government officials. by mattsteinglass
June 23, 2008, 11:47 pm
Filed under: Human Rights and Torture

A bet of $1000 between me and Megan McArdle over whether “the chief reaction would be outrage” to the arrest of a US official for official actions would never be settled. Megan is right that Europeans are not going to arrest any senior US officials for crafting the US’s torture policies. But as I said in the original post, Megan is wrong about the reasons for this. The reason no US official will be arrested in Europe for crafting the US’s torture policies is opposition on the part of other US officials, not to mention British and German and Italian officials, who wish to preserve their impunity, much as Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic would like to preserve theirs.

I don’t accept the bet because I am nowhere near sure enough of my argument to risk $1000 dollars on it, and because I am saving for my kids’ college educations and I selected the “balanced” investment plan, not the “arbitrary events over which you have no control aggressive growth” one. (I’m doing it for the kids! Everyone is now required to weep, especially conservatives – I’m looking at you, Mel Gibson.)

Here’s the point. A concern that people who give orders to torture captives be punished for their actions is a dearly held value in European countries, just as Americans cherish a deep belief in freedom of conscience. (The torture thing, mind-bogglingly, we no longer seem to care as much about.) We hold that this belief gives us the right to levy sanctions and otherwise interfere in the internal politics of many countries, and we hold that in part because there are political consequences in the American system for failing to stand up for the rights of the persecuted in other countries. Each time a Vietnamese official tells the US it has no right to demand that an imprisoned journalist or pastor be freed, the US Ambassador says: American elected and appointed officials are obliged by their duty to their constituents to stand up for freedom of conscience and expression. Dozens of Vietnamese owe their freedom today to that contention and the exertion of American diplomatic power behind it.

There are also political consequences in European countries for failing to oppose the US’s torture policies, as Jose Maria Aznar found out. The trick in these situations is to find a solution that is diplomatically acceptable to both sides. US Ambassadors do not run around telling Vietnamese that we’re going to parachute in SEALs and free Father Nguyen Van Ly if they don’t release him. They draw certain clear lines: it is clear that anyone arrested for political reasons will attract the US’s attention, especially if they have foreign citizenship; procedures are established for assuring the US that Vietnamese behavior is not too oppressive; and those arrested are generally released these days within three years, after US inquiries and pressure.

The wise choice is to find a formula for addressing European concern with American torture policies that does not entail severe diplomatic s***fests. If it is politically unacceptable for a Spanish government to be caught letting David Addington change planes in Barcelona, let them make that clear. There is no particular reason why the United States should exert its diplomatic might to protect the right of the men who made the banally evil decisions that led, predictably and consciously, to the torture of Germans, Canadians, and sundry random innocent Afghans and Pakistanis to change planes in Barcelona rather than, oh, Casablanca. Inconvenient, surely, but I have trouble imagining the outraged conservative rallying cry as anything but self-parody. And this is simply exactly what Scott Horton is saying: David Addington needs to think carefully before flying through Barcelona. As I said in my post, I cannot believe that an order by Spain that some guy named David Addington can’t transit through their country is going to evoke any serious political reaction except among, well, that small minority among Bush’s 24% that knows who David Addington is.

This stands apart from the fact that David Addington should not be allowed to fly through Barcelona. He should be under investigation leading to indictment, or the very idea of war crimes has no meaning. This is the guy who thumbed through the SERE manual and said, “Let’s try this.” The very liberal international consensus Megan says she’s trying to uphold when she invokes “dead Bosnians” is precisely the consensus that liberal democratic nations cannot allow impunity for war crimes.

I have told Megan before that I have a red line when it comes to arguments defining away or promoting impunity for torture. I think it is time for conservatives to accept that liberals cannot be dissuaded on this point, rather than the other way around.


1 Comment so far
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“Megan is right that Europeans are not going to arrest any senior US officials for crafting the US’s torture policies.”

“If it is politically unacceptable for a Spanish government to be caught letting David Addington”

This isn’t strictly speaking a political question. Although I imagine it’s happened in the past, it’s not typical for a country to have a policy regarding the extradition or arrest of somebody before they’ve been accused in any official capacity.

It’s certainly possible that for political reasons Spain might make some of Bush cronies aware of the potential legal sanctions they could face if step foot in there territory, but that would be state sponsored obstruction of justice. Not to sound like a snot, but it’s unsophisticated to talk about “Europeans” and “Spain”.

I don’t know a lot about the Spanish legal system, but I’m there is significant degree of judicial and executive separation of powers. I’m quite sure there is no legal principle that says that a crime didn’t happen if the prosecution of the crime upsets people in Peoria. If you these guys does go to Europe and gets indicted it’s won’t be because any country ‘decided’ to make an arrest.

RE: The issue of American reaction
I don’t know how either of you can be at all sure of yourselves. I can’t think of any historical event that serves as a useful guide. I tend to side with you, but there would be a vocal freak out by Conservatives and I don’t know for sure that they couldn’t get any traction on that issue.

Comment by christophercolaninno

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