Secretary of State Clinton told the U.S. Senate it could be argued that Mr. al-Assad is a war criminal, but said using such labels “limits options to persuade leaders to step down from power.”
It could be argued that Assad is a war criminal. I suppose it could be argued that God is holy, that ice is cold, and that Hillary Clinton should select her words with discretion. What would the arguments for Assad’s war criminality be? First, a war has to exist in his country. Check. Second, forces under your command have to kill civilians indiscriminately. That checks out, too. Third, when people say you have to stop that kind of behavior, you have to pretend you don’t hear them, or offer some absurdly dishonest excuse for what you are doing. Assad appears to fill all three bills.
Problem is, Clinton’s “could be argued” remark applies to George W. Bush’s behavior in Iraq, too. He did all the things Assad is doing, but on a much larger scale. The difference: forces under Bush’s command killed Iraqi civilians indiscriminately in another country, whereas Assad kills civilians indiscriminately in his own country. Both offer preposterous excuses for their behavior.
We have to ask, then, whether killing people in your own country – as opposed to a country you have invaded – makes a difference. One counts as an ongoing massacre in a civil conflict. The other counts as collateral damage, our euphemistic term for the regrettable by-products of aggression. I don’t see an important difference here. Both actions – massacres in a civil conflict and massacres in aggressive war – produce dead civilians. Both outcomes arise from armed forces who act under orders. Both Assad and Bush claimed to protect their government and their people from enemies who threaten their country from the outside. Both argued that external threats forced them to act.
If Assad is a war criminal, so is former President Bush. Did we not call President Bush a war criminal because the label limited our options to persuade him to step down from power? No, we did not call him a war criminal because it would have been impolite. No matter how much the emperor clothes his miscreant foolishness in pretense and dishonesty, we all know it’s impolite to call attention to the ruler’s crimes. We would never call our own president a war criminal. If a foreign leader commits war crimes on a smaller scale, however, we’ll point them out – politely but pointedly.
During the Cold War, critics on the left compared our government’s actions with those of the Soviet Union to make an argument about their moral equivalence. Moscow’s behavior and Washington’s behavior did not differ in their moral significance. I rejected the argument then. We were the good guys, and we had to defend freedom against bad guys who wanted to take it away. The Soviets maintained gulags, not us. The Soviets locked people up and tortured them, not us. The critics cooked up moral equivalence because they could not recognize the fundamental difference between the two sides.
We don’t defend freedom anymore. Our behavior after 9/11 makes me wonder if, during our long conflict with the Soviet Union, we ever did. Our behavior in Vietnam certainly makes the critics’ position believable. Whatever the nature of our motives during the Cold War, we clearly defend the interests of the United States government and its internal allies now. In the Bush-Cheney response to 9/11, government did not pretend to defend freedom. It played on fear. It tortured people for revenge. It practiced aggressive warfare to protect its own power. After this loss of pretense, arguments to moral equivalence between us and our enemies become more persuasive.
We can’t leave this subject without some thought for the rather more ambiguous case of Afghanistan. Without a doubt, American armed forces kill Afghan civilians indiscriminately. Over and over, our aerial and ground attacks result in collateral damage. We apologize, occasionally we pay an indemnity, then we do it again. Afghans have indicated they have had it with this behavior. One Afghan elder told an American, “after what you have done to us, we will smash in your teeth.”
Our engagement in Afghanistan began differently from our engagement in Iraq. When our current president talks about why we should continue the fight there, his reasons sound merely unpersuasive, not absurdly dishonest. He didn’t start the war there, but he seems to desire a good finish. Nevertheless, forces under his command continuously kill civilians who are not our enemies. Moreover, every villager who dies makes new enemies for us. We know that.
I do not say we should withhold our criticism of Assad in order to avoid hypocrisy on our part. Once you have done the things we have done, we look hypocritical whenever we criticize someone else’s misbehavior. Yet, if we want to speak about war crimes, we should change our military policy in Afghanistan immediately. We should stop murdering civilians there. We should conduct ourselves toward others the way we expect others to conduct themselves within their own countries.
No good can come of our war making behavior, just as no good can come from our behavior in Iraq. We cannot afford to create any more enemies. We cannot afford to make people hate us because we fear them, or because we dislike them. To kill people out of fear, out of aggression, or out of any other impulse cannot produce good results for us in the long run. That policy leads to the deadest of all ends.
So we have to acknowledge that Hillary Clinton tries to do her job well when she points to Assad’s crimes. We do not want to pretend right now that we are so different, just because we kill civilians who do not live within our borders. Assad kills his own people. We kill people who would like to have our protection, or who just want us to leave them alone. We abhor Assad’s behavior because he is a ruthless dictator. We didn’t abhor his behavior when we sent prisoners to his country to be tortured.
We say our killing of civilians is regrettable but necessary, but I honestly can’t see a meaningful difference between indiscriminate death in Syria and indiscriminate death in Afghanistan. Why should it matter that Assad kills his own countrymen, whereas we kill Afghans who die far from our own homes, but close to theirs? Whether Syrian or Afghan, corpses grow cold, eyes grow vacant, individuals who lived, loved, and smiled never breathe again. Who can say that one murder is a crime and the other is merely regrettable? War is war. Death under these circumstances is hell – and criminal – no matter how you defend it.