War crimes and national security

Robert Koehler: War crimes and national security

How dare she question the sanctity of American militarism?

As national security adviser John Bolton declared last fall, the International Criminal Court constitutes “an assault on the constitutional rights of the American people and the sovereignty of the United States.”

That’s you and me that Bolton is speaking about, and the recent revocation of ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s visa — in the wake of her insistence on investigating, among other things, U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan — is just the latest step in the diplomatic war the United States has declared against the court since it was established in 2002.

The “largely unspoken, but always central, aim” of the International Criminal Court’s “most vigorous supporters was to constrain the United States” Bolton said, whipping up the rhetoric against the very idea of international law and global values. “The objective was not limited to targeting individual U.S. service members, but rather America’s senior political leadership, and its relentless determination to keep our country secure.”

This is shock-and-awe level rhetoric, words meant to crush all debate, all discussion. American is a free country, man. That’s the highest value on Planet Earth. It has the freedom to wage any war it wants, and every war it wages is absolutely necessary, according to Bolton and the military-industrial machine he represents.

It seems to me that a more complex set of values used to drive this country’s official rhetoric. In the Trump era, things have gotten increasingly simplistic, as the administration seeks to define the country as complete: no more evolution allowed. The borders are closed . . . to Muslims, Mexicans and International Criminal Court prosecutors.

Consider the United States in the wake of World War II — as much an arrogant superpower then as now, to be sure, but presumably driven by values beyond the right to do what it wants. The country played a central role in the establishment of the International Military Tribunal, which set standards to begin creating global peace and, of course, held the defeated Axis powers of Europe accountable to them.

The punishable transgressions committed by the losers of the Second World War, seemingly put forward by the winners with the idea that they must never happen again, included: (a) Crimes against Peace, i.e., the planning and waging of a war of aggression; (b) War Crimes, such as “wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity”; and (c) Crimes against Humanity: i.e., “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population.”

What if these words actually meant something (which is what the International Criminal Court seems to think is the case)?

“If today the U.S. government were to put itself on trial, on the same basis it employed to try the Nazis at Nuremberg, for actions taken in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years, it might have to convict itself.”

So wrote Robert Higgs of the Independent Institute think tank — in May 2004! At that point the war in Afghanistan, now the longest war in U.S. history, was less than three years old, and the Iraq war had been going barely a year.

“Can anyone sincerely maintain that what was a crime for Hermann Goering and Alfred Jodl,” Higgs continued, “is not equally a crime for Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney?”

Well, John Bolton can. And this is another decade and a half down the road, with the wars, barely in the news anymore, still going on. It’s almost as though they’re grinding forward on their own, but as Bolton reminded us, they represent the will of “America’s senior political leadership, and its relentless determination to keep our country secure.”

These are words forged in the vat of political self-interest into defensive armor, a.k.a., politician-speak cliché. When held up against the actual reality of war, they leave one gasping for breath. For instance, Human Rights Watch, summarizing the 2014 findings of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques, pointed out:

“The summary describes many previously reported facts about the CIA torture program, including the agency’s use of painful stress positions, forced standing, extended sleep deprivation, extensive bright light and loud noise exposure, waterboarding, and throwing detainees against walls or closing them into coffins.

“It also contains new details showing that CIA torture was even more brutal than previously thought. The agency used painful restraints, imposed punitive ‘anal feeding’ or ‘anal rehydration,’ and forced detainees with broken leg bones to stand shackled against walls.”

All in the name of our nation’s security! And there’s so much more. What about our bombing campaigns — the murder of uncounted villagers, wedding party celebrants . . . in North Korea and Vietnam as well as Afghanistan and Iraq. Eventually they simply became collateral damage, a term of great emotional benefit to mass murderers such as Timothy McVeigh.

Higgs, writing about the decimation of the village of Makr al-Deeb, in Iraq, on May 19, 2004, in which U.S. bombing and strafing killed more than 40 people, quoted a survivor’s words to an Associated Press reporter: “One of (the dead) was my daughter. I found her a few steps from the house, her 2-year-old son Raad in her arms. Her 1-year-old son, Raed, was lying nearby, missing his head.”

This data, almost too painful to quote, is wide open to the public. Multiply it by several thousand or a million and it manages to turn into national security.

But each incident, looked at up close, before the dead become collateral damage, is a war crime. Sorry, Ms. Bensouda, but national security requires that we revoke your visa.


Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

U.S. Out of Everywhere

A U.S. soldier stands guard at Kandahar Air base in Afghanistan on January 23, 2018. (SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. Out of Everywhere

The case for an immediate withdrawal from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.


It is time to revive the anti-war movement in the U.S. in order to push the political establishment (both liberal and rightwing) to abandon its imperialist policies and white-savior tendencies.

Trump’s December 19 announcement of troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan led to immediate opposition not only from the Right but also from liberal commentators, demonstrating the overlap between liberals and the right wing when it comes to the imperialist U.S. foreign policy. This overlap was illustrated again on January 31, when a bipartisan majority of the Senate voted to move forward with a billrebuking what they describe as Trump’s “precipitous” withdrawal of troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

Many commentators argue that the U.S. political system has become increasingly polarized, pointing to the prolonged shutdown of the federal government as evidence. However, the difference between Democrats and Republicans in Washington is one of style, not substance, as revealed by the history of bipartisan support for U.S. intervention and occupation abroad. Republican administrations may be more frequently associated with U.S. invasions, but establishment Democrats have long backed the policies of U.S. imperialism.

This is, in part, because U.S. interventionist foreign policy is driven by capitalist ideals, shared across the aisle by those in power in Washington. In order to sustain a profitable capitalist economy, there must be a continuous expansion of markets and increase in consumption. This capitalist imperative has been influential in shaping a U.S. foreign policy of invasion, destruction and resource extraction during open-ended wars. In 1971, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano famously described this extractive relationship as “the open veins of Latin America.” The rhetoric of defending democracy, which was used to justify the invasion of Syria as well as the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, has always been a cover story for neo-colonialism.

U.S. intervention, operating under this cover story of spreading democracy, has historically led to the long-term destruction of countries and exploitation of their natural resources. One only need look at Libya, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan in recent history, not to mention continuing U.S. support for the brutal Saudi-led war on Yemen.

U.S. intervention in Syria

The U.S. military has had troops on the ground in Syria for four years. In 2015, President Obama deployed 50 Special Operations troops to Syria, and there are currently 2,000 troops currently stationed there. As happens with many of the wars the U.S. wages abroad, the justifications for invasion and long-term military occupation in Syria have shifted over the years. U.S. intervention was originally nominally aimed at ousting Bashar al-Assad. But by 2014, with Assad still firmly in power, the U.S. claimed to be fighting the Islamic State with an aggressive campaign of airstrikes. Since then, the U.S. narrative has been one of “liberating” people from the Islamic State, but the untold death and destruction that comes in the wake of the military operations will likely take generations to overcome. The country has been decimated by this foreign-backed war. According to an estimate from the United Nations, the war has cost the country nearly $400 billion, with the destruction in physical capital alone amounting to $388 billion.

The destruction of Syria is also a project of capitalist expansion and value drain. Like many other countries in the region, from the 1990s onwards, Syria succumbed to a mixture of internal pressure from the ruling class and external pressure from western states and international financial institutions to liberalize its economy. When Assad took office in 2000, he lifted state controls on private investment, reduced tariffs and opened the economy to foreign investment and trade. These types of reforms are hallmarks of the free-market capitalist ideology that the U.S. has tried to impose across the world.

By 2011, these economic reforms, combined with the euphoria of the Arab revolutions, led to an uprising. Early demands of the populist uprising included both economic and political reforms. However, the public’s resistance was quickly met with violence and repression. The UN estimates that 5,000 Syrians civilians were killed in 2011 alone.

Yet it was largely external factors that transformed Syria into the nightmare it has been unable to exit from. The civil war that broke out inside Syria in 2011 was quickly subsumed into the ongoing geopolitical power struggle. The U.S. alongside Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel, financially supported and armed opposition fighters battling the Syrian government. In their article, “Investment and Neoliberalism in Syria,” Linda Matar and Ali Kadri explain that although Syria is not rich in resources, “it is strategically located and its control imparts strategic gains to whichever imperialist power holds it in the end.”

The rapid and coordinated assault on Syria reflects U.S. determination to maintain its power in the Middle East. The War Powers Act requires the president to give reports to Congress on the U.S. use of military force abroad. In the 2018 War Powers Transparency report, the Trump administration claimed that the ongoing campaign of airstrikes in Syria has “liberated 4.5 million people from ISIS oppression in 2017,” and that the current mission is one of “liberating the middle Euphrates River valley in Syria.” But U.S. intervention in Syria has decimated the country through relentless bombing, ostensibly targeting ISIS.

While the politicians in Washington call Trump’s proposed withdrawal of troops irresponsible, and argue for endless occupation in the name of “stabilization,” airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition continue. Since Trump’s announcement in late December, Airwars has reported 40 separate coalition airstrikes which have claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians in Syria. Although the law requires compensation for civilian survivors and victims of attacks that were in violation of international law, the U.S.-led coalition has shown no intention of taking responsibility for or compensating survivors of these attacks.

Meanwhile, the destruction from the overall conflict, including airstrikes from the Syrian and Russian governments, is staggering. Sources today estimate that more than 500,000 Syrians have been killed since the beginning of the war and almost two million have been injured. Additionally, more than half of the country’s population, between 11 and 12 million people, have been displaced and forced to flee their homes due to the unrelenting violence. More than 5 million of those displaced have moved abroad where many have registered as refugees. For the civilian population in Syria, this has been an era of death, destruction, and displacement—not liberation.

In December, California Democrat Ro Khanna, a staunch critic of American interventionism, authored an Op-Ed for the Washington Post titled, “Trump was right to pull out of Syria and Afghanistan. This is what he should do next.” He notes, “the presence of U.S. troops in the Syrian civil war was never authorized by Congress,” and the U.S. is “violating international law by invading Syria without approval of the United Nations.”

Critics of Trump’s decision to pull troops from Syria have argued that the U.S. is abandoning the Kurds who control areas of Northern Syria and have created a zone of self-governance and autonomy there. Kurdish fighters have been instrumental in reclaiming the territory that ISIS once held. Recently, a representative of the Kurdish people declared that the mission to defeat ISIS in Syria has been completed, calling it a 100% victory. Although pulling U.S. troops may leave the Kurds vulnerable to Turkish invasion or aggression from Assad’s regime, an indefinite U.S. military presence has never proven to be a stabilizing force—or a boon to revolutionary people’s movements abroad.

U.S. Intervention in Iraq

U.S. military intervention in Iraq has a long, violent history. In 1963, the U.S. and Britain backed a coup against Abd al-Karim Qasim, a popular leader who overthrew the British installed monarchy in Iraq. Qasim swiftly declared Iraq a republic and began implementing widespread reforms, including a plan to nationalize the British-controlled oil reserves. The U.S. and Britain reacted to his rise to power and his leftist reforms with panic. Eventually the powerful countries backed the coup against Qasim in order to pursue their economic and imperialist ambitions. The party that came to power was the Baathist party, including their high-ranking member, and future president Saddam Hussein.

In 1990, the U.S. government launched the Persian Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, a leader the U.S. helped bring to power and supported for decades. During this war, U.S. bombing was targeted at crucial infrastructure and resulted in the destruction of decades-long development in Iraq. Although the Persian Gulf War ended in 1991, the U.S. military assault on Iraq continued on. Throughout Bill Clinton’s presidency, the U.S. military quietly carried out systematic bombing of Iraq in what would become the longest sustained U.S. bombing campaign since Vietnam. Beginning in the immediate aftermath of the Persian Gulf War and lasting until the U.S ground invasion in 2003, the U.S. military conducted airstrikes against Iraq justified as protecting “No Fly Zones” that had been established at the end of the Persian Gulf War. These No-Fly Zones were ostensibly to protect Iraqi ethnic minorities from the possibility of Saddam Hussein using aircrafts.

This U.S. bombing campaign was accompanied by the imposition of devastating economic sanctions that prevented humanitarian aid from reaching Iraq. By 1995, UN reports estimated that over the previous four years, as many as 576,000 Iraqi children died as a result of these sanctions. In a 1996 interview with 60 Minutes, then UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright was asked whether, given the deaths of over half of a million Iraqi children, the price of continuing to impose these economic sanctions was “worth it.” She responded, “We think the price is worth it.” Denis Halliday, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, resigned in 1998 from his position over the sanctions against Iraq. He later described them as constituting genocide.

In March 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq with the stated mission to destroy Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and end the rule of Saddam Hussein. According to The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein, from March 20 to May 1, the U.S. military dropped roughly 30,000 bombs on Iraq, and 20,000 precision-guided cruise missiles. After this month of relentless bombing, the U.S. declared victory in “The War in Iraq.” Television stations broadcast the monument of Saddam Hussein being toppled in the streets and then President George W. Bush posing in front of a banner reading “mission accomplished.”

In the immediate wake of this declared victory, the U.S. appointed Paul Bremer to take control over the government in Iraq, even though he did not speak Arabic, had no experience with postwar reconstruction, and had never visited Iraq. Bremer is credited with decisions such as abolishing the Iraqi army overnight and reopening Abu Ghraib, where the U.S. infamously detained and tortured thousands of Iraqis.

The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq played a key role in creating ISIS. President Obama admitted as much in an interview where he described ISIS as an example of “unintended consequences.” Then, defeating ISIS became the justification for an indefinite occupation in Iraq and assault against the country.

In 2014, an international coalition led by the U.S. began airstrikes and military action against ISIS in Iraq. This assault was dubbed Operation Inherent Resolve. Four years later, in 2018, Airwars reported the Coalition actions had directly caused between 6,500 and 10,000 civilian deaths.

In 2018, the U.S. announced the end of “major combat operations” and the closing of the coalition command center. Although ISIS no longer holds any significant territory in Iraq, the U.S. military remains an occupying force in the country. In August 2018, a spokesman promised that the U.S. will stay in Iraq “for as long as needed.”

A research project by Brown University called “The Costs of War” has estimated that in Iraq, from March 2003 to October 2018, the total number of deaths directly attributable to post-9/11 War in Iraq was between 268,000 and 295,000. The researchers warn that this number is likely an underestimate due to lack of reporting and lack of transparency by the U.S. government. Furthermore, this number does not account for the untold number of “indirect deaths” that have been caused as a result of loss of access to food, water and other basic necessities. Others have put the estimate of Iraqis killed at 1 million.

The Costs of War report estimates that the number of refugees and internally displaced people in Iraq is roughly 3,250,000.

Today, there are some 5,200 U.S. troops based in Iraq. In a press conference during his first visit to Iraq, Trump said that he has no plans to withdraw troops from the country. Instead, Trump suggested that the U.S. use Iraq as a staging ground in the Middle East: “we can do things from Iraq … we could use this as a base if we wanted to do something in Syria.” Recently, Trump also said that he wants the U.S. military to stay in Iraq to keep a close eye on Iran.

U.S. intervention in Afghanistan

Within a month of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. was leading an invasion of Afghanistan with the claimed mission to kill Osama Bin Laden and defeat al-Qaeda’s leadership. This operation soon expanded to include fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. The 2001 invasion marked the beginning of a deadly and unending 17-year assault and occupation of the country.

In 2003, Donald Rumsfeld declared an end to major combat in Afghanistan claiming the U.S. would be moving “to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction activities.”

But today, it’s clear that U.S. government’s stated mission to defeat the Taliban has failed. Last year, the New York Times reported that the Taliban held more territory than ever before as they battle the Afghan government for control.

The war continues to drag on, mostly out of sight and out of mind for the U.S. public. In 2017, Trump announced a new plan for U.S. engagement in Afghanistan saying, “We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists.” The latest War Powers Transparency report notes that in Afghanistan, “the United States remains in an armed conflict, including in Afghanistan and against al-Qa’ida, ISIS, the Taliban, and the Taliban Haqqani Network.” Yet, the U.S. has also positioned itself as the broker of peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Considering the U.S. role in creating and escalating this conflict, it is absurd for the U.S. to justify its on-going intervention in the name of negotiating peace.

The conflict in Afghanistan has resulted in roughly 4.78 million refugees and internally displaced people and a conservative estimate of 147,000 deaths in war zones. In 2018, the U.S. dropped the greatest number of bombs since the 17-year-old war began. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, just in 2018, there were 2,798 civilian deaths and 5,252 injuries. Human Rights Watch has reported that the U.S. and Afghan governments are not adequately investigating possible unlawful airstrikes in Afghanistan.

In December, Trump announced that, in addition to Syria, he is ordering the military to start the process of withdrawing 7,000 troops from Afghanistan. This announcement of a limited withdrawal, which constitutes only half of the 14,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan, provoked panic in Washington, in another illustration of the meeting of the minds between the Democrats and the Republicans when it comes to U.S. foreign policy.

The U.S. has no business to intervene in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or any other country—whether in the name of “counter-terrorism,” “democracy promotion,” or “state-building.” It is time to revive the anti-war movement in the U.S. in order to push the political establishment (both liberal and rightwing) to abandon its imperialist policies and white-savior tendencies. The U.S. should also acknowledge the calamitous impact of U.S. intervention in other countries and pay reparations to the peoples and countries that it has invaded, destroyed and exploited over the past centuries.

The author would like to thank Luce Randall for the research help with this article and Dr. Corinna Mullin for her review and feedback on drafts of the article.

The Long, Shameful History of American Terrorism

Photos of the six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper murdered by U.S.-supported soldier in El Salvador’s civil war—one of many examples of American-sponsored terrorism—at a 2009 commemoration. (Steve Rhodes / Flickr)

Noam Chomsky: The Long, Shameful History of American Terrorism

President Obama should call our country’s history of supporting insurgents abroad for what it is: U.S.-backed terrorism.


A recent New York Times articles lists three major examples of “covert aid,” in Angola, Nicaragua and Cuba. In fact, each case was a major terrorist operation conducted by the U.S.

“It’s official: The U.S. is the world’s leading terrorist state, and proud of it.”

That should have been the headline for the lead story in the New York Times on October 15, which was more politely titled “CIA Study of Covert Aid Fueled Skepticism About Helping Syrian Rebels.”

The article reports on a CIA review of recent U.S. covert operations to determine their effectiveness. The White House concluded that unfortunately successes were so rare that some rethinking of the policy was in order.

The article quoted President Barack Obama as saying that he had asked the CIA to conduct the review to find cases of “financing and supplying arms to an insurgency in a country that actually worked out well. And they couldn’t come up with much.” So Obama has some reluctance about continuing such efforts.

The first paragraph of the Times article cites three major examples of “covert aid”: Angola, Nicaragua and Cuba. In fact, each case was a major terrorist operation conducted by the U.S.

Angola was invaded by South Africa, which, according to Washington, was defending itself from one of the world’s “more notorious terrorist groups”—Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. That was 1988.

By then the Reagan administration was virtually alone in its support for the apartheid regime, even violating congressional sanctions to increase trade with its South African ally.

Meanwhile, Washington joined South Africa in providing crucial support for Jonas Savimbi’s terrorist Unita army in Angola. Washington continued to do so even after Savimbi had been roundly defeated in a carefully monitored free election, and South Africa had withdrawn its support. Savimbi was a “monster whose lust for power had brought appalling misery to his people,” in the words of Marrack Goulding, British ambassador to Angola.

The consequences were horrendous. A 1989 U.N. inquiry estimated that South African depredations led to 1.5 million deaths in neighboring countries, let alone what was happening within South Africa itself. Cuban forces finally beat back the South African aggressors and compelled them to withdraw from illegally occupied Namibia. The U.S. alone continued to support the monster Savimbi.

In Cuba, after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, President John F. Kennedy launched a murderous and destructive campaign to bring “the terrors of the earth” to Cuba—the words of Kennedy’s close associate, the historian Arthur Schlesinger, in his semiofficial biography of Robert Kennedy, who was assigned responsibility for the terrorist war.

The atrocities against Cuba were severe. The plans were for the terrorism to culminate in an uprising in October 1962, which would lead to a U.S. invasion. By now, scholarship recognizes that this was one reason why Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev placed missiles in Cuba, initiating a crisis that came perilously close to nuclear war. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara later conceded that if he had been a Cuban leader, he “might have expected a U.S. invasion.”

American terrorist attacks against Cuba continued for more than 30 years. The cost to Cubans was of course harsh. The accounts of the victims, hardly ever heard in the U.S., were reported in detail for the first time in a study by Canadian scholar Keith Bolender, Voices From the Other Side: An Oral History of Terrorism Against Cuba, in 2010.

The toll of the long terrorist war was amplified by a crushing embargo, which continues even today in defiance of the world. On Oct. 28, the U.N., for the 23rd time, endorsed “the necessity of ending the economic, commercial, financial blockade imposed by the United States against Cuba.” The vote was 188 to 2 (U.S., Israel), with three U.S. Pacific Island dependencies abstaining.

There is by now some opposition to the embargo in high places in the U.S., reports ABC News, because “it is no longer useful” (citing Hillary Clinton’s new book Hard Choices). French scholar Salim Lamrani reviews the bitter costs to Cubans in his 2013 book The Economic War Against Cuba.

Nicaragua need hardly be mentioned. President Ronald Reagan’s terrorist war was condemned by the World Court, which ordered the U.S. to terminate its “unlawful use of force” and to pay substantial reparations.

Washington responded by escalating the war and vetoing a 1986 U.N. Security Council resolution calling on all states—meaning the U.S.—to observe international law.

Another example of terrorism will be commemorated on November 16, the 25th anniversary of the assassination of six Jesuit priests in San Salvador by a terrorist unit of the Salvadoran army, armed and trained by the U.S. On the orders of the military high command, the soldiers broke into the Jesuit university to murder the priests and any witnesses—including their housekeeper and her daughter.

This event culminated the U.S. terrorist wars in Central America in the 1980s, though the effects are still on the front pages today in the reports of “illegal immigrants,” fleeing in no small measure from the consequences of that carnage, and being deported from the U.S. to survive, if they can, in the ruins of their home countries.

Washington has also emerged as the world champion in generating terror. Former CIA analyst Paul Pillar warns of the “resentment-generating impact of the U.S. strikes” in Syria, which may further induce the jihadi organizations Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State toward “repairing their breach from last year and campaigning in tandem against the U.S. intervention by portraying it as a war against Islam.”

That is by now a familiar consequence of U.S. operations that have helped to spread jihadism from a corner of Afghanistan to a large part of the world.

Jihadism’s most fearsome current manifestation is the Islamic State, or ISIS, which has established its murderous caliphate in large areas of Iraq and Syria.

“I think the United States is one of the key creators of this organization,” reports former CIA analyst Graham Fuller, a prominent commentator on the region. “The United States did not plan the formation of ISIS,” he adds, “but its destructive interventions in the Middle East and the War in Iraq were the basic causes of the birth of ISIS.”

To this we may add the world’s greatest terrorist campaign: Obama’s global project of assassination of “terrorists.” The “resentment-generating impact” of those drone and special-forces strikes should be too well known to require further comment.

This is a record to be contemplated with some awe.

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Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor and Professor of Linguistics (Emeritus) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the author of dozens of books on U.S. foreign policy. His most recent book is Who Rules the World? from Metropolitan Books.