This past week’s feeding frenzy on Minnesota Democrat Rep. Ilhan Omar — including by the Democratic leadership of the House of Representatives — should cause despair among anyone holding on to a faint hope that powerful Americans can discuss the world without engaging in childish lies.
It all began with an hourslong hearing Monday by the House Foreign Affairs Committee with the snoozy title “State Department Foreign Policy Strategy and Fiscal 2022 Budget Request.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken took queries from committee members, including Omar.
Omar had a serious, rational question for Blinken about the significance of America’s policy toward the International Criminal Court at the Hague. “You opposed the court’s investigation in both Palestine and in Afghanistan,” she noted. “In both of these cases, if domestic courts can’t or won’t pursue justice, and we oppose the ICC, where do we think victims are supposed to go for justice, and what justice mechanisms do you support for them?”
Blinken had an unserious, irrational answer. “Whether it’s the United States or Israel,” he said, “we both have the mechanisms to make sure that there is accountability in any situations where there are concerns about the use of force and human rights.” This is insultingly false on its face. To choose one of hundreds of examples, there has been no American prosecution of those responsible for conducting torture during the Bush administration. Even more importantly, former President George W. Bush himself launched an aggressive war against Iraq and now spends his days happily giving speeches to the National Grocers Association and hanging out with former President Barack and first lady Michelle Obama.
The reason for Blinken’s preposterous claim is obvious. The treaty that created the ICC states that the court “shall be complementary to national criminal jurisdictions.” But cases will be admissible to the ICC if the responsible state “is unwilling or unable genuinely to carry out the investigation or prosecution” — in other words, the situation that clearly pertains to the United States (as well as Israel and many other countries).
The ICC’s origin dates to a diplomatic conference in Rome in 1998, with 120 countries voting for it and seven, including the U.S., voting against. The U.S.’s six like-minded compatriots on this issue were China and Israel, plus probably Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, Qatar, and Yemen. (Though the vote was not officially recorded, the U.S., China, and Israel all confirmed their thumbs-down vote; observers suspect that Iraq, Libya, Qatar, and Yemen constituted the other “no” votes.)
The U.S. nonetheless signed the treaty on December 31, 2000, at the end of the Clinton administration. But in 2002, with Bush ensconced in the White House, then-Undersecretary of State John Bolton informed the United Nations with relish that the U.S. had “no legal obligations arising from its signature on December 31, 2000.” That same year, Congress passed a law authorizing the president to do anything — which logically includes invading the Netherlands — to prevent any U.S. citizen from being prosecuted by the ICC.
More recently, the Trump administration became extremely upset when the ICC authorized an investigation of potential crimes committed in Afghanistan by the U.S., the Taliban, and the country’s government. Just as bad, the court announced an inquiry into alleged war crimes by Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that this was not permitted, and the U.S. would impose harsh sanctions on ICC staff.
The GOP’s perspective on the ICC has always been straightforward: The U.S. has the right to go anywhere on Earth and do anything we want, and it is fundamentally illegitimate for Americans to ever face any consequences. Democrats see the issue in largely the same way but feel that equivalent goals can be accomplished with less shouting. Both parties decisively reject the standard articulated by Robert Jackson, the American chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg Tribunal, at the end of World War II: “If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them. And we are not prepared to lay down the rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”
It was this concept of equal justice under international law that drove Republicans and many Democrats into a rage when Omar tweeted this after the hearing. Again, the ICC planned investigations of the U.S. military and the Taliban and the Afghan government, as well as the IDF and Palestinian forces. That’s what Omar was referring to here:
We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity.
We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.
— Rep. Ilhan Omar (@Ilhan) June 7, 2021
The subsequent freak-out was something to behold, and all of it evaded the actual concerns of the people freaking out — i.e., making sure the ICC never prosecutes Americans.
First there were claims that Omar was engaging in “moral equivalence” between the U.S. and Israel on the one hand and the Taliban and Hamas on the other. “Moral equivalence” is a meaningless term of propaganda that was invented during the Reagan administration to make it OK that the U.S. was, among other things, supporting the Salvadoran military as it carried out the mass slaughter of peasants. How is this morality measured? None who use the term ever have an explanation — which makes sense, given that if you go by something like body count, the U.S. is way ahead of small-timers like the Taliban.
Second, there were officials like Democratic Rep. Brad Schneider of Illinois, who proclaimed that “democracies should never be lumped in with terrorists.” This is equally nonsensical. Of course democracies will be “lumped in” with terrorists, if we’re going to have any system of equal justice that treats equal offenses equally. There also is no clear dividing line between democracies and terrorists — something that’s especially clear in this case, since both the U.S. and Israel have engaged in terrorism by any normal definition. Finally, Hamas in fact was elected, winning the Palestinian elections in 2006. Then the U.S., in its capacity as a magnificent democracy, refused to accept this and attempted to stage a coup and overthrow the new Palestinian government.
In the end, the backlash forced Omar into a tactical retreat: She issued a statement on Thursday saying she was “in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries with well-established judicial systems.”
But all of this was shadow play. The real reason for the war on Omar — the need to maintain the absolute impunity of the U.S. and Israel for their actions — is too unpalatable for those waging the war to say out loud. So all the top politicians in the U.S. were left with were ridiculous falsehoods.