Aggression Rights & Trials of Villains


U.S. and British invasion and occupation of Iraq was carried out
in straightforward violation of the UN Charter’s prohibition
of aggression and therefore constituted what the Nuremberg Court
and its U.S. representative, Robert Jackson, termed the “supreme
crime.” The justification given was the imminent threat to
U.S. and British (and the world’s) “national security”
posed by Saddam Hussein’s illicit possession of “weapons
of mass destruction” (WMD). The threat was so urgent that the
leaders of the Free World could not accept the risk of waiting for
UN inspectors to finish their search for these weapons. It is now
very clear, and was actually evident before the invasion, that the
weapons didn’t exist and that the claim of this threat was
a crude cover for a less appetizing agenda. But the miracle of the
Free Press is that the post-invasion failure to uncover any WMD
whatsoever, which made the invasion not only a “supreme crime”
but also one based on a big lie, didn’t faze its members at
all. They continued to provide apologetics for the invasion-occupation,
celebrate its little triumphs, and gloss over or ignore its numerous
crimes. Bush public relations stunts like his landing on the U.S.S.
Abraham Lincoln to announce “mission accomplished” and
his turkey gambit with the troops in Iraq were treated, not as PR-stunts,
but as front-page news of high importance. 

liberals also adapted nicely to the aggression-occupation. While
quite a few had opposed the attack, especially without UN sanction,
once it had occurred it became a fait accompli that they had no
trouble accepting, arguing that it was now important for the occupation
to be successful. For Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at Brookings,
liberals who are concerned over the welfare of Iraqis should “start
to distinguish between their dislike of Bush and their recognition
that the mission must succeed.” George Packer says, “You
can object to no bid contracts, you can object to cronyism and waste
as I do, without undermining the basic understanding that we are
committed to this and we have an enormous obligation to the Iraqis.”
Obviously O’Hanlon and Packer would not have said about Saddam
Hussein’s invasion-occupation of Kuwait in 1990 that it should
be taken as a given and that we must hope that his “mission”
succeeds. No, he did not have benevolent intentions toward the victims
of his aggression as Bush, Cheney and Wolfowitz do, by patriotic
premise. (Packer only sees cronyism and no bid contracts—not
killing, ruthless pacification, plans for bases and projecting power,
oil control interests, or links to Israeli aims.) This form of apologetic
is only offered when the United States or one of its allies or clients
commits a blatant aggression. Besides being an apologia for aggression
and a misreading of the purpose of the “mission,” O’Hanlon’s
and Packer’s argument has a further fatal flaw, namely that
if the occupation is successful this will encourage further aggressions,
which is certainly a point they would make if explaining why Saddam
had to be ousted from Kuwait. 

capture of Saddam Hussein was also treated as a first order triumph
that would at least enhance Bush’s prestige and election prospects
and was often presented as justifying the attack (as in the case
of Samantha Power, a

New York Times

favorite, writing in

New Republic

(“Unpunishable,” December 29,
2003-January 12, 2004). All this was done in a celebratory mode—“We
got him!”—fitting in a media that treats invasions, wars,
and mass killing in frames closely modeled after their entertainment
stories of cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians. The fact that
his criminal act justifying the attack, Saddam’s defiant possession
of WMD, was fabricated by the Bushies and therefore inoperative
should have raised a question in a minimally honest media of why
the “coalition” could even legitimately make him a war
prisoner. But in the actual existing media, although there were
occasional but rare expressions of doubt that his capture justified
the attack, such a question didn’t arise. The media had participated
in a demonization process, along with a quiet transfer of the aim
of the attack to “liberation,” so having established that
Saddam was a very bad man, the small matter of illegality and the
Big Lie was disappeared. 

was another awkward problem as well: the most serious crimes of
the bad man were carried out in the 1980s with U.S. and British
support and protection. He only employed his WMD when the United
States approved their use—not otherwise, and, significantly,
not against the Gulf War “coalition” that attacked him
in 1991—which suggests that his “threat,” even if
he had some WMD, was minimal. So imprisoning and then trying Saddam
Hussein for his crimes could be awkward, as Reagan, Bush-I, Rumsfeld,
and many others would logically have to be in the dock with Saddam
as his suppliers and protectors. But again, this assumes a minimally
honest media that might bring up and maybe even press such awkward

the U.S.-British right to commit aggression and take the fruits
of their aggression has also been affirmed by real world actions
on the part of the UN and “international community,” although
taking these fruits has so far proved to be somewhat arduous. The
October 16 Security Council Resolution 1511, approved unanimously,
accepted the “authority” of the U.S. “Coalition Provisional
Authority” (i.e., Bremer) and even urged member states “to
contribute assistance under the United Nations Mandate, including
military forces,” while insisting on nothing on the part of
the aggressors, although boldly “requesting” that they
“report” on “progress” and that they turn over
power to the Iraqis “as soon as practicable.” (It should
be noted that these “coalition”-supportive actions by
the UN and world’s leaders have no necessary connection to
the preferences of the world’s peoples.) Just as the UN and
world leaders helped the “coalition” with the inspections
gambit before the invasion, and then did nothing to oppose the open
aggression by means of sanctions or threats, so after the invasion
they accommodated nicely to the interests and pressures of superior
power. Coalition members and their clients are exempt, obviously
by virtue of power alone, with justice irrelevant. The United States
can commit aggression against country after country—most recently,
Panama, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq—and its client Israel,
a tail that wags the dog, can engage in ethnic cleansing over decades
in violation of international law and UN resolutions, with complete

The Aggressor “Coalition” 


fixing of war criminality and pursuit of war criminals via tribunals
has reached grotesque levels of biased selectivity. Saddam Hussein
and Slobodan Milosevic were U.S. and British targets, hence are
eminently eligible for tribunal jurisdiction and trials, but Pinochet,
Suharto, and Ariel Sharon—the butcher of Qibya, Sabra and Shatila,
and manager of the ongoing ethnic cleansing in Palestine— are
exempt, with Sharon an honored statesperson, a “man of peace”
according to George Bush. 

is, of course, no discussion of the need to try the U.S. leaders
who killed several million Vietnamese in a major war of aggression
and who have killed directly, or via sponsorship and support of
the likes of Pinochet et al., further millions of innocents (John
Stockwell, former CIA station chief in Angola, estimated that over
six million people died in CIA covert actions up to the late 1980s:
see his October 1987 lecture “The Secret Wars of the CIA;”
see also, William Blum’s

Rogue State



). When we get to the recent Iraq invasion-occupation, there
is no hint anywhere in the mainstream that the leaders who just
carried out the “supreme crime” in violation of the UN
Charter, based on a lie, should be in the dock, along with the approved
villain. No, they have all taken it as a premise that the Godfather
is not subject to the same rules as anybody else and that he can
impose these rules on others even in the course of operations in
which he breaks the rules himself, and on a large scale. 

United States has long refused to submit to any international court
authority, so that the Bush administration’s repudiation of
the International Criminal Court, its threat to use force to prevent
any extension of court authority to U.S. personnel, and its coercive
diplomatic campaign to get countries to sign Article 98 agreements
pledging never to detain U.S. nationals for extradition to the ICC,
are in a great tradition. Harry Truman’s Secretary of State
Dean Acheson referred to international law as “a crock,”
and Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was also
clear that this country would operate unilaterally when its objectives
were not achievable via multilateral and presumably legal authority.
(The NATO war against Yugoslavia was in violation of the UN Charter,
setting a convenient precedent for George Bush.) The mainstream
media have normalized this Godfatherly behavior as at worst regrettable,
but often understandable given the Godfather’s generous willingness
to serve the world as police and a  force for justice and stability. 

Bush reason for refusing to join or cooperate with the ICC is the
threat that it might produce “politically motivated prosecutions.”
Translated into single-speak, the problem is that the United States
might not fully control the ICC—“politicized” has
long been used to mean failing to adhere to our political agenda.
This was a key word in service when the Reagan administration pulled
this country out of UNESCO in 1984—at which time the Reaganites
could not control UNESCO, so that it was “politicized,”
whereas in the years of U.S. domination it was not. 

this, the Yugoslavia Tribunal is not “politicized” because
the United States controls its agenda and, amazingly, most U.S.
liberals and left swallow this and consider that tribunal to be
dispensing justice. In large part this has happened because the
demonization process—the long and intensive diet of selective
information and even fabrications, many now fully institutionalized,
and the ludicrously uncritical treatment of the Tribunal at work—have
been remarkably successful. The fact that the Tribunal is funded
by the NATO powers, that Albright vetted each prosecutor, that its
violation of supposed Western judicial principles has been across-
the-board, and that it has followed a NATO-supportive agenda and
served as a NATO propaganda arm without stint, hasn’t registered
in the West. 

example, it has used indictments as a political instrument with
the assumption of guilt-before-trial as a fundamental Tribunal process,
in violation of a basic Western principle. The most notorious case
took place in the midst of the 78-day bombing of Yugoslavia in May
1999 when NATO began to bomb Yugoslav civilian sites in order to
force a quick surrender. This targeting was in clear violation of
international law and it produced growing world criticism. This
called for a public relations and propaganda response. This was
provided by Tribunal prosecutor Louise Arbour, who hastily put together
an indictment of Milosevic in May 1999, based on information supplied
by U.S. intelligence, but unverified by the Tribunal. This was immediately
cited by Albright and James Rubin as showing the justice of the
NATO cause and it deflected attention from the bombing and de facto
war crimes of NATO. This is the ultimate corruption of a supposedly
legal and judicial enterprise, with PR support that actually helped
cover over literal war crimes of the Tribunal’s principals. 

the mainstream media never noticed the corruption and neither did
liberals and much of the left. None of these could also see, report,
or grasp the significance of the remarkable double standard that
was operative day-by-day in the work of the Tribunal. For example,
Milosevic’s indictment on May 22, 1999 was based almost entirely
on the alleged killing of 385 Kosovo Albanians after the bombing
war had started. There was no evidence presented that these killings
were his direct responsibility, but throughout the work of the Tribunal
any killings by Serb subordinates were automatically found to be
the responsibility of top leaders. This principle was never applied
to killings by Croatians, Bosnian Muslims, or the U.S. Air Force.

contrast with the hasty, but PR-serviceable indictment of Milosevic
in May 1999, it took Arbour’s successor Carla Del Ponte and
her staff many months to respond to a huge and detailed petition
asking that NATO be indicted for killing many hundreds of Serb civilians
in its deliberate bombing of civilian sites. Eventually, Del Ponte
declined even to open an official investigation of this charge because
her office found that 500 civilian deaths directly attributable
to NATO were too few to be worth bothering with— “there
is simply no evidence of the necessary crime base for charges of
genocide or crimes against humanity.” So for Milosevic, an
unverified 385 killings is a sufficient crime base for an indictment,
but for NATO, 500 is too slight to even support an investigation. 

illustrative double standard also points up the fact that a Tribunal
with a different purpose could easily have put Clinton, Albright,
Wesley Clark, and others in prison using the same kind of evidence
that was applied to Milosevic and the numerous Bosnian Serbs serving
jail terms. One intriguing feature of the Tribunal’s work is
the frequency with which it charges and imprisons its victims on
the basis of their direct or indirect role in actions that are general
feature of wars and could be applied to every other participant
in the war in question. I am convinced that with the kind of huge
resources provided to the Tribunal, and of course with parallel
political and media support for its efforts, it would have been
possible to put large numbers of Bosnian Muslim, Croatian, and NATO
leaders in jail for long prison terms. Serb victims on steady parade—and
there were many thousands in both Serbia and Bosnia—would have
helped demonize the folks that injured them. Bosnian Muslim, Croatian,
and NATO witnesses—either angry with their leaders, or seeking
publicity or bribed or induced to say the right things in exchange
for plea bargain sentence reductions—would show that these
leaders all planned to kill or failed to constrain their subordinates.
In fact, even public statements could be mobilized to make the point,
as with several NATO leaders’ admissions that the bombing of
Serb civilians was deliberate in order to make them scream and surrender.
With an altered power structure, these would be the basis of a Tribunal
charge of “genocide.” 

was eerie to read in early December 2003, that Bosnian Serb General
Stanislav Galic was sentenced to 20 years for his role in the 44-month
siege of Sarajevo, because he deliberately targeted civilians—“men
and women of all ages…were killed in their hundreds and wounded
in their thousands, with the intent to terrorize the entirety of
the population,” said Tribunal Judge Alphons Orie of the Netherlands.
This was done on a vastly larger scale by the United States in Vietnam,
where the civilian casualties ran into the millions, with a treatment
of civilians even more outrageous than that attributed to Stanislav
Galic’s forces, as John Kifner hints at, a little belatedly,
in the

New York Times

(“Report on Brutal Campaign Stirs
Memories,” December 28, 2003). Deliberately targeting civilian
facilities with the aim of terrorizing, and with large civilian
casualties a predictable and acceptable feature of the plan, was
also the admitted purpose and effect of the NATO bombing of Serbia
in 1999. 

more dramatic in illustrating the double standard swallowed by the
international community and liberals is the comparison between the
several thousand civilian casualties of the “siege of Sarajevo”
with those resulting from the U.S.-British (nominally UN) “siege
of Iraq” by sanctions from 1991-2003, which John and Karl Mueller
claim killed more civilians than all the weapons of mass destruction
in human history (“Sanctions of Mass Destruction,”


, May-June 1999). The former is the basis of a Tribunal
prosecution with Galic given 20 years in prison; the latter is not
even acknowledged to be morally problematic by mainstream and human
rights crusaders (it is unmentioned in both Samantha Powers’s
“A Problem From Hell: America And the Age of Genocide,”
and in a “Forum on Humanitarian Intervention” in the


July 14, 2003). 

fear in the population at large, as well as the enemy military,
was also an integral feature of the attack on Afghanistan and the
invasion-occupation of Iraq. In Iraq, the invasion began with a
well-publicized program of “shock and awe” bombing that
killed at least as many civilians as were listed in the Milosevic
indictment of May 22, 1999, and that was for starters. We read that
during the invasion of Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
had to personally sign off on any air strike “thought likely
to result in the deaths of more than 30 civilians,” and that
he approved more than 50 such strikes. Given that thousands of Iraqi
civilians were killed or wounded in such strikes—in violation
of the Geneva rule that prohibits attacks on civilian sites, except
where militarily necessary—can there be any doubt that such
a record for Milosevic or one of his top officials would have found
its way into a Tribunal indictment? 

U.S. occupation has been notorious for the policy of shooting first
and checking things out later, and a generally lavish use of firepower.
The policy of force has intensified as the resistance has grown.
Dexter Filkins in the

New York Times

even quotes a U.S. military
officer in Iraq describing the new brutal tactics of the occupation
as “a heavy dose of fear and violence” (“Tough New
Tactics by U.S. Tighten Grip on Iraq Towns,” December 7, 2003).
In October, Human Rights Watch charged that U.S. forces had killed
at least 94 civilians in Baghdad since May 1 “in questionable
circumstances,” but faced investigation in only 5 cases, encouraging
a belief that soldiers can kill with impunity. In December, after
the capture of Saddam Hussein, Robert Fisk wrote, “U.S. troops
have shot dead at least 18 Iraqis in streets of three major cities
in the country. Dramatic videotape from the city of Ramadi 75 miles
west of Baghdad showed unarmed supporters of Saddam Hussein being
gunned down in semi-darkness as they fled from American troops.”
Hussein al-Jaburi, the U.S. imposed regional governor warned the
people of Tikrit, “Any demonstration against the government
or coalition forces will be fired upon.” In early December,
under CPA instructions, Iraq’s Ministry of Health terminated
its collection of information on civilians killed. 

its invasion-occupation the “coalition” has used both
cluster bombs and depleted uranium in attacks on civilian-rich sites,
in violation of the Geneva Convention. But Saddam Hussein alone
will be tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is
a trial that he fully deserves, but justice is only partially and
poorly served when it is selective and, in this case, organized
by those who have opportunistically supported the criminal in the
past and who have carried out crimes of their own that can easily
match those of the chosen villain.


Edward S. Herman
is an economist, author, and media analyst.