America has never been that big of a fan of international law. The United States stands out in its failure to both sign and ratify an impressive list of basic international treaties and conventions, ranging from conventions on maritime law to conventions banning slavery. As of this October, America became the world’s only nation that has not ratified the convention setting out basic rights for children. This distaste for diplomatic rules applies to warfare too: the United States has refused to join on the bans of weapons that are likely to cause civilian casualties (like anti-personnel land mines and cluster munitions), is not a member of the International Criminal Court, and has not even agreed to the entirety of the Geneva conventions.
To put it politely, the U.S. has a “special” relationship with international law. Some scholars, like Noam Chomsky, have spent significant portions of their academic career illustrating how America views itself as “above” other nations in this regard, allowing it to hold other nations to incredibly high standards even as it is in an almost-constant state of violating international law. The United States uses its position as the world’s most powerful nation to get away with a surprising amount of actions. But while breaking international law is not anything new for America, campaigning on doing so in a totally new, extremely inhumane way is new territory entirely.
Earlier this month, leading Presidential Candidate Donald Trump lamented that “we’re fighting a very politically correct war” and that, when it comes to ISIS, we “have to take out their families.” A questioner at the most recent Republican debate asked “how would intentionally killing innocent civilians set us apart from ISIS?” Trump did not back down, defending his position and saying that “we have to be much tougher.” He received applause.
For those who were caught up in the bombast and hyperbole of Trump’s speaking style and missed the substance, let us be very clear about what he is proposing here: Donald Trump is proposing that we track down people related to terrorists, regardless of their actual beliefs or actions, and murder them to punish their loved ones. Not only was he cheered on for doing so, but polling done in the two days following the debate showed him still in first with more than a third of Republican primary voters on his side. The majority of those polled said they still viewed him favorably.
Perhaps now would be a good time to define a few terms. Article 8 of the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court defines “war crimes” as “grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949” or “other serious violations of the laws and customs applicable” during war. Examples of war crimes that it explicitly includes are the “wilfull killing” of protected parties and “intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities.” In other words, what Donald Trump is recommending meets the exact definition of a war crime.
Interestingly enough, it also meets the exact definition that has been used by the United Nations before for terrorism. Although it would not technically be categorized as terrorism by U.S. law due to the fact that ISIS fighters constitute neither a “civilian population” nor a “government,” it meets other descriptions of terrorism that the United States has agreed to before. The unanimously-approved U.N. Security Council Resolution 1566, which was supported by the U.S. while George W. Bush was in office, refers to terrorist acts as:
…criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act, which constitute offences within the scope of and as defined in the international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism.
Trump has been open in claiming that the purpose of killing the families of ISIS terrorists is to make them think twice about their actions: “…[ISIS terrorists] may not care much about their lives, but they do care, believe it or not, about their families’ lives.” Thus, what he aims to do is to kill civilians to discourage others from doing something; commit “criminal acts, including against civilians, with the intent to cause death… with the purpose to… intimidate a population… to abstain from doing [an] act…” That is terrorism.
The resolution goes on to say that such acts “are under no circumstances justifiable by considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other similar nature.” Thus, actually going through with Trump’s plan would involve directly rebuking the commitments that the Bush administration made to fight terrorism.
Though perhaps less vocal, other candidates made suggestions that are just as immoral and illegal. Ted Cruz was asked whether or not he would be willing to indiscriminately carpet bomb civilian-filled areas in order to defeat ISIS. Expecting a “no” to that question is, perhaps, the lowest conceivable bar set for the purpose of gauging basic morality. And yet, he refused to answer directly, insisting that “the object isn’t to level a city. The object is to kill the ISIS terrorists,” which he seeks to do through “overwhelming air power.”
Such attacks would undoubtedly have enormous civilian death tolls. The legality of such an act is debatable. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court also lists as a war crime:
Thus, whether or not a carpet bombing campaign in civilian areas is legal would be a matter of whether or not “the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated” would be larger than the loss of civilian life. But such a concern does not even seem to exist on Cruz’s radar. If he made the argument that the civilian casualties would be outweighed in importance by the strategic gains against ISIS, then he would at least be acknowledging the existence of civilians. But by refusing to address the issue at all, Cruz essentially brushed aside the matter of whether innocent bystanders live or die, rendering it an inconsequential detail in America’s sacrosanct campaign against our enemies.
Even Jeb Bush made questionable comments, arguing that we need to “get the lawyers off the back of the warfighters,” because we currently hold soldiers to a “standard that is so high that it’s impossible to be successful in fighting ISIS.” Though never explicitly stating it, it is clear that his comments indicate a belief that America has been too tough on prosecuting immoral and illegal activities during wartime, and that we need to “unleash” American soldiers in order to effectively combat the Islamic State.
The underlying mentality tying all of these views together is best described by Ben Carson in an earlier debate, when he argued that:
…we’ve gotten into this mindset of fighting “politically correct” wars. There is no such thing as a “politically correct” war. The left, of course, will say “Carson doesn’t believe in a Geneva Convention.” Carson doesn’t believe in fighting stupid wars… I’ve talked to a lot of the Generals, a lot of our advanced people, and believe me, if we gave them the mission- which is what the Commander-in-Chief does- they would be able to carry it out. And if we don’t tie their hands behind their back, they will do it extremely effectively.
These statements were met with lots of applause, so they clearly resonated with certain voters. But what does it actually mean?
“‘Politically Correct’ Wars”
Conservatives dedicate significant amounts of energy to fighting against what they see as a threat to free speech in the form of “political correctness,” the desire of liberals not to offend anyone. This debate typically takes place in the realm of cultural affairs. For example, conservatives will frequently reference their belief that Democratic politicians refrain from using the term “radical Islam” simply to avoid upsetting Muslims. The term itself is a bit of a loaded one, as it is selectively only used to refer to things that the left is sensitive about while avoiding those that the right is sensitive about, like “dirty” media content or treatment of the American flag.
What we are seeing with the discussion of “’politically correct’ wars” by people like Trump and Carson is an extension of this conflict out of abstract cultural matters and into concrete military matters. In effect, conservatives are taking the idea that fear of offending others is squashing free speech and expanding it to the idea that fear of physically hurting others is squashing effective military action. In this way, condemnation of “’politically correct’ wars” is taking the concept of “political correctness” to its logical extreme.
Here’s the problem: not wanting to hurt people is a good thing. A strong aversion to the murder of innocent civilians is not exactly hippie-dippie nonsense for bleeding heart liberals, it is something possessed by any and every person with a functioning moral compass. To be fair, the argument by conservatives is not that trying to save civilian lives is itself bad, it is simply that we have gone too far in that direction, and that it has come at the expense of accomplishing military goals. But this assertion is not rooted in reality.
Following the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush lowered the standard for acceptable military activity dramatically. The United States engaged in kidnapping, torture, and long-term imprisonment of individuals without charges. We utilized a number of banned and controversial weapons that resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians. We hired at least 100,000 private military contractors who were subject to very little regulation of their conduct, resulting in incidents like the Nisour Square massacre of 17 Iraqi civilians. It made the news earlier this year when the United States accidentally bombed a hospital in Afghanistan, but few seemed to remember that we did the exact same thing during the early stages of our invasion of Iraq.
Barack Obama’s administration may have overseen the withdrawal from Iraq and the slow withdrawal from Afghanistan, but actual changes regarding acceptable behavior were fairly limited. Waterboarding may have been banned, but last year’s Senate report told us that it wasn’t effective anyway. Even our withdrawal from Iraq, which multiple Presidential candidates have pinned on Obama, was actually negotiated by Bush back in 2008. What Obama did do, however, was expand Bush’s secretive drone strike program, which is itself of questionable legal status under international law.
The idea that we are now trying to “fight ‘politically correct’ wars” is a myth, even though doing so would actually be better than what we are doing in reality. America has consistently been extremely inhumane during war time, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in the countless other countries we have intervened in over the past several decades. What Republicans are calling for is for our tactics to be made even more brutal. A smarter goal would be to simply fight far, far less wars, but to actually aim for more protection of civilians in military conflicts we are involved in.
Our failures in Iraq and Afghanistan had absolutely nothing to do with being “too nice” or “not tough enough.” If anything, greater humanitarian concern would likely have resulted in better outcomes, as it would have reduced anti-American sentiment and blowback and drained terrorist organizations of support. So why is the “political correctness” explanation of our recent failures so tempting to so many? In his analysis of the trailer for Michael Bay’s upcoming Benghazi movie, Journalist Max Fisher makes makes a critical observation:
Actual Libyans are not really featured; the closest we get to a villain is the sniveling bureaucrat, who cares more about Following the Rules than about Doing What’s Right. There’s a reason that is a standard trope of Hollywood action flicks. These movies need to build up their heroes into unstoppable warriors, made invincible by their noble American ideals, which are fully realized when they find certain victory on the battlefield.
The real villain, then, is the bureaucrat who keeps them from that battlefield. That allows the heroes to not only triumph in battle, but also to be moral paragons whose righteousness transcends a world that does not sufficiently value them. This is how you give viewers the emotionally satisfying experience of rooting for heroes who simultaneously wield godlike power yet are also the underdog.
This trope has its roots in Vietnam-era films that sought to reconcile America’s utter defeat with its sense of military pride; their answer was that our noble warriors only failed to triumph because the politicians stood in their way.
Republicans have concocted the myth that we are trying to fight a “’politically correct’ war” because it serves as a tool to manage the cognitive dissonance between the position that America has the ability to solve the world’s problems through military means and the observation that it has clearly failed to do so. The reason we have failed, they say, is because of restraints on our activity that don’t actually exist.
Hormonal Foreign Policy
In the earlier-mentioned poll taken last week that found Trump still in the lead, Republican primary voters were also asked whether or not they supported the bombing of Agrabah. 57 percent of respondents were honest with themselves, saying that they were “not sure.” A whole 30 percent, however, said that they were in favor. They were not told that Agrabah was the imaginary country that “Aladdin” took place in. [Full disclosure: for Democrats, 19 percent were in favor. It’s worth noting that 19 percent of Democrats identify as conservatives, so it is possible that this number consists of relatively few liberals.]
Conservatives in the Trump-Cruz-Carson tradition know that, whatever the circumstances may be, someone should be bombed. They do not know what exactly we need to do, but they want it to be big and bold. How effectively we are fighting ISIS doesn’t matter to them as much as feeling like we are fighting ISIS does. As Journalist David Roberts put it:
It’s not the actual bombing they want, it’s the martial rhetoric, the flag-filled chyrons, the Bush-with-a-megaphone feeling… It is foreign policy as carried out by an insecure, hormone-ridden teenage boy; everything’s about who burned who, who came out on top.
It would be unfair to claim that the entire Republican Party is like this. Marco Rubio, for example, is a highly interventionist warhawk, but one with an impressive understanding of the nuances of foreign policy. What is significant, however, is that those calling for an emotional response to terrorism- a response that violates every known moral norm of warfare- are a significant portion of the party that isn’t being attacked for what they are by the rest of it.
The establishment Republican Party is avoiding calling Trump what he has proven himself to be on every topic: a nationalist demagogue lacking the intellect, the moral sensibilities, and the basic common sense neccesary to be a leader. This is partly because they want to find a way to prevent him from winning the nomination without openly opposing him so that he doesn’t jump ship and run a third party campaign, but it is also partly because they know that a significant portion of their party are the type of people drawn to nationalist demagogues. And that is a problem they are not willing to address.
Based on a false belief that our military is currently being restrained, many conservatives are now calling for our military to be “unleashed,” which apparently means committing acts of astonishing brutality. They do not care what the moral or geopolitical repercussions of it are, they just want to see blood from their enemies.
It is sad that this needs to be said, but apparently it does: war crimes are a bad thing. They are something that every American with any basic sense of decency should oppose. Trying to lead the world through state terrorism is a recipe for disaster, but even if it did work, it would still be morally reprehensible in ever conceivable way.
Before, many involved in politics viewed Trump as more of a joke than anything: a historical electoral anomaly good for fueling late-night stand up bits. But his rhetoric has grown stronger and more violent, and he is only met with more and more support for it. Openly and unashamedly calling for the mass slaughter of civilians calls for an escalation of his status, however.
Americans should demand a basic standard from those running for office. Donald Trump has done more than enough to illustrate that he is nowhere near any reasonable standard. We should start viewing him as what he is: without hyperbole, he represents a threat to the moral foundations of modern human society. Unless the Republicans are willing to tolerate a policy of state terrorism, I would suggest they start addressing him accordingly.
Originally published at theodysseyonline.com on December 21, 2015.