Billmon, in a very eloquent post, says nothing. All he does is put up a series of quotations. Yet his message couldn’t be clearer; or more correct.
Lest visiting American wingnuts misunderstand me: I do not assert that Billmon is correct in inviting us to infer that Donald Rumsfeld is guilty of war crimes. That question would be decided by a court, in the extraordinarily unlikely event that Rumsfeld ends up before one.
No, what Billmon gets undeniably right is the far bigger and broader and more fundamental idea that (to use the words of Telford Taylor with which Billmon’s post comes to a close) ‘law is not a one-way street’. Whether a government is good or bad is decided by what it does and refrains from doing; not by who its members are or by the justifications they offer for their acts and omissions. That goes for the current government of the USA, and it goes equally for every other government entrusted with the running of a state.
Much of Europe is in lasting debt to the United States. Telford Taylor, and the larger events of which he was but a tiny piece, are a big part of the reason why. America’s contribution to destroying nazism was important. Even more important were the structures America inspired and helped postwar Europeans to build, at least in the part of Europe Stalin didn’t get his hands on. America did this in part with plain old cash, but also by example. In most parts of Europe, there was before the second world war no concept of constitutional jurisdiction — the notion that a government was bound to a constitution, that its actions could be challenged judicially and, if found repugnant to the constitution, voided. Europe needed to import this notion from America.
Now, the American constitution is an amazing and a seminal document. It enshrines the notion that it is dangerous to give somebody power over you; it assumes that power corrupts; it sets up structures to limit the damage that those in power can do. One of its important functions is to provide for the worst case. But of course, it should go without saying that good governance is far likelier with a government whose members have internalised the values underlying the constitution, rather than seeing the constitution as an inconvenience to be got round one way or another.
There was a time when this would not have been a controversial proposition for American conservatives. I hope America still has some conservatives who think that way; her present government, alas, doesn’t seem to.