Bushwhacked

Let's just say Bush gets charged with war crimes. Will Dallas be guilty by association with his library?

The entire Iraq war is going to be a war crimes minefield, because we started a war there against a country that had never attacked us and wasn't going to attack us. The whole tragic business of civilian casualties turns on the question of "proportionality." Nobody accused Harry Truman of war crimes for dropping the atom bomb on Japan—twice—because Japan was still killing tens of thousands of American soldiers at the time.

But launching a war against a country that has never attacked you and isn't planning or equipped to attack you changes the equation. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, adopted in 1998, defines a violation of the proportionality principle as, "Intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated." Under that rubric you could define the entire war in Iraq as a violation of the proportionality principle and therefore criminal.

I'm not saying it doesn't get complicated. Iraq and the United States were two of seven countries that didn't sign the Rome Statute in 1998. But when 60 other nations did sign it, the agreement became part of what the rest of the world considers international law. According to the articles I have looked at, the principle of proportionality has a tradition in international law deeper than the Rome Statute anyway—maybe it's rooted in common decency. The idea is that you can't bomb an orphanage to kill a private.

Belinda Cooper, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and an adjunct faculty member at NYU's Center for Global Affairs, wrote an article a year ago in the World Policy Journal suggesting that the entire United States Congress could also be charged with war crimes under international law. She said that Congress, far from putting Bush on a leash when he broke international law, "tamely granted the administration ever broader powers," especially in the Patriot and Military Commissions acts.

She explicitly included Democratic members of Congress who voted for this legislation. That seems fair. Bush wasn't exactly the Lone Ranger. But does any of this make things any better for SMU or for us?

Bush is coming to Dallas, and if he brings his political institute and his Swiss Guard with him, then the war crimes question comes to Dallas too.

The Reverend Andrew Weaver of Brooklyn, New York, a graduate of the Perkins School of Theology at SMU, argues that the Bush people certainly know what lies ahead for them and have chosen to ensconce themselves at SMU for that reason:

"If you've got a terrible brand, what you need to do to re-brand is associate with a good name," Weaver told me recently on the phone. "'Methodist' is one of the most trusted names on the planet.

"In fact, there was a recent poll in this country that found that only 4 percent of people have a negative view of Methodism."

Weaver is spearheading an effort to derail SMU's agreement to host the Bush Institute at the 2008 South Central Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church in Dallas July 15-19.

"SMU is owned lock, stock and barrel by the Methodist Church," he said. Weaver believes delegates to the conference will have it in their authority, at least theoretically, to quash the deal.

That's very complicated too. Sort of like the war crimes question. SMU and many bishops of the Methodist Church have said that the deal is done, permanently, and cannot be undone. That's all a matter of church law—even more arcane than international law.

None of which is exactly my point. Let's agree not to try to resolve the war crimes issue here. I think it would be the better part of valor, as well, to table the issue of Methodist church law for now. I'm really asking you whether we here in Dallas or the people at SMU or the people in the Methodist Church understand exactly what we're all letting ourselves in for by agreeing to serve as the backdrop for these questions.

I'm also aware that even my raising the question could be viewed as terribly petty and parochial. If mankind is about to address the moral role of the United States in world affairs, who cares what effect that debate may have on the image of Dallas or SMU?

But I actually know the answer to that one: Dallas and SMU will care. Look at it this way. What if Bush had chosen to put his library and institute at Baylor University in Waco? As important as the war crime debate will be for the world, wouldn't it be better for Dallas and SMU if the debate took place at Baylor in Waco?

Here's another way of looking at it. Imagine that the valedictorian at the Queen Elizabeth Episcopal Jewish Day School for Wealthy Connecticut Geniuses is leafing through his book of colleges and universities, wondering where to apply, and comes across SMU: "SMU? Dallas? Hmm. Why do I know that place? Oh yeah, that's where that pro-war-crimes guy is. Karl Somebody."

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