Bushwhacked

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

Peter Lesser, the lawyer, does this abbreviated history of Dallas' image in the world. It goes something like this: "Bump on a log, assassination. Bump on a log, Dallas Cowboys. Bump on a log, TV show. Bump on a log, Dallas Cowboys again."

Now we can add, "Bump on a log, Bush war crimes."

George Bush is coming. He's building his library here. He's going to erect a political institute manned by Karl Rove.

The Reverend Andrew Weaver believes the Bush administration wants to re-brand itself at the expense of SMU's good name.
The Reverend Andrew Weaver believes the Bush administration wants to re-brand itself at the expense of SMU's good name.

Will we ever get back to bump on a log?

There isn't any question or doubt that serious attempts will be made in this country and abroad to bring war crimes charges against Bush and his people once they come out from behind their political fortifications in government. Those efforts are already under way.

In January 2007, Germany filed criminal charges against 13 people alleged to have helped the United States kidnap a German citizen who was then "rendered" to Afghanistan, where he was tortured. Italy is seeking extradition of CIA agents who abducted a Muslim cleric in Milan in 2003 and sent him to Egypt for torture. Canada has apologized and paid $10 million in compensation to a Canadian citizen kidnapped at JFK Airport in 2002 and sent to Syria for torture. Legal scholars are writing about how far up the chain of command responsibility for these acts should extend, and some already have the White House in their sights.

I'm not really asking you to take a position one way or the other on whether any of it will stick. I'm just pointing out that if Southern Methodist University goes ahead with its plan to host the Bush political think tank along with his library, then all of this will stick right here.

Prime-time TV for the next five years: First we get the video of the people in Germany or the people in Italy or the people in Washington, D.C., who are bringing war crimes allegations against Bush and his key aides. Then we cut to Dallas for the reaction shot.

The most frequent face on TV, with the title, "Dallas, Texas" beneath, will be the mug of Karl Rove, chief warden of the think tank, pooh-poohing war crimes. We are about to become the world capital of war crimes pooh-poohing.

And there are people here who think this will be a good thing. Last February 27, The Dallas Morning News editorial page said, "We're proud to have the Bush presidential library here and urge that it reflect a complete history of his tenure."

That seems somehow oxymoronic. Maybe drop the oxy.

SMU has announced plans for a 145,000-square-foot presidential library and a 40,000-square-foot Bush "policy institute." The institute will be an openly partisan entity devoted to promoting Bush's political views.

Given the way he will leave the White House, it's safe to assume the institute will spend most of its time and energy defending him from attack.

Bush is also almost certainly going to return to Dallas to live, at least some of the time. So Dallas is soon to acquire a quite close association with the Bush brand.

If your only source of information on all this were the Morning News, you might come away thinking the main question is how valuable Bush will be to local tourism. Better than the Wax Museum? Better than the Kennedy assassination? We earn our tourists the hard way.

Soon enough, the News tells its readers, all the quibbles about George Bush's policies will pass into that bland miasma we never really paid much attention to in the first place—i.e., history. In its February editorial the News said, "Harry S. Truman was unpopular as he left office but grew in stature as historians took a fuller, nuanced measure of him."

Harry Truman? Harry Truman? What does Harry Truman have to do with it? Being unpopular is not the same thing as being accused of war crimes—seriously accused by serious people.

I'm not talking about left-wing bloggers. According to a report released last month by the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Justice, the FBI had been compiling a "war crimes file" until ordered to stop by an unnamed FBI official who said that was not part of the agency's mission. The report reopens the important legal question of what FBI agents saw when they sat in on interrogations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo Bay.

Some of what they saw but did not formally relay to their superiors—which now has been revealed in the DOJ report—will provide legal support to allegations that the Bush White House sanctioned and promoted policies that violated international war crimes agreements.

The report reveals that FBI agents present in U.S. military prisons around the world witnessed practices they believed were violations of the Geneva Conventions—Muslim men stripped naked in front of female guards, compelled to wear women's underwear, bound with dog collars and leashes, shackled in stress positions for hours, held in isolation and threatened with attack dogs. Far from the aberration they have been painted as, the abuses at Abu Ghraib begin to look like a window on horrific official policy.

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."

Or we find ourselves courting another Boeing Corp. What's our pitch? No snow. Cheap housing. Dubya?

"The secrets are going to come out," Weaver said. "What went on in those dark holes? The stories of torture, the stories of people being kidnapped. We know that 19 people out there were tortured to death by the American military. We have outsourced incredible numbers of people who have been tortured in places like Uzbekistan and Syria."

The presence here of Bush, Rove—who knows, maybe Cheney?—will put us in this picture. At least we'll be the frame.

"It will be there on campus," Weaver said. "It's the taint that comes along with basically harboring a man who is going to be pursued as a war criminal."

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