Office of the presidency has lacked accountability for decades
As the U.S. and world braces itself for the incoming presidency of Donald Trump, many organizations, factions and individuals have been arguing for “accountability” with regards to the new administration. But given the recent history of the presidency, one has to wonder if that accountability will ever actually come.
It could easily be argued (and it is about to be argued) that at least the last five U.S. presidents could all easily be convicted by war crimes by any respectable international tribunal if such a court had the moxie to bring charges against a former American head of state.
Trump is obviously in a league all his own, having come into office on a platform that initially included reinstituting torture. He has since walked that promise back, but it is still more than a little troubling to know that a large chunk of the American people were comfortable with a presidential candidate supporting war crimes.
Still, presidents have racked up a long and weary history of not being held accountable for their occasionally wicked actions.
The administration of Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, was famously entangled in the Iran-Contra affair. The scandal, which involved the U.S. government selling arms to the Iranian government and then using that money to fund the vicious Contra rebels in Nicaragua, severely damaged Reagan’s presidency. While he claimed to have not known about the deal, his zealot-like desire to root out communism certainly enabled such activities. Reagan himself was never held directly accountable, but 138 members of his administration were either investigated, indicted or convicted over the course of his two terms. This is a record for a U.S. presidency.
With George H.W. Bush’s presidency, the Gulf War was where much of his administration’s wrongdoing occurred. While “only” about 3,700 civilians were killed (a paltry sum compared to the U.S.’s next war in Iraq), the U.S. government did make a concerted effort to pummel Iraq’s civilian infrastructure.
Bart Gellman, a reporter for The Washington Post at the time, wrote, “Many of the targets were chosen only secondarily to contribute to the military defeat of [Iraq] … Military planners hoped the bombing would amplify the economic and psychological impact of international sanctions on Iraqi society … They deliberately did great harm to Iraq’s ability to support itself as an industrial society.”
According to French diplomat French diplomat Eric Rouleau, the Americans utilized their air power to systematically destroy or cripple Iraqi infrastructure and industry: electric power stations (92 percent of installed capacity destroyed), refineries (80 percent of production capacity), petrochemical complexes, telecommunications centers (including 135 telephone networks), bridges (more than 100), roads, highways, railroads, hundreds of locomotives and boxcars full of goods, radio and television broadcasting stations, cement plants, and factories producing aluminum, textiles, electric cables, and medical supplies.”
The total war efforts of the U.S. in Iraq would set the country back countless years and sowed the seeds of discontent that would later open up under George H.W.’s son.
But before Bush 43, Bill Clinton took office. And, in 1998, as Monica Lewinsky was preparing to return to the grand jury to testify about Clinton’s potential perjury, the president personally authorized the destruction of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan. His administration claimed that factory was producing VX nerve agent and had ties to Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda.
In fact, the factory was the Sudan’s largest manufacturer and provider of quality medicine, offering nearly 50 percent of the country’s medicine. Its destruction devastated the country’s health care and, in turn, angered many. It is said that bin Laden and his associates were emboldened by the missile strike and that bin Laden became sure that his “conception of the world as a cosmic struggle between good and evil was the right one.”
Up next was George W. Bush, who was actually convicted of war crimes in absentia by a five-panel tribunal in Malaysia (with questionable authority, but it is worth pointing out). In the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. government authorized innumerable illegal acts to be carried out against suspected enemies of the country. These acts included assassination and torture, performed in locations around the world such as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
During the Iraq War, the amount of death and destruction caused by the U.S. was simply staggering. The Lancet, one of the world’s oldest and most respected scientific medical journals, estimated that nearly 700,000 Iraqi civilians were killed between 2003 and 2006 alone.
Finally, Barack Obama has been guilty of several heinous oversights during his time in office, including selling arms to repeat human rights violators in Bahrain and ignoring the use of chemical weapons in Syria. But it is the hyper-expansion of the U.S. drone program that will be his most shameful lasting legacy.
Obama’s administration has performed hundreds more drone strikes than his predecessor, and has killed hundreds of civilians in the process. While official government numbers suggest that only 116 civilians have been killed, most experts agree that the number is suspiciously low.
Even so, Obama’s embrace of drones has also led to a preference for killing rather than capturing terrorists. The Defense Department’s Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Task Force, which concluded that “kill operations significantly reduce the intelligence available from detainees and captured material.” Retired Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said last year, “When you drop a bomb from a drone . . . you are going to cause more damage than you are going to cause good,” including even more radicalized terrorists.
There are also a wealth of contentious legal and constitutional questions. Leaked documents about the drone program have shown the alarming ease with which an innocent civilian — American or otherwise — can be added to the main terrorist database of the U.S. government, such as on the basis of a single “uncorroborated” Facebook or Twitter post.
In a 2014 court filing, the government admitted that 469,000 people had been nominated in 2013 for inclusion to a government database of “known or suspected terrorists.” Only 4,900 were rejected. The Presumption of innocence has been lost on practically of these individuals. And while folks like Osama bin Laden are swirling around in the terrorist database, so too are people like Abdulrahman al-Awlaki — a 16-year-old American citizen who was killed by a U.S. drone strike. His father, Anwar al-Awlaki, was a noted member of Al-Qaeda and so he became guilty by association.
The point of this exercise was not to discredit concerns about Trump but to highlight a brief sliver of all the ways our five most recent presidents should have been the target of accountability and were not. If these war crimes were not enough to receive attention from a significant chunk of the populace, what will Trump have to do to be held accountable as president?