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Fighting empire: An interview with Ramsey Clark

| 9 November 2006

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George W Bush is not a patriot, former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark tells Ian Douglas in New York
This interview was conducted a few days before the court looking into the Dujail case reached its verdict passing the death sentence on former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Ramsey Clark was unceremoniously evicted from the court, prior to the pronouncement of the verdict.

A friend and New York activist recently told me an “apocryphal story” about Ramsey Clark: that he was born of the elite, schooled in high principles of justice, ethics and art, but that during that critical time, perhaps in adolescence, when the sons and daughters of the ruling class are spirited away to some secret camp and told, “this is what the world actually is. Here is how you will rule, and why you must rule, and who your enemies are,” Clark had the measles and never received the message. He went out into the world with an armoury of ideals, and no cynicism.

Ramsey Clark, 78, former attorney-general of the United States under President Lyndon B Johnson, appears indeed a believer in truth and justice when we speak in the East Village apartment days after his latest return from Baghdad, and ahead of key US mid-term congressional elections. Clark is a lead defence lawyer in the trials of Saddam Hussein, the first of which is slated to reach a verdict 5 November.

The attorney-general of the United States, in theory, is the chief protector of justice while also the embodiment of law and thus the establishment. Now you are widely recognised as one of the most outspoken critics of American governments, particularly American imperial thinking and practice. Was there a turning point in your life when the call of justice outweighed defending the establishment, or has the establishment gravitated towards unlawfulness?
I think the duty of an attorney-general in the narrow sense is to the constitution and law of the United States, and in a more general sense to truth and justice. I think the task is to protect rights, to fulfil rights, not to serve a political party or political interest, or a particular administration. I’ve often thought it important to have an attorney-general from the opposite political party, or no political party, because there is no room for partisanship outside of what we consider the legislative programme. The legislative programme is where you have policy discretion to establish new law, or change old law. In my time, something like the Voting Rights Act was seeking to establish new law, to first create and then protect the rights of people to vote, regardless of race and other absences of equality. When you start there, my criticism of the Vietnam War was as strong as any other violation of laws and principles that has occurred. That doesn’t mean to say it was equal in degree.

Illustrations can make the conflict of law and politics clear. When Mayor Daly in Chicago during the race riots said they would shoot looters, my response, publicly and immediately, was that anyone who shot a looter would be arrested under federal law. You can’t shoot a looter. You can’t use deadly force against a 12- year-old kid for stealing a basket of apples, or anything else. To intervene was urgent because life was in danger. Second, it was a duty because shooting looters, however politically attractive to some, or expedient in terms of stopping a riot, is something you just can’t do. The race riots occurred after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. When King was shot I flew down that night to Memphis. He wasn’t a public official, but he represented, to me, the highest ideals of the American people. To me, the government had the highest duty to respect his life and pursue those who took it, and to show our commitment to law enforcement in those circumstances. In other instances there were powerful interests that wanted extensive wire-tapping and I prohibited it in all kinds of fields.

So at that time, defending law was also defending justice?

In an ideal situation the same lawyer can be a prosecutor and a defence counsel and as zealous in each pursuit as ethical conduct would indicate appropriate. If you have to take sides in everything you’re not living by principle, you’re living by self-interest: your side against their side. The problem is that we assume that there are sides: the government side and those who criticise the government. I’ve always thought that the highest form of patriotism is to criticise your own government in a time that is it doing wrong in your opinion. Silence in the presence of unlawful conduct by your own government is the most unpatriotic thing you can do.

By this definition, there have been few American patriots of late, though their number appears to be growing.
A long time ago The Nation, our oldest magazine, asked several others and myself for a definition of patriotism. Betty Jean Craige wrote a book on my definition entitled American Patriotism in a Global Society. My definition was: “a personal commitment to make one’s country honest and just in all its acts, and to motivate the whole country to be as good a neighbour in the community of nations as the conscience of individuals motivates them to be in the communities where they live.”

Any other form of patriotism is ultimately destructive because you’re taking sides, right or wrong. The ultimate cowardice and failure of patriotism is to say “My country, right or wrong.” You’re saying if your country’s wrong, you’re for it. You shouldn’t even be for yourself if you’re wrong. We need government, but we better need just government. We won’t solve problems of war and peace, of poverty, hunger, sickness and ignorance without systems designed to effectively address those problems, to share resources and instill a commitment to help the hungry and the sick and the weak wherever they are, and to design means of controlling violence, and to eliminate it from our technology and our character. A government that pursues the opposite agenda is the enemy.

The present US administration appears uninterested in anything but power. Do you think this is a fair assessment?

Just government is a commitment to fulfil human need wherever it exists and prevent violence wherever it threatens. The present US administration is the antithesis of that. It’s a government by and for wealth, leading to more concentration of wealth, and a greater spread of poverty. By definition, it’s a plutocracy, and that’s a very dangerous self-serving, destructive worldview and form of government. One weapon it wields is deception and manipulation of opinion — the distortion of truth to serve an end. The theory has existed at least since Aristotle’s time, which means thousands of years before that, that the best form government is government by the select, the wealthy; that you concentrate power in order to control and prevent the self-destructiveness of human nature. In fact, that concentration is the most destructive aspect of our nature.

The Bush administration appears to be pushing further in that direction than any other in recent history. Is this your view?
You have to be careful in how you describe the present administration. It’s hard to argue with the seeming reality that most administrations, going back to the very beginning, have been aggressive; have sought expansion and domination over territories and people, whether in continental North America or the whole world. In addition, it’s very difficult to identify a strongly divergent view between the major political parties. But what you have here is a president who seeks to advance the same interests that most American administrations have, but in an unprecedented and unprincipled way. It’s the same goal, but there are no rules in the way you play the game. Between the two, if they’re divisible (not playing by the rules or seeking domination), seeking domination is the more dangerous. People who seek domination without restraint are obviously inhumane.

Yet the present bid for empire is so stark, so garish, that it fails. When Bush is exposed to the world, and he is, his plans have no efficacy.
The problem with saying that Bush is exposed is that the administration is still able to manipulate, dangerously, a huge sector of the public, leading, perhaps in most given elections, including the use of dirty tricks, to the ability to win. It’s not clear what is going to happen in the 7 November congressional elections.

What this means — and it’s happening — is that the part of the world that sees how violent and immoral the Bush administration is also sees that the American people are unwilling or unable to stand up to it. That makes a different form of enemy. Usually everyone is careful to distinguish between the government and the people. Now it becomes harder to do, with the extremism of the Bush administration. It’s a real test for the American people. There’s an assumption that this is democratic society. It’s more than an assumption; it’s almost unchallenged when it has never been a democracy and it’s the furthest thing from a democracy now. It’s a plutocracy in the classical sense and they use the mass media (after all, they own it) very effectively to blindside the people and create a false sense of history and patriotism, and all the rest.

So the future in America is bleak?

The thing that may happen from the Bush administration is that it will go further than any other administration could have gone, because of its means, in bringing down the system that both parties have used to seek in general the same goal. His father sought the same goal but he was far more pragmatic. This president doesn’t see that some things don’t work, which is what has happened in Iraq and what will happen if he continues this military policy. However omniviolent the technology, they can’t use it without self- destruction; and they can’t win because even in a country like Iraq their numbers are insufficient to prevail.

Some say the American empire is buried in Baghdad; that this time marks the end of globalisation by war.
That would be nice, but the cat has nine lives. I remember pointing out to the first Bush, that Alexander the Great died in Babylon, so he ought to be careful where he goes. Perhaps now, however, marks a decisive turning point in history.

Recently The Lancet put the number of “excess” deaths following the 2003 US-led war on Iraq at 650,000. Added to the massive civilian toll of the preceding 13 years of sanctions, does such a figure not reflect the intent necessary to be deemed genocide?
I think sanctions were genocidal. Clearly. They took a million and a half lives or more. The Food and Agricultural Organisation reported in October of 1996, just six years into sanctions, that 570,000 children under the age of five had died as a direct result of the sanctions. Given that this was foreseeable a commitment is suggested to destroying in whole or part Iraqis as a national, racial or religious group. Now we’re three and half years into “Shock and Awe” and it would be hard to argue there are not half a million dead already, and the rate is accelerating.

Even worse than the idea of genocide is the “let them kill each other” strategy, and that’s obviously a strong element that’s involved here. Kissinger said at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war, “I hope they kill each other,” by which he meant that its our policy that they should kill each other. Although we’re responsible for all the killings, because we turned the faucet on, one of the saddest things is that Iraqis are killing Iraqis.

And now, though the invasion was a war of aggression, US presence is justified in the name of stemming civil war.
Right. And if you don’t begin with the war of aggression, you’re not addressing the single most dangerous element of what happened. Because it is clearly and beyond question a war of aggression — there’s no possible justification for it. It violates the first articles of the UN Charter that prohibit threat of assault against equal sovereign states. Article 51 doesn’t save it, because there was absolutely no threat. It would be hard, in fact, to find a country that was less a threat to the United States than Iraq was when it was attacked.

That’s the thing that makes impeachment of Bush so critically important, because if the American people can’t or are not willing to restrain their government from arbitrary wars, and have no way of knowing what is going on — both because of deception and because of diversion — then we’re mere consumers, not citizens.

Some say this is all just a blunder. I’d suggest the goal has been constant and the means have been getting harsher as resistance has grown. How do you see it?
I think it’s false that the idea is to establish democracy and freedom. It would be wrong even if it were the purpose because you have no right to decide for other people how they live their lives. Also the idea that the United States made an effort to simply stabilise Iraq seems patently false. If you go beyond the point of diminishing returns in letting people destroy a society you create a vacuum that’s going to draw in larger and larger areas and you can’t control it. It’s not like having Iran and Iraq destroy each other; for this administration that would be the best of all worlds. They’ve made the armed resistance a rod for their own backs because they’ve killed too many young people in a war that made no sense whatsoever — not that any does. Now, in Baghdad, you have to assume that our purpose is not saving Iraqi lives, but in further diminishing their ability to resist, which is at a remarkably high level, considering all they’ve been through.

US generals are saying openly that their pacification plans for Baghdad have failed. I’m surprised that they declare defeat, but suspicious of their declarations also.
It’s pitiful. Casey’s there with the US ambassador, just days ago, saying that within a year to 18 months Iraq will be able to protect itself. It’s baseless propaganda, and I suspect these other statements on Baghdad are also. What they’re saying is for the benefit of the Bush administration, in the election, pure and simple. When they talk about it not working, then the public thinks, “Well, the generals had this idea and they carried it out and it didn’t work. Can I blame George Bush for that? Can I blame the Republicans for that? They’re trying to do these things they say they’re trying do, which is bring democracy to the Middle East and freedom of the people,” when in fact Bush has done more than any president in our history to destroy liberty.

Bush loves to say liberty, but he’s the principal enemy of liberty in the world right now: undercutting the writ of habeas corpus, the right not be arbitrarily detained without charges or people knowing where you are, or what’s happening to you, the right to not to be tortured, demeaning the Geneva Conventions as not relevant to current societies. The deceptions are very difficult for societies to deal with, even if they want to. It’s very hard on the streets here to know what to think about what’s going on in Iraq. How do you find out?

While there is talk of impeachment, there seems little will to uphold applicable instruments of international law relative to alleged war crimes in Iraq, even while some of those imputable — for example, Paul Wolfowitz — are formally out of government. Will this change?
Well, ideally. But that’s why the United States has gone to such lengths to reject international law altogether; to gut the International Criminal Court (ICC) statute before it’s ratified; to coerce 80 countries into agreeing not to surrender US citizens to the ICC by bilateral treaties that are above the law. The problem is that the United States remains dominant. Look at the UN Security Council. It’s quite amazing. China and Russia are sitting right there with them, and then others, doing nothing, despite all the power they have.

Turning to Saddam Hussein, will a verdict on the Dujail trial be issued 5 November? Reports last weekend suggest it could be delayed a second time.

With this court you’re never sure. They’ve said things before that didn’t happen. They said that they’re going to announce it on 5 November and the thing that gives it credibility is not their announcement but the fact that that’s two days before US congressional elections.

It is hard to imagine anything but an execution order being issued from this court, and yet militarily and politically executing Saddam in the current context in Iraq — especially after 300 tribal chiefs, including leaders from Kirkuk, called for him to be reinstated as president — seems suicide for the US.
Well, you can always do a foolish thing. You can always misjudge and be self-destructive. Originally the verdict was due 16 October. They probably moved it because they were afraid of more chaos, which would be counter-productive around the time of the US elections. Now, from Sunday 5 November to Tuesday 7 November, when the polls open, they can control the appearance of any outbreak. It’s cruelly calculating and Machiavellian.

On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a more fraudulent case than the Dujail case. It’s a case brought by the Dawa Party. Jaafari was apparently directly or personally involved in planning some of the assassinations, including the assassination attempt on Tarek Aziz, between 1980 and 1982. It’s a case that involves a judicial proceeding, whether you like it or not, because from the time of the event until the time of signing the death warrants three years went by. If your purpose was vengeance or to show your arbitrary power and strike fear into people you’d have hung them immediately, stuck their head on poles so the people can learn what happens. Instead, they couldn’t even find some of them after three years because they’d gotten lost in the prison system or been released.

It’s so incredible that of all charges they could bring they brought a Dawa Party case. Dawa is a party that was formed in Iran to overthrow the Iraqi government. They took up arms against that government when the nation was endangered. I oppose death penalty in all circumstances, but while you have the concept of nation, treason against the nation is the most dangerous assault on that institutional concept of international regulation. Bush signed 152 death warrants as governor of Texas, and that included people under 18 at the time of the offence. It included women and retarded people, included aliens in violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Never a commutation, never a pardon, just a belief in killing: stamp out sin by death.

Will there be a right to appeal?
I don’t think the right to appeal is any more meaningful than the right to trial under these circumstances. Even under the structure it’s ridiculous because you’ve got to appeal within 10 days and there’s a dispute whether the execution has to take place within 30 days of the entry of the judgement of the trial chamber, or the decision of the appeals chamber. Either way, it can be very quick. It can’t be in two days, though. One of the virtues of 16 October, so to speak, was they could have had an execution before congressional elections. Now they’ll go to polls with the headlines. Sunday in the electronic media it will be “Saddam to hang,” and the same Monday in all the print media. So the undecided going to the polls will say, “we were always for justice!”

I heard from a Geneva source that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has concluded that the trial of Saddam does not conform to binding principles of international law. If true, given the group’s mandate to make legal determinations, will this opinion have an impact on the outcome of the trial?
There is an opinion pending from the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention but it has not been released so I cannot comment on it. We have already had several rapporteurs and commentators say that this trial is unfair. As much as I believe in these institutions and hope for their effectiveness, if some UN agency says the trial is unfair it makes little difference when Bush says its fair. It’s a court that’s totally lacking in independence with judges that are totally lacking in impartiality — a trial that’s as unfair as it can get. Judges are lifted off the court and defence counsel tortured and murdered, and this is a fair trial?

One power that you have is to change public perception of the trial, yet people don’t seem to know how numerous and grave the procedural irregularities have been, or how decisively contested is the legality of the Iraqi Special Tribunal overall.
Of course, but that’s a criticism, too, of institutions and individuals. The flaws are all public record. Anyone can dig them out, including any member of the press. Most journalists are aware of the most grievous facts, even if they don’t report them.

Given your view that the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq was illegal, do you advocate popular resistance? International law would appear to deem the resistance, including armed struggle, the only legal entity in Iraq.
The greater responsibility and urgent need for corrective action is with the people of the United States. We share a degree of responsibility for the actions of our governments. We need to react effectively, and with the least violent potential, not only to relieve the problem that exists now but also to prevent it from happening again. I think armed resistance is a solution, but it’s the least desirable means to accomplish an end that has to be accomplished. I like to think that there are a range of non-violent alternatives to armed resistance that are not only less destructive of life but more likely to prevail.

The present condition in Iraq has degenerated to the point where, while the greatest hatred is towards the occupier, what some people call sectarian struggles are taking far more Iraqi lives than US or other lives. For all the talk the US is still planning to stay. They’re hardening bases. The embassy is rising above the walls of the Green Zone. They think they can finish it and protect it. With US casualties at 100 a month and Iraqi casualties at 5,000 a month, the US can hold out a long time.

But the majority of that 5,000 are victims of death squads that serve forces of the US-installed political process. They are the means of terrorising the population to suppress its support of the resistance.
That’s true. It’s a tragic story of failure of principle here and the reign of violence there. But the most important thing for the people of Iraq to do is recognise that they’re going to self-destruct if they don’t unite. If they can unite the United States will understand right away; it will understand that it has a serious fight on its hands. They need to unite in a common purpose of eliminating the occupation.

The interviewer is visiting professor in political science at An-Najah National University, Nablus, Palestine.

This article was first published by Al-Ahram Weekly, 9-15 November 2006, Issue #819: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2006/819/intrvw.htm
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We negate and we must negate because something in us wants to live and affirm — Friedrich Nietzsche