Ramsey Clark, the war criminal's best friend

The former U.S. attorney general has become the tool of left-wing cultists who defend Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and Rwandan torturers as anti-imperialist heroes.

Published June 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In the most morbidly literal way, NATO forces are "sniffing out" more mass graves than alliance spokesman Jamie Shea ever suspected. Dog-eaten sticks of bone poke from putrescent pits on television screens. So it is not surprising that on July 31 New York will see the opening of a commission of inquiry for an international war crimes tribunal. What may surprise some is that its target is NATO's war crimes.

Those who know him will be less surprised that the inspiration for this circus is former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, whom one long-standing colleague described as "a good man gone ga-ga -- at least 25 years ago." Many liberals and leftists cut Clark a considerable degree of slack. For a start he is almost the only person the American left has had in high public office since World War II, even if it was a retrospective success, since his long march leftward only began afterward. His views as the former attorney general are listened to with a respect that would be accorded to few others with such eccentric opinions. As a revered spokesman of the left, he is a perfect symbol for its near-impotence in American politics today.

Everyone who has dealings with Clark uses the word "nice" to describe him. But he often sides with people whom no one with a full deck would call nice. (Clark did not respond to a Salon News interview request.) Many former friends, more in sorrow than in anger, trace his present positions to the company he keeps: the International Action Center, which proclaims him its founder but seems entirely in the thrall of an obscure Trotskyist sect, the Workers World Party. Whoever writes his scripts, there is little doubt what Ramsey Clark is against now -- any manifestation of the power of the state he once served at the height of the Vietnam War.

At the end of 1998 Clark attended a human rights conference in Baghdad, Iraq, where in his keynote speech he pointed out how "the governments of the rich nations, primarily the United States, England and France," dominated the wording of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which showed "little concern for economic, social and cultural rights." The social and cultural rights claimed by his Iraqi hosts include the right to hang opponents in public at the airport, or poison thousands of Kurds and torture and execute any opponent of the regime. And on the legality of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the silence is deafening.

When he flew to Belgrade to support Slobodan Milosevic during NATO's campaign, there was no word about the siege of Sarajevo, the massacre at Srebrenica or the million homeless refugees from Kosovo -- and even less of those olfactorily eloquent mass graves that NATO is now uncovering. But then, urging Belgrade to resist NATO, while he was there picking up an honorary degree, he told his hosts, "It will be a great struggle, but a glorious victory. You can be victorious."

In Grenada he went to advise Bernard Coard, the murderer of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. Other clients include Radovan Karadzic, the indicted Bosnian Serbian war criminal whom he defended in a New York civil suit brought by Bosnian rape victims, and the Rwandan pastor who is accused of telling Tutsis to hide in his church and then summoning Hutus to massacre them, and then leading killing squads.

His willingness to accept dubious clients is defended by some attorneys. After all, everyone needs a defense. Others say he has crossed a moral line by defending Karadzic and overlooking events in Kosovo. But looking at his legal arguments, one must question the wisdom of his legal counsel, not just his morals. A prominent international lawyer explains, "He's not really very well up on international law -- I remember he was asking for help in some of his early cases."

In his defense of Rwanda genocide indictee Pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, for instance, he played to U.S. isolationist sentiment, and -- somewhat ironically for a case originating in Texas, the capital of capital punishment -- said his client faced execution if extradited. A moment's research would have established that the international tribunals set up by the United Nations do not have the death penalty, because most countries, unlike the United States, regard executions as barbaric. But even then it seems odd that someone who regards this country so balefully would seek to exempt it from the clear international law expressed by the tribunal. With a foretaste of his blasi attitude over Kosovo's ethnic cleansing, he said that it was "unconstitutional" to extradite someone to the "illegal" international tribunal. "The international tribunal for Rwanda is an extension of colonial power in Africa, which can threaten every African leader. The tribunal is foreign power intervention taking sides to maintain its control over the majority Hutu through Tutsi surrogates."

Attention to detail is not a major feature of his work. While claiming an intimate knowledge of events in the Balkans, only this April he addressed a letter to Bill Richardson as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., telling him that "the U.S. assaults both Slavs and Muslims to stimulate them to attack each other and to control both." Of course, if he had been reading newspapers other than Workers World, he would have noticed that Richardson has been energy secretary for over a year. Indeed, he may have noticed that Richard Holbrooke, not unconnected to the region, has been stalled in his nomination for the post.

His advice to Belgrade to sue NATO for genocide at the International Court of Justice did not, for example, take into account an existing successful injunction from 1993 against Yugoslavia to stop committing genocide against the Bosnians.

What we are reduced to is the idea that human rights are not something inherent in the individual, but contingent on the politics of the state that abuses such rights. What Ramsey Clark wants from the city of Philadelphia for Mumia Abu Jamal (another of his causes) he calls "colonial" justice when claimed by Tutsis in Rwanda against their erstwhile murderers, or a tool of imperialism when claimed by Kosovars against their torturers.

In fact, many of these political anomalies make sense in light of his role as the figurehead for the International Action Center, which in turn is the front for the Workers World Party. Between them they write his letters and briefs. Respected by some on the left for their ability to bring out people for demonstrations, they are reviled by many for bringing the left into disrepute.

The Workers World Party split from the Socialist Workers Party many decades ago in support of
the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and it has remained true to its origins. Oddball Trotskyists morphed to Stalinoids, its members have since then supported the Chinese government over Tiananmen Square -- and of course see the current incumbents in Belgrade and Baghdad as staunch anti-imperialists. By appearing on their behalf, the former attorney general allows their views a vicarious respectability that they could never dream of otherwise. Associates take some small comfort from the WWP's hold on Clark -- it means that he no longer carries water for the equally oddball Lyndon LaRouche, with whom he flirted in the '80s.

Clark's is a distinguished Southern pedigree. His father was an attorney general before him and resigned from the Supreme Court to avoid a conflict of interest when his son joined Lyndon Johnson's administration. There were few signs of his current leftism: On Vietnam, the obsessive litmus test of the American left, he failed miserably, supervising the prosecution of Dr. Benjamin Spock for conspiracy to encourage draft-dodging. When he ran for the Senate in 1976, he was to the right of Bella Abzug, and even some of his campaign workers say that by splitting the ticket, he let in Daniel Patrick Moynihan ("Not a big step forward for progressive humanity," one former supporter commented laconically.) Ironically, as a candidate he opposed Israel negotiating with the PLO. Now, he says Islam "is probably the most compelling spiritual and moral force on earth today" and that the U.S. is anti-Islamic. However, this benignly spiritual view does not seem to have extended to the millions of Muslims in Kosovo and Bosnia.

Since the 1970s, he seems to have had little contact with the mainstream of American politics except as an occasional TV pundit invited to speak on the strength of his former attorney generalhood. "My feeling is that he has to be a true believer" in the WWP, says a former campaign worker, although others assume a more opportunistic relationship.

It is not surprising that many of Charles Dickens' eccentric characters are obsessively involved in litigation. It does something to a man -- and especially to a former attorney general. If the world is not the way you want, it must be sued into the right shape. And if conspiracies of the powerful exclude you from existing tribunals, or they return improper verdicts, why then you set up your own marsupial court where you can pull the verdict ready formed from your pouch. Which is why the outcome of his tribunal in New York is already in before the jury has even been empanelled, that the U.S. and NATO are guilty of unspeakable crimes, and Slobodan Milosevic is bathed in the blood of the lamb, not steeped in the gore of Kosovo.

By Ian Williams

Ian Williams' book "Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776" is due in late August 2005 from Nation Books. His last book was "Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Own Past."

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