The Washington Post editorial page's latest rule of law sermon

Those who have sanctioned some of the most extreme acts of illegality and human rights abuses continue to condemn other countries for less egregious acts.


Glenn Greenwald
July 28, 2008 3:48PM (UTC)

(updated below)

Jackson Diehl, Deputy Editor of the The Washington Post's Editorial Page, has an Op-Ed today that contains a stirring defense today of "the rule of law." Diehl righteously complains the "president is already in danger of making 'legal nihilism' the byword for his administration." It might be considered quite surprising that an Editorial Page that has long cheered on many of the Bush administration's most extreme acts of lawlessness is suddenly complaining about the President's "legal nihilism," except that Diehl's sermon isn't directed towards the American President, but rather towards Russia's. Acording to Dihel, Russia is demonstrating a very upsetting disregard both for domestic and international law.

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That an establishment organ like The Washington Post Editorial Page continues to think it can credibly lecture the world on the rule of law and the need to abide by international norms is a potent reflection of how deluded our political class has become. Given what our political establishment has sanctioned over the last seven years, it so obviously has -- to use the phrase coined by the ex-blogger Billmon -- "forfeited its ability to chastise the human rights abuses of others without triggering a global laughing fit." That goes double for our ability to chastise other political cultures for their disregard of the rule of law, particularly basic precepts of international law.

Yet here is Diehl, bitterly complaining with a straight face, that "the law still doesn't seem to matter" to the Russian Government in either the domestic or international realm. He identifies several examples where he claims the Russian Government has intervened in disputes between Russian and foreign corporations in order to force the latter to turn over their assets to the Russian Government, and this is what Diehl says about Russia's outrageous disregard for international law:

So much, then, for domestic reform. What about international law? . . . . More serious is the predicament of Georgia, the former Soviet republic that has embraced democracy and sought NATO membership. Since shortly before Medvedev took office, Russian warplanes have been systematically violating Georgian airspace, shooting down Georgian drone aircraft on several occasions. In breach of a U.N.-sponsored agreement, Moscow has dispatched security forces to the separatist region of Abkhazia and granted legal recognition to its self-declared government. U.S. and European officials believe a concerted effort is underway to provoke the Georgian government into an armed confrontation.

Diehl is writing on the same Editorial Page which, for the last five years, has boisterously cheered on the American invasion and occupation of Iraq -- one of the most egregious violations of international law of the last decade, at least. It's the same Editorial Page that has repeatedly urged that lawbreaking telecoms should be relieved of the obligation to go to court and should be immunized from any consequences, decreeing that they were "acting as patriotic corporate citizens" when breaking our privacy laws for years. It's an Editorial Page that never ceases its support for those who threaten Iran with a military attack -- threats which (not that anyone really cares) happen to be violations of the conventions of international law which the Post depicts itself as upholding (UN Charter: "All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force . . . ").

And just two days ago, the Post's Editorial Page explicitly advocated that new so-called "specialized national security courts" be created in the U.S. to empower the President to imprison people -- even for life -- without having to charge them with any crime, including in those circumstances where (due to a lack of evidence) no such charges could possibly be brought against such individuals:

The president must have the legal flexibility to detain those against whom there is credible, actionable intelligence but not enough evidence to bring charges.

This is who, on a weekly basis, singles out other Governments for lectures on the sanctity of the rule of law, human rights, and the need to abide by international conventions. It's certainly possible to argue that we shouldn't be constrained by petty and bothersome things like international law and even domestic law when it comes to having the President protect us all. That, more or less, has been the animating principle which our political establishment (and certainly the Post Editorial Page) has embraced to justify the conduct of our own Government during the last seven years.

But you can't simultaneously espouse that view for yourself and then expect that your sermons to the rest of the world about the sanctity of international conventions and the rule of law will be treated with anything other than scornful indifference. Yet somehow, people like Jackson Diehl -- Fred Hiatt's deputy -- continue to believe they're in a position to condemn other countries' disregard for such principles.

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What we've done over the last seven years -- at least much of it -- isn't a secret. It's worthwhile to state frequently in clear, dispassionate terms what our country has done. Our Government has kidnapped people off the street and from their homes and sent them to places like Syria to be tortured for months (including completely innocent people) and then invoked National Security claims to bar them from holding our Government accountable in a court of law. We've disappeared others into secret prisons beyond even the reach of the Red Cross, or encaged them in a lawless black hole on a Cuban island. We've tortured them, sometimes to death, even with the knowledge that many were innocent. We attacked and completely demolished another country that couldn't attack us even if it wanted to. And our President openly declared that he has the power to break our laws, spy on U.S. citizens with no warrants, and indefinitely imprison even our own citizens with no process of any kind. Those are all just facts that aren't really subject to dispute or debate.

Worst of all, having done all of that -- not for weeks or months following the 9/11 attacks, but for years, still -- we've collectively decided, without much turmoil or debate, that it should all be forgiven, that none of it should be punished or even investigated, that it's best just to keep these crimes concealed and, when accidentally disclosed, to immunize the criminals. And all of that is being done right out in the open, so that our formal human rights reports are self-evident, almost laughable, farces, and even countries like Zimbabwe, when their governments want to engage in tyrannical acts, can and do rationally point to the U.S. as the leading example which they're following.

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Whether this country or that one is "worse" than the U.S. in these areas is irrelevant to the point (though, on that topic, one might compare Diehl's complaints about Russia's interference in oil disputes to the Bush administration's "War on Terror" conduct). Regardless of who is "worse," it is truly baffling that our political establishment still thinks it can anoint itself arbiters on the rule of law and human rights.

How can a member of an Editorial Page which has endorsed some of the most grotesque abuses and violations of law within their own country -- and which continues to believe that those responsible should be protected and immunized -- possibly continue to parade around as some sort of crusaders for those principles when it comes to others? Who is the target audience that they think they are successfully fooling with that charade? What mental process allows a person like Jackson Diehl or Fred Hiatt to declare that their own Government is exempt from the rule of law and the most basic international norms yet still believe they are in a position to condemn other governments for insufficient regard for the rule of law and human rights?

UPDATE: In comments, El Cid provides one of the best definitions of what makes one a "Leftist" when it comes to our foreign policy debates:

One of the things which apparently marks you as part of the whacked out fringe crazy extreme left in this country is that you seem to think there might ought be consistency between (a) what the U.S. foreign policy establishment demands of other, typically weaker nations; (b) what the U.S. foreign policy establishment feels free to do with regard to and even in those other nations; and (c) what the U.S. does at home.

That really is the hallmark of what the political establishment dismisses and derides as "leftism."

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On a different though related note, this is what Verizon did today:

Now that Congress has given immunity to telecommunications companies that helped the government spy on Americans in suspected terrorism cases, a Maine legislator is asking Verizon anew if it turned over any customer records to the federal government.

As it has in the past when faced with such queries, Verizon Communications Inc. says it is not commenting on matters involving national security. . . .

The law in effect nullified a lawsuit by Maine which sought to know what kind of phone customer information was turned over to the National Security Agency as part of its anti-terror efforts. That and several other similar cases brought by consumers, privacy advocates and others had been consolidated before Congress granted immunity. . . .

"Possibly tens of thousands of Mainers have had their private phone records leaked to the federal government without their knowledge or say-so, and now none of them may ever know," he said.

Telecoms have done the same to the U.S. Congress as well, by outright refusing to respond to inquiries from Congressional committees concerning their conduct in enabling spying on their customers. It isn't only the President who shields himself from accountability and the rule of law with heavy-handed invocations of "National Security." In the U.S., private corporations now do the same (though the distinction between the telecom industry and the Executive branch increasingly exists only in theory). These corporations now brazenly cite National Security concerns as a ground for telling legislative bodies that they can't be investigated. They know infinitely more than even the Congress about what our Government is doing and are accountable to nobody even when they break the law. But what's happening to the rule of law in Russia is terribly upsetting.


Glenn Greenwald

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