When the former head of an organization that has assassinated people with drones and tortured prisoners at black sites around the world suggests the Republican frontrunner for the presidency is out of line, proposing national security measures that shock the legalistic conscience of this amoral bureaucrat — to the point, he posited, that others may refuse to lift a blood-stained finger for their commander-in-chief — people sit up and listen.
“I would be incredibly concerned if a President Trump governed in a way that was consistent with the language that Candidate Trump expressed during the campaign,” said retired Gen. Michael Hayden, former head of the US Central Intelligence Agency, during a recent interview with Bill Maher, a smug liberal Islamophobe with a television show. Some of Donald Trump’s proposals, “would be in violation of all the international laws of armed conflict,” said Hayden. And, he added, “You are required not to follow an unlawful order.”
Trump is, of course, a pathetic man with horrific ideas; in a civilized nation his inherited wealth would be stripped from him and used to fund reparations for Mexicans and renovations for mosques, and he would be barred from holding a retail sales position, much less public office. In the race for the White House, however, the wealthy blowhard is doing rather well, at least among white nationalists and other Republican constituencies. Call him a proto-fascist or right-wing populist or some other term not printable in a family publication like teleSUR, the billionaire’s self-assured demagoguery appeals to the authoritarian mind: whether he’s promising to deport or kill ’em all, Trump is promising angry white men that he will do bad things to those who upset them, while saying to hell with political correctness and the Geneva Conventions.
It’s his brash personality which attracts, but also offends. A President Trump’s illegal orders — like torture that he’s promised would be a “hell of a lot worse” than waterboarding; killing the families of “terrorists” would not be all that substantively different than those given out by his predecessors responsible for hundreds of thousands of dead in illegal wars of aggression from Iraq to Vietnam, but whereas they downplayed the “bad apples” that invariably thrive in wartime, the bad apple is what Trump celebrates: the all-American rebel in a green Army jacket proudly doing the dirty work required to make an empire great again. William Calley, an Army officer charged with murdering 108 Vietnamese civilians, would be greeted with a hero’s welcome at a Trump rally, and that’s the problem some have: Crimes like his are supposed to be quietly dismissed by a circuit judge.
It’s hard to believe someone like Hayden, who oversaw an extrajudicial CIA assassination program for George W. Bush that in Pakistan alone droned to death no less than 160 civilians during his tenure, objects to Trump on the basis of a morality the career militarist never previously disclosed. Hayden was a happy killer, by all outward appearances, and an advocate of killing people based not just on who we think they are but on their “pattern of life”: If it acts like a terrorist it is a terrorist, especially if it’s a military-age corpse, at least for bookkeeping purposes. Killing a whole family might be a bit much, but then Hellfire missiles fired at homes in Waziristan do not discriminate between terrorists and toddlers.
Trump may be worse than anyone else who has come as close to presidential power as he has, limiting ourselves to the modern era, but that’s troubling to those who lack the sort of power they fear he will abuse. The national security establishment, a group to which a former head of the CIA no doubt belongs, perhaps fears an imperial salesman who lacks tact; a mass murderer without social grace. But the national security establishment can’t even agree on that. Some rather like Trump’s no-nonsense militarism, stripped of romantic sentiment and any rhetorical concern about human rights.
Michael Flynn was the head of President Barack Obama’s Defense Intelligence Agency, making him the top-ranking military intelligence officer in the United States. Like the head of the CIA, this would make him very much a part of anything that might be called the national security establishment. Reuters describes him as an advocate of working “closely with Russia to resolve global security issues,” and reports that he’s now advising Trump on foreign affairs.
The “establishment,” then, can’t decide if Trump’s rhetoric is beyond the pale or spot on. All that rhetoric about deporting Muslims, and shooting them dead with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, bothers some in Washington, but certainly not all. And power is persuasive: If a president orders the military to do something then it effectively becomes legal — what court, with what army, would dare object? — and only those who refuse to go along ever feel the full wrath of the law.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq was illegal, according to one of its architects, former Pentagon policy adviser Richard Perle. He admitted as much a few months into the war, but the after-the-invasion confession didn’t bother the confessor. “I think in this case international law stood in the way of doing the right thing,” said Perle. “International law … would have required us to leave Saddam Hussein alone.”
Precisely zero such architects of an admittedly illegal war have been prosecuted for violating the international prohibition on aggressive war. Those who refused to follow an unlawful order, however — they all got charged, for what is really an “illegal order” is a lot like the question of what is art and what is pornography: it’s in the eye of the discerning viewer, in this case the US military, which always deems noncompliance by a soldier as obscenity.
“It is the duty, the obligation of every soldier, and specifically the officers, to evaluate the legality, the truth behind every order — including the order to go to war,” said Lt. Ehren Watada back in 2006. He refused to participate in the Iraq war, saying, “My participation will make me a party to war crimes.” He was subjected to a military court martial on charges of “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.”
Chelsea Manning was an Army private who was horrified to learn that the US military was handing over Iraqi civilians to the puppet government of Nouri al-Maliki, knowing they would be tortured. She used her access to reveal that and other crimes, including a 2010 US attack on unarmed civilians in Baghdad, killing more than a dozen.
In 2013, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
Donald Trump, if he becomes president, will kill lots of people. No one should take his opportunistic, and by now obvious and belated critique of the Iraq war during 20 seconds of a debate to be more than it is: an opportunistic, obvious, belated critique, made on the campaign trail. His criticism of “regime change” is as empty as George W. Bush’s stated opposition to “nation building,” and neutralized by his support for regime preservation, which is no less a sin, and no less imperialism, when externally imposed.
That things have been terrible, from a preserving innocent foreign life perspective, doesn’t mean they can’t get worse — but in the case of former spooks with sudden conscience syndrome, Trump could use better critics. If the likes of those advising him are any sign, chances are they will be the same ones eager to carry out his illegal orders, and the first to condemn those who refuse.