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Larry Wilkerson: President Obama protected Bush/Cheney from criminal prosecution to protect himself

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

On April 25, former president George Bush opened his library. It was attended by former presidents, personalities involved in his administration, and it was another step in what one might call the rehabilitation of President Bush and his vice president, Cheney, a rehabilitation that really started right at the beginning of the Obama administration, when President Obama chose not to prosecute or even investigate the basis for a possible prosecution of President Bush and Dick Cheney for crimes against humanity, which included the war in Iraq, the question of legality or illegality of that war, torture, and other things. President Obama said at the time, we’re going to look forward, not backwards. But then President Obama went another step. He didn’t just not prosecute President Bush; he gave him a job of working with Bill Clinton in going into Haiti after the earthquake, and the Bush-Clinton initiative was a big step in the rehabilitation of President Bush.

So does any of this matter?

Now joining us to talk about bringing back Bush is Larry Wilkerson. Larry Wilkerson served in the Bush administration as chief of staff for Colin Powell, teaches at William & Mary College, contributes to The Real News lots of times.

So what do you make of this? Like, there’s one thing not to prosecute Cheney and Bush, and as much as you and I, we’ve interviewed about that, we’ve talked about how wrong that was, on the other hand it’s something else to do the positive side of it. I mean, Obama appointed Bush on the Haiti thing, and Clinton agreeing to do it with Bush, and then Clinton goes to the Bush library opening, and so does Colin Powell, your former boss. What do you make of this?

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: This is the march of majesty in America. This is what we do for our former kings. No one would ever deviate from it meaningfully or intentionally, because it would make the position nonsacrosanct anymore. We don’t punish our leaders; we just let them go off into the sunset, oftentimes with billions of dollars.

I was in Dallas, and the thing that disturbed me the most about what I saw on the television there while I was in Dallas was when the former president stood in front of his now opened library and he said something to the effect of I want people to be able to go into this library. And I was watching behind him children going into the library, young children, and see that we lived up to our convictions. This is what the former president said. And I thought immediately, our convictions? We tortured people. We committed war crimes. We authorized the torture at the highest level in the land as the Constitution Project’s task force on detainee treatment announced a few weeks ago, and we did it willingly, with lawyers abiding the task. The task force said their legal opinions were acrobatic. That’s a euphemism. Their legal opinions were bizarre. We did all this. And as you said, we invaded Iraq, we did a few other things also that were probably not quite what presidents should be doing with regard to secrecy and spying on Americans and so forth and so on, and this against a threat that killed fewer people than die on American highways in a single year. And, by the way, for that, we’ve now killed, by conservative estimates, somewhere between 300,000 and half a million Muslims. This is real revenge brought by our majesty.

So, yes, the rehabilitation of George Bush proceeds apace, but history will not abide it. History will record George W. Bush and Richard Cheney as they truly should be recorded.

JAY: Now, we’ve—I’ve interviewed Michael Ratner and others who understand international law on these sorts of issues. There’s—actually was a legal obligation on President Obama’s part to at least look into the possibility of charging or prosecuting Bush-Cheney for war crimes.

WILKERSON: Yes. This is an interesting part of the international legal domain now, centered in the International Criminal Court. As I understand it—I’m not a lawyer, but as I understand it, the Court is not supposed to go after anyone who comes from a country or a state where there is a recognized, legitimate legal system and process and where there is intent visible in that process to deal with the problem within that state.

But let’s face it. Even if that is the case (and it clearly is in this instance), we’re not going to do anything about it. We tortured. That’s a war crime. By the way, that’s a war crime that we led the law to recognize. We, the United States of America, were behind getting that law, getting the treaty, getting things done in the international arena that would prevent tyrants from torturing people, and then we go and torture people. Isn’t that an irony? But if you look at that and you say, we should have done something, you have to ask, how in the world would an international mechanism like the ICC deal with the power of the United States if it wanted to? And the answer to that is clear. The answer is it can’t.

JAY: If you try to unpack President Obama’s reasoning on all of this, it seems to be part of it is that there seems to be a principle, which is presidents can’t commit crimes, presidents can’t have bad intent, they can only make mistakes. So, yeah, President Bush now made a mistake in Iraq, President Obama might argue, but his intentions were good and he certainly didn’t commit any crimes.

WILKERSON: I may surprise you here. I would almost—if I were a psychoanalytical expert, I would almost subscribe to what you just said with regards to George W. Bush. But I would never subscribe to it with regard to Richard Bruce Cheney. Richard Bruce Cheney knew what he was doing every step of the way, pursued that step ruthlessly, brutally, even. Richard Bruce Cheney was the orchestrator of 90 percent of what happened in the national security, foreign policy arena of the United States of America from 2001 to 2005. Does that excuse George W. Bush? No, but it’s mitigating and extenuating circumstances.

JAY: And the argument here is: Cheney—it’s not a mistake that Cheney broke the law. Cheney just didn’t think the law applied to Dick Cheney.

WILKERSON: He’s even said that. He’s said things like waterboarding, I’d do it again. Waterboarding is torture. Torture is against the International Convention against Torture, it’s against domestic law, and it is a war crime.

JAY: And the war itself is a war crime. The idea of attacking a country that doesn’t present an imminent threat, that’s illegal by international law. It’s a war crime. And there’s no evidence of imminent threat coming from Iraq.

WILKERSON: That’s a little bit more dicey a question, and it’s a question that—.

JAY: Why?

WILKERSON: It’s a dicey question because really the first war never stopped. All Norman Schwarzkopf did in the desert with the Iraqis was sign a ceasefire agreement. We still owned the lower half or lower third and the upper third of Iraq with our no-fly zones, British and Americans—French at one time, but they had fallen off. So the war had really—the first Gulf War, which started in ’90, ’91 really had never stopped. It was just a ceasefire. So you could argue—I realize you’re counting angels on the head of a pin, but lawyers do that sort of thing.

JAY: No, but it was pretty clear, the United Nations having a big debate about the issue, and the whole issue of whether there were weapons or not became the issue, not some previous war. And the argument was: because there’s weapons, we’re going to invade.

WILKERSON: Well, just because some people take you off on a different path that’s more rhetorically invigorating in order to sell a war does not necessarily mean—.

JAY: But you can’t suggest there was some international law that accepted the invasion of Iraq and regime change.

WILKERSON: No. What I’m saying is that you could argue from a legal point of view—if you were in a court of law doing this, you could argue that the war had never ended, the first war had never ended, and all we were doing was resuming and finishing it.

JAY: Well, you could argue whether the first war had any legitimacy either. There was no imminent threat to the United States in the first war.

WILKERSON: Well, go back to your original point about the United Nations. It certainly blessed that war.

JAY: It did. To some extent it did. But it certainly did not bless the invasion of Iraq. And what I’m saying—.

WILKERSON: Well, it didn’t bless the invasion of Grenada and a number of other things the United States has done in the post World War II world.

JAY: Well, that’s my point is the—not pursuing the issue of the war in Iraq, not just the issue of torture—and there’s a reason why President Obama doesn’t want to pursue it, and it’s because he wants the ability to do the same thing.

WILKERSON: Well, I don’t disagree with that at all. American presidents now are the war-starters in this country. The Constitution is completely abrogated with regard to the war power. The Congress is a pusillanimous bunch of war avoiders. They scream and holler for war with Iran. They scream and holler for intervention in Syria. But when it comes down to Article One, war power in the Constitution of the United States, the Congress wants nothing to do with it. So the executive picks it up.

JAY: But let me go back to this point, ’cause you’re in the administration when this is all happening. The issue of imminent threat is the fundamental point from the UN. If a country’s not under imminent threat, you can’t attack it. You can’t tell me the argument—.

WILKERSON: If you’re not under imminent threat.

JAY: Yeah. If you’re not under imminent threat, you can’t go and attack the other country. And that’s what happened in the Iraq War.

WILKERSON: Well, you’re talking about Article 51 and the right to self-defense. That’s one thing. Going to war in Korea, for example, in 1950 is another thing. I mean, we weren’t under imminent threat from Korea. But we did do a police action, as it was called at the time, in Korea under the auspices of the UN, mainly because the Russians had walked out. But there are occasions where the United Nations blesses, as it were, the use of force without it being an Article 51 self-defense issue.

JAY: There are occasions, but Iraq War wasn’t one of them.

WILKERSON: No, certainly wasn’t.

JAY: Yeah, and that’s my point about the rehabilitation of Bush and Cheney, and to some extent the focus on torture as the issue that should have been pursued with them and not the war itself. Like, you get—you know, there are certain sections of opinion here that are willing to talk about the torture as the issue, and rightly so, but don’t want to talk about the war itself.

WILKERSON: I think you’re right, but I think that has a longer history than perhaps you’re intimating, and that history is the history of great powers and the history of war itself. Rarely in history can you point at a war where a great power is involved, whether it’s for its own hegemonic purposes or whether it’s for its allies or whatever, you have a strictly legal case in the way that you’re expressing it.

JAY: Well, ’cause if President Obama was to pursue this or the Justice Department was to pursue this, they’d have to really recognize that if you don’t have UN authorization, you can’t start a war. And I agree. I think there’s a lot of dubious authorizations from the UN, so it’s not like the UN is some, you know, perfect judge on these sorts of issues. But a lot of the foreign policy elite, if you will, don’t want any focus on this, ’cause they don’t really want to recognize that anyone can tell the United States when to invade somebody or not.

WILKERSON: You’re absolutely right. I’m not sure, at the root of things, as a former military officer and a member of this great country, that I would want to hand off at this particular point in time to the United Nations specifically the war power. I mean, I’m not even sure I would go that far.

JAY: Well, it’s not like United Nations, I think, is going to encourage anyone to go to war. It’s the other way around. The United Nations essentially is saying you can’t go to war—I mean, I don’t think the UN could ever tell anyone under imminent threat not to defend itself. If you ever had a Security Council that wouldn’t support that, I think any country’s going to ignore it.

WILKERSON: I can point out a case where they basically did, when Iraq invaded Iran. Go back and look at the UN Security Council at how it dithered over even making a statement about that war and about the aggression that had just occurred. And the reason for that, of course, was because the United States, in many instances being the most powerful country, being the largest contributor, is really the UN.

JAY: In many circumstances.


JAY: Although it was interesting on the recent Iraq War. It was not able to—

WILKERSON: Didn’t work very well.

JAY: —did a lot of leaning on people.

WILKERSON: And it didn’t work very well partly because—and this is just instrumental; it’s not substantive, but it is substantive instrumental, if you will—the ineptitude of the Bush administration. First of all, Cheney had no use for the UN, as he expressed many times. And second, the way they went after the UN was very inept. The only person that cared, the only person exercising some aptitude was Colin Powell. The rest of them didn’t care.

JAY: And to what extent do you think President Obama thinks about these things early on in his administration, that if I go after Bush-Cheney some day, they may come after me? I may have to do things that are on the edge of or skirt the law. A lot of people are arguing the drone campaign is exactly that.

WILKERSON: He’s become more draconian than George W. Bush or Dick Cheney in terms of whistleblower prosecution, in terms of the FISA Amendments Act, in terms of the national security letter and its use, and so forth. He’s worse than George W. Bush. So, yes, your point is well made.

I’m sure that he thought about it and thought about the very fact that an executive would surrender power is nonsense. It doesn’t matter how much you may convince him that power has the potential for evil, abuse, or whatever; no president is ever going to surrender power once he’s gotten it. As Henry Kissinger once jokingly said, power corrupts, and absolute power is kind of nice.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Larry.

WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.