THE DARK KNIGHT: The Rise of “The Real” Obama


The Rise of “The Real” Obama

Wajahat Ali

Like Superman, flying in the sky, Obama swept into the hearts and minds of White America as a redeeming savior capable of single handedly battling the old guard, prehistoric, Republican foes of progress and enlightenment. For several months, the media pundits and corporate news channels adulated Obama to the point of beatific eminence as a near infallible superhero who could walk on water and feed the multitudes with a simplistic slogan of “hope” and “change.” And then last week the freight train known as reality hit harder than a speeding locomotive, and the masses, spurred by the media, political adversaries, interest groups and pundits, finally opened their eyes and cried, “Look up there in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No – It’s a Black man!”

Superman’s alias is Clark Kent, a square jawed, all American, intellectual, non threatening, Kansas farm boy raised by Ma and Pa Kent; however, Clark, despite his American values, was always an “alien” Kal-El from the planet Krypton, the last surviving son of Jor-El gifted with fantastic powers. Any fan of superhero mythology knows that the alien hero’s supernatural qualities – the same ones that make him unique, beloved and endearing – also eventually serve to alienate him from the masses due to a pervasive, silent whisper of fear – usually perpetuated by a nemesis such as Lex Luthor– instilling perennial doubt and apprehension regarding the alien superhero’s true loyalties and sincerity.

Like Superman, those characteristics that make Obama unique and powerful, such as his biracial, multicultural upbringing, his intellectual eloquence, and his African Muslim name, also alienate him with certain mainstream demographics. However, unlike Clark Kent, Barack Obama cannot comfortably hide and assimilate under an “All-American” European name and skin tone. With his Arabic birth name, his middle name reminding the voting population of a recently executed Iraqi dictator, twenty percent of the nation still believing Obama is a closet Muslim, and his “dark” skin color that could possibly ignite a 50 shot police barrage in New York ending in an acquittal, Obama’s critics superficially suggest he represents White America’s “worst nightmare”: an angry, eloquent, opinionated, divisive, secretly Anti-American, Black [potentially Muslim] nationalist.

Recently, McCain shamelessly insinuated Obama supports “terrorism” and the democratically elected Palestinian government of Hamas – referred to as a terrorist group by most American Congressman – with this gem of a sound bite: “I think it’s very clear who Hamas wants to be the next president of the United States. I think that people should understand that I will be Hamas’s worst nightmare … If Senator Obama is favored by Hamas I think people can make judgments accordingly.”

Furthermore, Hilary Clinton still trumpets her dominating, crushing and monumental win by all of 9.5 points in Pennsylvania thanks to rural demographics, less educated workers and seniors – all of them White. In addition, her non-stop, energizer bunny smear campaign of Obama as an “elitist” – the blackest pot calling the kettle black – suddenly transformed Obama, the Clark Kent/Superman superhero, into a charismatic yet fallible mortal, a Bruce Wayne/ Batman Dark Knight. The corporate media, once so enamored by this magical, United Colors of Benetton poster boy, jumped ship after finally realizing that a “Dark” man could actually win the highest Office in the land. With a renewed zeal and passion, the self appointed info-tainment media circus on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, talk radio, and European Press, consisting mostly of White men and peroxide Blonde women repeatedly parroted Clinton’s mantra reminding Americans that Obama “just can’t cross over with working class Whites.”

If corporate media and politicians were actually interested in fair, reasoned and intelligent discourse instead of the latest polls and knee jerk histrionic sensationalism, they would realize the “elitist” Obama received the majority of votes among low-income voters in 14 different primaries and caucuses, many of those whom were “White.” The truth of the matter is none of these candidates, including Obama, represents White, Middle Class America. Granted, Obama has a problem crossing over to some seniors and White workers, however what is not reported is that Hillary, last year’s sure-fire lock for the Democratic nomination, once held a near 20 point lead in Pennsylvania which eroded to a 9.5 point win. Furthermore, unlike Obama, Clinton’s campaign budget is in the hole, recently rebounding due to a desperate $5 million dollar “loan” by Hillary to her own campaign. Surely, there’s nothing “elitist” about an “Average Joan” funding her own ambitious bid for a public office with millions from her own wealth while many Americans are either currently jobless, working two jobs just to stay broke or thirty days away from a foreclosure. McCain’s shameless attempts to empathize with the “Middle Class” should be ridiculed after examining his marriage to Beer heiress, Cindy McCain, whose net worth exceeds $100 million dollars, with most of it tied to her father’s stake in Hensley & Co., and the rest injected into the McCains’ faces.

Oh, and before we forget, last but not least there’s also Obama’s kryptonite: Reverend Wright, whose fiery and impassioned rhetoric and recent speeches are an answer to Clinton and McCain’s Presidential prayers. After Obama attempted to slay the PR debacle of March with – what some called – a “historic” race speech, Wright re-emerged like “Night of the Living Dead” to remind America that opinionated, passionate, angry and controversial Black men still exist. His appearance on Bill Moyers’ Show, and incendiary speeches at an NAACP event and The National Press Club have led to a week long, non stop headline “guilt by association” trial prosecuting Obama, Reverend Wright, and the Church of “uppity Blackness.”

Wright theatrically, and many say arrogantly, blasted the media’s double standard when portraying Black churches and the African American Christian tradition. He reminded America of the sadistic Tuskegee experiments and the use and abuse of African Americans as medical guinea pigs [Read Harriet Washington’s award winning Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on African Americans.] Furthermore, like most policy experts, both Republican and Democrat, he suggested American imperialism and interference in the Middle East is responsible for our terrorism blowback. However, he made his most controversial statement in claiming the government is capable of disseminating AIDS and Crack to the African American community. Ishmael Reed, in a recent essay entitled The Crazy Reverend Wright, writes about the latter:

“Rev. Wright proposes that crack was deliberately brought into the inner city by the government. The CIA admitted to having knowledge that US allies brought drugs into the urban areas. The late Gary Webb was ridiculed by the American press for his “Dark Alliance,” yet as Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair disclose in their book Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press, two years after Webb’s series ran, the CIA’s inspector general confirmed that the agency had in fact been aiding those very same Contra drug-runners (and many more).”

One need not agree, endorse nor support most of Wright’s opinions, and according to the recent polls most Americans do not. Granted, Wright’s appearances and comments are not only ill timed but also cancerous to Obama’s candidacy, however they reflect a very real, sincere frustration and anger that many, not only African Americans, share in regards to the government’s hypocritical and self serving domestic and foreign policies, such as “The War on Drugs” and “The War on Terror” respectively, whose subsequent victims are usually the most poor, powerless, and disenfranchised members of American society.

Furthermore, Reverend Wright’s “incendiary” and “divisive” comments are hardly new, as America’s relationship with rabble rousing, controversial Baptist polemicists has been long and fruitful. Regrettably, due to socio-political reality of America, we can only uncomfortably tolerate White pastors, such as the late Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who spewed vitriolic anger and bombastic rhetoric damning America for its vices and sins. Lest we forget, Falwell and Robertson tag teamed like the Christian version of “The Justice League” to issue this enlightened post 9-11 commentary:

Falwell: I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say “you helped this [The 9-11 attacks] happen.”

Robertson: Well, I totally concur, and the problem is we have adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government.

Both pastors enjoyed and continue to enjoy veneration and respect by several ranking members of the Republican Party and the Bush Administration undoubtedly due to their influence over the Evangelical Christian vote. However, neither Bush Sr. nor President G.W. Bush were demonized, lambasted or endlessly hounded for explanations regarding their affiliations with these “incendiary”, White pastors.

Furthermore, the holy Billy Graham, second only to Mother Theresa or Shirley Temple as icons of virtue, cultivated personal friendships and acquaintanceships with nearly all the sitting Presidents dating back to Nixon, many times serving as their spiritual advisor. Despite a highly successful and charismatic career “building bridges” undoubtedly fueled by a sincere devotion and belief in his religion, Graham secretly harbored deeply anti-Semitic sentiments as evidenced by the recorded Nixon tapes of 1972 that were released by the US National Archives. In the tapes, Mr. Graham complained of a Jewish “stranglehold” on Hollywood and the media, which he urged “has got to be broken or this country’s going down the drain.” Graham continues:

“A lot of Jews are great friends of mine. They swarm around me and are friendly to me, because they know that I am friendly to Israel and so forth, but they don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country, and I have no power and no way to handle them.”

The Reverend apologized in 2002 for these comments and publicly stated he regretted harboring such views. Applying the Obama-Wright standard of today, if indeed a Pastor’s inflammatory rhetoric and opinions can be readily transferable to his parishioners, then surely Regan, George Bush, George W. Bush and Clinton should be thoroughly vetted for potential strains of virulent anti-Semitism. [Carter, due to calls for “conversation” with Hamas and his book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, has already been branded an anti-Semite.]

Even Hillary Clinton, who routinely smears Obama with feigned elegance by suggesting had she hypothetically been in Obama’s shoes she “would have left [Wright’s] church”, confided she turned to Rev. Graham during the Monica Lewinsky scandal:

“He was someone who could understand both Bill and me, and there aren’t many people who can,” and he gave her confidence “that what I was doing, no matter what the rest of the world thought, was right. Right for me, right for my family and right for my country. And I will never forget that.”

Applying the Obama-Wright standard perhaps Clinton’s Jewish supporters and lobbyists should not forget Graham’s anti-Semitism and critically re-examine, question and repeatedly test Clinton’s views regarding the Jewish people.

After analyzing this Reverend Wright spectacle in light of Obama’s entire campaign, the real kryptonite to Obama’s presidential aspirations was never Reverend Wright, Louis Farrakhan, “elitism” or questions of his political inexperience. It has been, is, and always will be race. A “Reverend Wright-esque Spectacle” concerning race and/or religion [Obama’s Arabic/Muslim name], if not now, then surely later would have erupted during the Presidential campaign. No matter what Obama does, says, doesn’t say, or doesn’t do, the racial parameters set by Whiteness have determined and will continue to determine his viability and success as a leader and a candidate.

When Obama refused to passionately and angrily distance himself from Wright, CNN commentators labeled him soft, passive, and unassertive. During the Pennsylvania primaries, when Obama took the offensive and ignited the critical, and many say “negative,” campaigning against Clinton, he was accused of losing his “Cool Hand Luke” aura and Zen calm and was instead “lashing out” under the strain of critical inquiry after failing to deliver the decisive “knockout blow” during the crucial final stretch. When Obama talked about “transcendence” and “moving forward” as a means of bridging the racial divide, his authentic Blackness came under review by doubting spectators because he sounded too conciliatory. However, as of this week, due to Wright’s most recent comments, Obama was urged to abandon reconciliation, and instead “passionately denounce” his former Pastor as to not appear both too soft or too radical.

Like Bagger Vance, the mystical and magical African American caddie played by Will Smith who inspires Matt Damon’s golf game, Obama is tolerable as long as he infuses the Democratic Party and the debased, scatological, two party election system with a superficial veneer of hope, optimism, vibrancy and youthful funk. After giving the elections his “funk” injection, he is expected, like Bagger Vance, to jig away into the sunset never to be heard from again as the White golfers resume their game. For those voters and pundits unable to look beyond their Whiteness, Obama’s greatest mistake was to actually pick up a club and start playing.

In playing this political game, Obama says he wants to stay clean and fair and not hit below the belt, even though many rightly label such rhetoric as hypocritical especially after observing some of his anti-Clinton television advertisements. However, Obama promised to no longer “throw elbows” and to instead elevate his game: “I told this to my team, that we are starting to sound like other folks. We’re starting to run the same negative stuff and it shows that none of us are immune from this kind of politics.”

If indeed Obama follows this strategy, his advisors should quickly remind him that the winning Presidential Gladiators of the American Political Arena are those who play in the sewers, shamelessly and recklessly slinging mud with a focused, single minded objective of out-smearing their opponents as to emerge the “cleaner” one amongst the “darkened” candidates. Nothing smears more permanently in the psyche of American voters than “Blackness.”

Aside from this Reverend Wright spectacle, one need only remember “Willie Horton,” the vile 1988 Bush vs. Dukakis benchmark of smear campaigning, and President George W. Bush’s camp cold calling voters during the 2000 Republican primaries and suggesting McCain’s adopted Bangladeshi daughter was actually his “illegitimate black child.” It should surprise no student of American history and politics that in each three cases the candidate willing to stoop to the lowest common denominator in blatantly manipulating racial hysteria as an offensive weapon – George Bush Sr., Geroge Bush Jr., and now Hillary Clinton – gained significantly in the polls and eventually won their respective contests.

Following the cue given to him by the media and a polling populace born to think, reflect and vote in reaction to fear and panic, Obama caved and expressed “outrage” at Reverend Wright’s remarks and essentially severed his twenty year relationship with his former pastor. This is the same pastor, mind you, who officiated Obama’s marriage, baptized his children, inspired Obama’s spiritual Christian rebirth and provided the title for Obama’s best selling memoir The Audacity of Hope, and most likely in some way encouraged Obama’s vision of remedying the egregious inequities still present in modern day America. One of the tragedies of this situation is that Obama, the “dark” knight, had to choose between severing his twenty year friendship with a man he just last week considered a “family member” or keep his hopes for a presidential candidacy alive. As he severed the tie with Reverend Wright, who undoubtedly became political poison due to his ill-advised and self-serving speeches, Obama also eschewed any “real” dialogue about confronting America’s long festering racial and economic inequalities, which cannot easily be remedied with placating sound bites and digestible, comfort food polemics.

In this regards, Obama emerges a conflicted candidate, a man who desperately yearns to move “beyond race” but whose “transcendence” is anchored in stasis by his Blackness; a man who knows first hand the devastating and stymieing effects of a racist, imperialistic system of Whiteness, but must stay quiet as to appease and not terrify middle class Whites; a man expected to be both calm and peaceful, and is celebrated as such, yet admonished for a perceived passivity and lack of fiery aggression, whose rare emergence leads to denunciations of him being “angry,” “divisive,” and “uppity.”

I agree with many who state Reverend Wright’s appearances were politically foolish, selfish and detrimental to Obama’s campaign, and did next to nothing to quell White apprehension about Wright’s controversial sound bites. However, the “spectacle” of “Wright-gate” speaks volumes about a divided nation still unwilling to objectively confront the fundamental divides on race and class that plague every segment and institution of our society. Tragically, it illuminates the unrealistic character traits and the unfair double standards that mainstream Whiteness not only expects but demands from its “darker” citizens, especially those running for President. Finally, it reveals to all, for better or worse, that Obama is not the magical Bagger Vance; he is not the “Second Coming”; he does not walk on water, nor is he the infallible hero.

He is not Superman.

He is a politician.

And The Dark Knight rises.

Wajahat Ali is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” ( is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at He can be reached at


Christian Rage and Muslim Moderation

Despite recent provocations against Islam in the West, many Muslims seem weary of the same old tit for tat.

Christopher Dickey
Newsweek Web Exclusive
Mar 27, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI, an exiled Egyptian journalist, a bleach-blond Dutch parliamentarian and Danish cartoonists all have something in common with a Teddy bear named Mohammed. They have been at the center of that seething storm called Muslim rage in the last few months, and, with the exception of Mohammed T. Bear, they appear to be testing that anger to see if it will erupt … yet again.

If it does, the crisis could peak just as Benedict begins his visit to the United States in mid-April. As he preaches world peace before the United Nations, once more we’ll witness scenes of books and flags and effigies burning in the world of Muslims. If precedent holds, rioters may die in Kabul, a nun could be murdered in Somalia, a priest might be gunned down in Turkey. All this is all too predictable, as provocateurs like the peroxide blond must certainly know.

And yet, this time the shockwaves may amount to nothing more than ripples. If the satellite networks allow their lenses to zoom back from the book burners, they may discover there’s no raging crowd there, just the usual collection of unemployed malcontents on any street in Karachi. And what is most important, we may find that the Muslims of this world are just as weary of this sorry spectacle—maybe even more so—than the Christian, Jewish and secular publics in the West.

There are several signs of change, and not always from the usual suspects.

In Turkey, the once militantly secular government is now dominated by the AK Party, which has Islamic roots and recently passed a constitutional amendment that ended the ban on women wearing Muslim headscarves at state universities. Yet the same government is supporting theological scholarship intended to modernize—and moderate—traditional Islamic teachings. An initiative run out of the prime minister’s office is re-examining interpretation of the Qur’an itself as well as the Hadith, or sayings of the Prophet. Fadi Hakura, an expert on Turkey at Chatham House in London, recently told the BBC, “This is kind of akin to the Christian Reformation. Not exactly the same, but if you think, it’s changing the theological foundations.”

In Lebanon, Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah once was known as the spiritual leader of Hizbullah and of its suicidal shock troops, who blew up American Marines and diplomats in Beirut in the early 1980s. Today, instead of calling the faithful to arms in response to perceived Western insults, Fadlallah calls on Muslim intellectuals, elites and religious scholars to work through the media and political organizations as well as “legal, artistic and literary” channels.

Fadlallah tells the faithful that the goal of Westerners who commit “aggressions against the Muslim world’s sacred symbols” is to create a rift between Muslims and Western societies—and to isolate those Muslims who live in Western societies. He decries those Muslims he calls takfiri who claim they are fighting heresy with violence. He says they play into the hands of Islam’s enemies. He even calls for “a united Islamic-Christian spiritual and humanitarian front.”

In Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah was pushing an agenda of political and religious moderation even before he assumed full control of the country in 2005. The kingdom still holds to the ultraconservative Sunni religious dogmas known as Wahhabism, and the monarchy’s legitimacy is tied to its custodianship of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam. That won’t change. But Abdullah has fired 1,000 of the Muslim prayer leaders on the government payroll and decreed that the 40,000 who remain must be retrained to make sure they are not stoking radical violence.

Yes, there may be less here than meets the eye. When I talked to Hakura on the phone Wednesday morning, he cautioned that the Turkish rethink of Islam is rooted in national traditions and might be a hard sell in the Arab Middle East. Fadlallah may be enthusiastic about reconciliation with Christians, but on his Web site he still presents himself as an implacable foe of what he calls Israel’s “Zionist project that is based on violence, arrogance and despise [sic] of other countries.” A highly placed Saudi friend assured me the other day the so-called “retraining” of Saudi Arabia’s retrograde imams really would be more like “a dialogue” to discuss the best ways to preach.

Islam, like any faith, has plenty of violent fools and fanatics. Certainly it is hard to credit the judgment or intelligence of anyone in Sudan connected with the arrest of British expatriate schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons a few months ago. You’ll recall she made the nearly fatal mistake of letting her class of seven-year-olds in Khartoum name a Teddy bear Mohammed. To the kids, many of whom were named Mohammed themselves, the name just sounded friendly and cuddly. Sudanese authorities claimed Gibbons was inciting religious hatred and insulting the Prophet. Eventually she apologized and they released her—against the wishes of the mob calling for her death.

But even with many qualifications and reservations, in my view the conciliatory trends in Islam make an interesting contrast with renewed provocations coming out of Europe.

There’s no use wasting much space on the Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, the dyed blond with ugly roots who is promoting a film he says will prove his belief that “Islamic ideology is a retarded, dangerous one.” What to say about a politician reminiscent of Goldmember in an Austin Powers film who claims the Qur’an should be banned like Adolph Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”? No Dutch television network will show his little movie, so he released it on the Internet this week, reportedly drawing 2 million page views in the first three hours. The general reaction in Holland thus far has been little more than shoulder shrugging.

Danish cartoonists and editors previously unknown to the wider world garnered international attention when they published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005 that brought on bloody riots in several Muslim countries in 2006. Having sunk once again into obscurity, the editors decided to publish one of the cartoons again last month, reportedly after the arrest of an individual plotting to kill the cartoonist. Great idea. Take one man’s alleged crime and respond with new insults to an entire faith.

The most problematic event of late, however, was Pope Benedict’s decision to baptize the Egyptian journalist Magdi Allam in Saint Peter’s on the night before Easter, thus converting a famously self-hating Muslim into a self-loving Christian in the most high-profile setting possible. Perhaps Benedict really thought, as the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano opined, that the baptism was just a papal “gesture” to emphasize “in a gentle and clear way religious freedom.” But I am not prepared to believe for a second, as some around the Vatican have hinted this week, that the Holy Father did not know who Allam was or how provocative this act would appear to Muslim scholars, including and especially those who are trying to foster interfaith dialogue.

Ever since 2006, when Benedict cited a medieval Christian emperor talking about Islam as “evil and inhuman,” and the usual Muslim rabble-rousers whipped up the usual Muslim riots, more responsible members of the world’s Islamic community have hoped to restore calm and reason. And now this. “The whole spectacle, with its choreography, persona and messages provokes genuine questions about the motives, intentions and plans of some of the pope’s advisers on Islam,” said a statement issued by Aref Ali Nayed, a spokesman for 138 Muslim scholars who established the Catholic-Muslim Forum for dialogue with Rome earlier this month.

Bishop Paul Hinder, the Vatican’s representative in Arabia, was reluctant to criticize the pope, of course, but when I reached him in Abu Dhabi Wednesday morning he clearly had reservations about the way Allam was received into the Church. He said that local Christians took him aside at Easter services and asked him “why it had to be done in such an extraordinary way on a special night.” Hinder contrasted Allam’s conversion to Catholicism with former British prime minister Tony Blair’s, which “was done in a private chapel.”

“What I cannot accept is if it is done in a triumphalistic way,” said Hinder. That is, if Allam were not declaring only his personal beliefs but intentionally demeaning the faith of Muslims. Yet it is hard to read the spectacle of his conversion otherwise, because that’s exactly the tone in which Allam writes. He has made his career portraying Islam as a religion that terrorizes. Allam says he has lived in hiding and in fear for years because of reaction to his columns in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra, which regularly denounce excesses by Muslims and praise Israel. Allam converted to Catholicism, he says, as he turned away from “a past in which I imagined that there could be a moderate Islam.” Speaking as if for the pope, Allam told one interviewer in Italy, “His Holiness has launched an explicit and revolutionary message to a church that, up to now, has been too prudent in converting Muslims.” A Vatican spokesman says Allam was not speaking for the pope.

Allam claims he is hoping his public embrace of Catholicism will help other converts to speak out in public. But that hardly seems likely. The more probable scenario is that others will feel even more vulnerable, while Allam’s books, like many Muslim-bashing screeds that preceded them, climb the best-seller lists.

Unless—and this really would be news—the Muslim world just turns the page.

McCain’s Radical Foreign Policy – Fareed Zakaria

McCain’s Radical Foreign Policy

Amid the din of the dueling Democrats, people seem to have forgotten about that other guy in the presidential race-you know, John McCain. McCain is said to be benefiting from this politically because his rivals are tearing each other apart. In fact, few people are paying much attention to what the Republican nominee is saying, or subjecting it to any serious scrutiny.

On March 26, McCain gave a speech on foreign policy in Los Angeles that was billed as his most comprehensive statement on the subject. It contained within it the most radical idea put forward by a major candidate for the presidency in 25 years. Yet almost no one noticed.

In his speech McCain proposed that the United States expel Russia from the G8, the group of advanced industrial countries. Moscow was included in this body in the 1990s to recognize and reward it for peacefully ending the cold war on Western terms, dismantling the Soviet empire and withdrawing from large chunks of the old Russian Empire as well. McCain also proposed that the United States should expand the G8 by taking in India and Brazil-but pointedly excluded China from the councils of power.

We have spent months debating Barack Obama’s suggestion that he might, under some circumstances, meet with Iranians and Venezuelans. It is a sign of what is wrong with the foreign-policy debate that this idea is treated as a revolution in U.S. policy while McCain’s proposal has barely registered. What McCain has announced is momentous-that the United States should adopt a policy of active exclusion and hostility toward two major global powers. It would reverse a decades-old bipartisan American policy of integrating these two countries into the global order, a policy that began under Richard Nixon (with Beijing) and continued under Ronald Reagan (with Moscow). It is a policy that would alienate many countries in Europe and Asia who would see it as an attempt by Washington to begin a new cold war.

I write this with sadness because I greatly admire John McCain, a man of intelligence, honor and enormous personal and political courage. I also agree with much of what else he said in that speech in Los Angeles. But in recent years, McCain has turned into a foreign-policy schizophrenic, alternating between neoconservative posturing and realist common sense. His speech reads like it was written by two very different people, each one given an allotment of a few paragraphs on every topic.

The neoconservative vision within the speech is essentially an affirmation of ideology. Not only does it declare war on Russia and China, it places the United States in active opposition to all nondemocracies. It proposes a League of Democracies, which would presumably play the role that the United Nations now does, except that all nondemocracies would be cast outside the pale. The approach lacks any strategic framework. What would be the gain from so alienating two great powers? How would the League of Democracies fight terrorism while excluding countries like Jordan, Morocco, Egypt and Singapore? What would be the gain to the average American to lessen our influence with Saudi Arabia, the central banker of oil, in a world in which we are still crucially dependent on that energy source?

The single most important security problem that the United States faces is securing loose nuclear materials. A terrorist group can pose an existential threat to the global order only by getting hold of such material. We also have an interest in stopping proliferation, particularly by rogue regimes like Iran and North Korea. To achieve both of these core objectives-which would make American safe and the world more secure-we need Russian cooperation. How fulsome is that likely to be if we gratuitously initiate hostilities with Moscow? Dissing dictators might make for a stirring speech, but ordinary Americans will have to live with the complications after the applause dies down.

To reorder the G8 without China would be particularly bizarre. The G8 was created to help coordinate problems of the emerging global economy. Every day these problems multiply-involving trade, pollution, currencies-and are in greater need of coordination. To have a body that attempts to do this but excludes the world’s second largest economy is to condemn it to failure and irrelevance. International groups are not cheerleading bodies but exist to help solve pressing global crises. Excluding countries won’t make the problems go away.

McCain appears to think that he can magically unite the two main strands in the Republican foreign-policy establishment. But he can’t. This is not about personalities but about two philosophically divergent views of international affairs. Put together, they will produce infighting and incoherence. We have seen this movie before. We have watched an American president unable to choose between his ideologically driven vice president and his pragmatic secretary of State-and the result was the catastrophe of George W. Bush’s first term. Twenty-five years earlier, we watched another president who believed that he could encompass the entire spectrum of foreign policy. He, too, gave speeches that were drafted by advisers with divergent world views: in that case, Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski. It led to the paralyzing internal battles of the Carter years. Does John McCain want to try this experiment one more time?

FISK FIGHTING: An Exclusive Interview with Robert Fisk



***Goatmilk Exclusive***


Wajahat Ali

“ One thing I’m going to say to you now, please make sure – and I hope you’re tape recording this – but please make sure you’re quoting me accurately. Don’t even for the basis of shortening something make me say something I haven’t said,” orders celebrated journalist Robert Fisk.

I reply, “You won’t be misquoted, and if you want I’ll -”

“Because the biggest problem I have in journalism is being quoted or misquoted and then being asked to defend something I haven’t said.”

I assuage him, “I’ve taped every single word, and I’ve got what you’ve said down, and so far no interview has -”

“And when you’re putting it together, because you’re not going to use it all, try to make sure my counteracting points are there. So, if I call Ahmedinjad a “crackpot” keep it in, but make sure I’m also talking about Iran in general. Where I’m criticizing the Israelis, make sure I also criticize the Arabs.”

Throughout the interview I kept thinking the world’s most decorated foreign correspondent would have an equally brilliant career as a headmaster or drill sergeant.

It took nearly a week of phone tag to secure interview time with Robert Fisk, the Middle East correspondent for The Independent who has lived in the region for nearly three decades. Each time I called him, he seemed to give me multiple numbers, one land line in Ireland and another cell line in Lebanon, and ever changing appointments due to his frenetic travel schedule. He finally agreed to a fifteen-minute interview that quickly ballooned into a lengthy, hour plus conversation and an enlightening and entertaining Middle East history lesson by the celebrated reporter.

Allow me to state that rumors of Fisk’s passionate, opinionated garrulousness are indeed fact. Some detractors claim his personality infects his writing with a biased bombastic flair reflecting arrogance, while his supporters, who are many, highlight his impassioned voice as authentic and refreshing. The seasoned veteran couldn’t resist giving this ingénue unsolicited pointers and tips, both concerning journalism and Middle Eastern history.

This is an exclusive and candid conversation with one of the few journalistic authorities on the Middle East.

ALI: A recent British report said Gaza is in its worst condition since the last 30 years. Just last week, a seminary was targeted and several civilians were killed. Americans see this and think “Arabs vs. Jews, they’re just always killing each other.” What’s the ground scene reality regarding the current volatility? Is one side to be blamed more than the other for the recent conflagration?

FISK: Oh, God! Sounds like a CNN question! You know, this is about history, this is about the way our societies develop and what we’re told and what we’re not told. You’ve got the same situation in The West Bank, Gaza, Israel or “Palestine” as you had after the end of the First World War. Two groups of people want to live on the same piece of real estate and they have conflicting claims, one of which is based largely on deed which goes right back to the Ottoman period and the British period. And the case of settlements seems to be based on the idea of what God has promised. And those two things don’t work out. You can’t say on the one hand, well, I have got the deeds to the land, but no God’s actually given it to me. That’s the end of conversation, isn’t it? From there on, you can spin out to all sorts of historical allegories, and ways of reporting, and ways of reporting history, and it doesn’t go anywhere. Each time we’re told we have to start again, we have to start the clock from now and we have to forget the past. You can’t forget the past anymore than you can in Iraq or you can in Europe or America.

The Second World War is and was constantly being drudged up by Blair and Bush to rationalize the invasion of Iraq. Well, you can’t constantly go back to WW2 and call Saddam the Hitler of Baghdad, and then on the other hand say we aren’t going to go back to history to other parts of the Middle East, because that’s inconvenient, so we’re just going to start from here. We always hear people say, “Let’s move forward.” (Laughs.) The psychobabble language of marriage guidance counselors, you know, only look to the future let’s not look at the past even though so much sorrow has happened. I’m afraid you have to.

The Middle East is a land of great injustice. The Israelis can claim, or wish to at least, that Lord Balfour’s Declaration of 1917 promised Britain support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which didn’t just mean the left hand bit that became Israel. Many Israelis now and would be Israelis they could claim that Palestine meant everything up to the Jordan River. It was Chaim Weizmann’s hope that Jewish settlements would be allowed East of the Jordan River after the Cairo conference held in 1921. You have two groups of people who were made conflicting promises by the British. One for Arab independence and promises that Jewish immigration would not in any way make the indigenous Arabs dispossessed or suffer in any way. And the other which was a promise by Britain for support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Those things are as impossible to integrate then as they are today.

We keep going around the Middle East and setting up our various dictators, whether they be the Kings of Arabia, or whether they be King Farooq in Egypt, or King Idris in Libya. Then, when people didn’t want the various kings, we brought in the various generals. General Sadat and Colonel Kaddafi. King Abdullah was a soldier, King Hussein was a soldier. So, we get surprised when people say, “Enough is enough!” But, in the end of the day, when you say, “Who is right and who is wrong?” It’s history that is wrong. It’s the mistakes we’ve made and the injustices we’ve committed in that region. You can start it off with the Ottoman Empire, you can start it off in post WW1, and you can start it off with the Americans. And as you look back in history, the papers get more thin and fragile, don’t they?

ALI: You’ve been in the Middle East for decades. You’ve seen both Republican and Democratic foreign policy –

FISK: What’s the difference? There’s no difference. Where’s the difference between Clinton and Bush? It’s like people saying Labor government is going to come in Israel and be different than Likud, and it turns out not to be different at all.

ALI: Well, Obama as you know before his run as President, was more partial towards Palestinian rights. But, last month along with Clinton, he wrote a letter strongly condemning Palestinian violence. Many wonder, if he or even Clinton wins, is there going to be any change in policy?

FISK: Here’s the thing that’s going to be different in policy regarding the Middle East in the United States whoever wins the election: it’s utterly irrelevant.

ALI: Lebanon seems to be a forgotten story. In 2006, it had a struggle with Israel which devastated a large part of that society-

FISK: Hezbollah did. I don’t know if Lebanon did at all, but Hezbollah did.

ALI: Has the Lebanese society been able to recover in the past 2 years, or has it only strengthened Hezbollah

FISK: Well, it certainly strengthened Hezbollah, but their political performance since then has been so ambiguous in that whatever it gained militarily in terms of prestige it has substantially lost politically inside Lebanon itself. Look, the only good news in Lebanon is that civil war hasn’t restarted. Lot of people thought it would, and I thought it would, but it hasn’t. This could mean that they have realized the folly of war: that you don’t win. It’s all about death; it’s not about victory. It also means that an awful lot Lebanese who were sent away as children to be educated during the civil war – you know to Paris, London, Geneva, and Boston wherever – have returned to Lebanon and said, “I don’t want this sectarian nonsense, and I want to live in an ordinary country without any more war.” To that extent, Lebanon – the fact it has not disintegrated like Gaza or Afghanistan or Iraq despite the wish of the Americans and Iranians to use it as battleground – which was what 2006 was about – is quite a tribute to Lebanon and the Lebanese. Whether they appreciate their good fortune is quite a different matter.

ALI: You have experience in Kosovo and Serbia, and you know Kosovo declared independence and sovereignty from Serbia on Feb 17. Do you believe there is complicity of Western agents in its prolonged suffering? Is this a new chapter signaling hope? And could it have come earlier?

FISK: I have a book coming out in two and a half years time which is going to involve quite a lot of things about Kosovo and Bosnia and particularly Islam. It’s going to be called “Night of Power” which you don’t need me to explain. They are very different places, of course. The Serb actions in Bosnia were not driven by the same political motives as the Serb actions in Kosovo, which Serbs believe is part of Serbia, and you can argue that until the cows home. I don’t know about “Agents” being complicit in anything. On one hand I never totally dismiss the “plot” unquote because we know, for example, the CIA and the British were involved in overthrowing Mossadegh [Democratically elected leader of Iran overthrown by the CIA] and bringing in the Shah in 50’s Iran. That’s all true. But the idea you can manipulate states into independence is probably pie in the sky.

The treatment of the Kosovars was such that Europe was bound to extend its support for independence in one form or the other. Now, we know in the Balkans, as always, regional European powers have their fingers in it. Just as the Germans supported the Croation independence, and we know why historically. We know historically many Albanians entered Kosovo during and before the Tito Period and changed its ethnic makeup. But, then again, how far do you go back in history when it was the other way around?

I think this is really an Ottoman story and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, which began the First World War. When the Ottoman Empire began to fray inside Europe, and I’m talking about Bulgaria as well as Serbia, it didn’t do so in a neat way. It did so with massacres and horrific killings, which if you read the contemporary accounts seems to be what we were writing about Bosnia in the 1990’s. There was a considerable historical heritage left over, unfortunately blood that most dealt with in an imperfect and unjust way. I think that Kosovo contains the seeds of further hostilities because of course I can’t imagine any Serbian leader denouncing Serbia’s right to regard Kosova as part of the historic homeland of Serbia. And I don’t think Bosnia has been solved for that matter. It’s just an independent state in one federal illusion, isn’t it? Everyone is illusory in the Ottoman empire of what it was. You have to go back to the Ottomans to work all this out.

There’s this very interesting book that came out called Jerusalem 1912 and it argues quite persuasively that fundamental issues of land ownership and Jewish immigration became major issues before the First World War, before the British and Turks were at war, before the Ottoman Empire disintegrated. And I think you have to see the problems in the Balkans, although they don’t involve Arabs or Jews, in a similar light. We are constantly trying to cope with what our fathers or our grandfathers did. I wrote the book Great War of Civilization, and my father was a solider in the First World War which produced the current Middle East – not that he had much to do with that – but he fought in what he believed was the Great War for Civilization.

One of the problems that current leadership has is that in the past they had time to reflect and discuss what they were going to do and how best to deal with a particular situation. Their decisions might have been grotesquely unjust or wrong, but at least they took them based on considered reflections, whether they be in London clubs or Downing Street or while reading Shelley in bed, but at least they had an opportunity to reflect on what they were doing. Today, we live by Press conferences, TV prime time, News at 10, CBS news, ABC, CNN exclusives whatever it might be. We get pumped up by Presidential elections, Primary elections, so policies are made on the move – in the backs of cars, on mobile phones, over drinks before a hurried dinner when you have another press conference afterwards. This is why you have this cult of – and I don’t like this phrase – “spin doctors,” a man who comes up with an easy phrase. So, instead of having reflective decision making which takes into consideration what will happen tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and the year after next, the decision making is taken on the basis on how to respond to some criticism one minute ago based on a Press conference. For this reason, you don’t have any long term planning.

That’s why we didn’t have any plan for post war Iraq, because we were too busy going on CNN announcing victory, so we hadn’t thought about that. There is an excellent academic pamphlet by Corelli Barnett, who is a prominent British historian, which goes step by step from archive documents in the British Public Record Office and National Archives from the Cabinet papers of 1941. And Churchill in 1941, when Britain still expected invasion by Nazi Germany, and before Hitler invaded Russia, before America was in the war after two long and profitable years of neutrality, Churchill appointed a Cabinet committee in London under Nazi bombardment to plan the post War government of Occupied Germany. Now, there’s forward thinking!

There’s a sign of how governments used to behave. Four years before the end of the War, when it looked as if the Germans were going to win, Churchill and the British, alone without any American involvement in the War, he was planning post War Germany. And as British troops moved under fire into the German city of Cologne in 1945, British Civil Servants in flak jackets went with them to take over the Town Hall, because they wanted civil administration to resume immediately. To get the fuel running, get rationing, get the people fed. It worked, and people didn’t die. I mean the Germans were poor and hungry, but they didn’t die. There’s a classic example of how before the age of instant television, news press conferences, spin doctors, etc., people planned for the future and generally it tended to work; by and large, it was successful. That was four years before the end of WW2. Four days before the Americans occupied the center of Baghdad, they didn’t have a coherent plan. They had an odd committee set up in the State Department, but no one listened to it and it had 20 people. So, you’re carried along on this instant decision making: “So, whaddya’ gonna’ do, Mr. Bush? How do you respond to this?” And Bush has had 5 minutes before hand to bone up on what he is going to say.

We have a program in Britain called Desert Island Discs on the BBC, where basically you are allowed to choose 8 records that you play on a desert island if you were marooned. One of my records I chose was Winston Churchill’s speech to the British on June 18, 1940 when Dunkirk was finished, and the British were alone in the War against Nazi Europe. And I played it, because Bush and Blair keep claiming they are Churchill, but here was the real thing. And Churchill’s voice immensely tired and maybe he had a few glasses before he spoke, and you have this extraordinary feeling of power and a man who is using his knowledge of history and imbuing it into other people. What knowledge of history does Bush have? He confused Cambodia with Vietnam. He talks about Vietnam but he managed to avoid going there, as we know Cheney did.

You know another problem we have at the moment is that I don’t think there’s a single senior Western statesmen, which might change if McCain becomes President, who has ever been in a war. All of the Middle Eastern leaders have been in wars, I promise you. But none of the Western leaders have been in war. You see, their knowledge of wars, The Bushes and the Blairs, are from TV, Hollywood Movies. When Churchill committed people to war, he had been in the trenches in WW1. Theodore Roosevelt had direct experience. Eisenhower certainly did, I mean he was Supreme Allied Commander of WW2. So, you had in the post war years, you had Western leadership that knew what war was about: it was about death and screaming and loss and sorrow. Now, for people like Blair whose shadow lingers over the dull and boring Gordon Brown in London, war was a policy option: something you did if you couldn’t get in with the United Nations. “Do we need a second revolution or not?” That wasn’t the way people used to go to war. (Laughs.)

One of the things that is lacking today is common sense. Anybody with common sense, anybody who sat down would’ve said, “Don’t – Attack – Iraq.” Bush actually did start talking about democracy in Iraq before he invaded, despite what the lefty commentators say, he didn’t say we want democracy but he said, “We want democracy in the Middle East.” I remember I wrote a piece in November 2002 asking, “He wants a democracy in the Middle East, and he wants to start in Iraq?!?” which is not common sense. I think a lot of the problems we have in the moment is a failure to have a long-term view of anything.

Even if you take the Israeli government who says, “We are going to root out the evil weed of terror, terror, terror,” I mean they’ve been saying that since 1948. How many air raids have there been over Lebanon since 1948? Thousands and thousands and thousands. And they’ve achieved nothing, because still we’re told we have to root out the evil weed of terror. Because it gets repeated ad nauseam on television it has become normal. Nobody says, “Hang on a minute, there’s a problem here. If Israel’s still at war 60 years after it came in existence, there is a problem there.”

ALI: You have this quote, “There’s this misconception that journalists can be objective.” You also say, “What journalism is really about –

FISK: I think what I said is “impartial.” We should be partial on the side of justice. One of the problems we have in the Middle East in the moment, partly because of the pressure put on journalists particularly in the United States by lobby groups. I’m including the Israeli Lobby, and there is an Arab Lobby, as we know. Partly because of this awful trend of American journalism where you have to give 50% of your time to each side, you end up producing a sort of matrix, a mathematical formula which is bland, lacking in any kind of passion or realism, and is a bit like reading a mathematics problem. Much of the Middle East is reported like a football match: this side did this, they kicked a goal, they replied back, the ball went through the goal post, etc. Giving equal space in your report to two antagonists is ridiculous! I mean if you were reporting the slave trade in the 18th century you wouldn’t give equal time to the slave ship captain, you’d give time to the slaves. If you were present at the liberation of a Nazi extermination camp, you don’t give equal time to SS spokesman, you go and talk to the survivors and talk about the victims.

If you were present as I was in 2001 in West Jerusalem when an Israeli pizzeria was blown up and most of the victims were school children. I was just down the street. I reported about the Israeli woman who had a chair leg through her, and an Israeli child who had his eyes blown out. I said in my piece, “What did this child ever do to the Palestinians?” And do you think I gave equal time to the Islamic Jihad spokesman? No, I did not. Nor when I was in Sabra Shatilla [Massacre of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon overseen by Ariel Sharon] did I give time to Israeli spokesman? If we walk as ordinary human beings out of our house and we see an atrocity, we are angry. Well, we journalists should be angry too if we feel that way about it. Not say, “Well, on the other hand, we just balance this by X,Y,Z.”

ALI: Can’t someone say that we readily dismiss FOX News as being biased and right wing, then can’t we just as readily dismiss you since you’re not an objective, unbiased voyeur?

FISK: The thing about FOX news is that they have a predetermined version. They aren’t interested in justice; they are interested in the “right,” aren’t they? They’re interested in the right wing of the Republican side, unless a Democrat happens to be right wing enough for them. They have a political slant. I’m not left wing. I’ve never voted in an election in my life. If I’m in the Israeli part of Jerusalem, I write with great passion and you can look up the story in my book The Great War for Civilization about the bombing of the Israeli pizzeria. I was in Bosnia and wrote passionately against the murderous Serbs, I mean those Serbs who were murdering. But if you report on Serbia during the NATO bombing I report with great feeling about the Serb civilians who were done to death by NATO and knowingly done so. NATO knew they were killing civilians in Serbia during the Kosovo war. And I also reported what was being done to Kosovo Albanians. That’s not what FOX News does. FOX News has a certain agenda.

ALI: Many of your critics, specifically some Zionist critics, say that you’ve lived in the Middle East for so long that you’ve become partial and succumbed to “their” narrative.

FISK: Same old, tiresome, boring old thing, you know. This always comes up. If you arrive at a place, and you don’t write satisfactory one week after arriving, they say you can’t see the woods for the trees. And if you do understand enough after two weeks, they say you’ve gone native. I haven’t risked my life in the most dangerous parts of the world to become a partial reporter politically. I’d be out of my mind if I did that. By the way, you keep talking about my critics and what the Zionists say. I don’t read blogs, because I don’t use the Internet because I think it’s crap. But I know there are two or three writers in the UK and I know there are three or four in America who regularly attack me, but that’s about it. I mean if you see my mailbag which comes in at 250 letters a week, maybe two or three are very critical, and the rest are either nice or helping or suggesting stories. What I’m saying is that one of the problems I have is the people will exaggerate the numbers and say, “Well, your critics say…” which makes it seem there is an army out there of 600 people constantly writing articles and commentary. And, it’s not true. There aren’t. I come to the States that averages every three and half weeks for lectures, and I don’t come across these people. The last one who was really obnoxious was in Texas for an interview, and the second cameraman came over to me after the program and said he wanted to hit me. (Laughs.) I said turn back the cameras, and we’ll do this live, but be careful when you do. Most people don’t care a damn about the Middle East, I’m sorry to say.

ALI: In America or the world?

FISK: Pretty much everywhere, particularly in America I’m sorry to say. And also in Europe, I mean how much of my daily paper is on the Middle East? And this idea that there is an army of critics or an army of supporters is simply untrue. By and large, people read you and they move on to read something else. What percentage of people read The Independent either online or on paper? I have no idea. I probably get more mail from America than I do from Britain, which is interesting. I’m read in the Arab world as well as in Israel. I think I’ve had two anonymous phone calls in my life in 32 years both from Turkey objecting to what I’ve written about the Armenian genocide. One of them was objecting to criticism of the Turkish Army, and one of them was objecting to my coverage of the Armenian Genocide, which obviously occurred a few years before I was born to put it mildly.

There are campaigns occasionally for accuracy, some outfit that operates somewhere in Boston, and you get city postcards from people writing to the editors, “I will never buy you magazine again” signed so and so from Houston, Texas. Firstly, we are not a magazine. Secondly, alas, we do not circulate in Houston, Texas, so this person hasn’t been buying it anywhere, but he’s just been encouraged to write this silly postcard which goes in the bin. But when you have a campaign organized by a lobby group, you tend to take it seriously in America, we don’t. We put it in the rubbish bin. We are interested in individual, serious letters by people. So am I. I encourage them in the paper. If the letters, especially if they are critical or have a certain mischief about them, I insist we run them, and I think it’s good. I think it makes people think and stirs up their idea of questioning about what’s going on in the Middle East.

The honest truth is I don’t use the internet, so I don’t see all the blogs or Googles or whatever they are. I can tell by, obviously, traveling and people coming up to me in airplanes, but I don’t pay any attention to it. I’m a journalist and a reporter and one of the great advantages I have on the paper is that my editor likes me to write opinion columns and also wants me to be a street reporter. So, when there’s a bombing explosion in Beirut or a war in Iraq, I’m there. Which is in a unique position to be in, because most reporters might be on a story but they don’t have an opinion column. And most of the people who write columns don’t go out on the beat.

ALI: You call them “hotel journalists,” correct?

FISK: No, that’s not true. What I said was that journalists, who worked in Baghdad and who, for perfectly good reasons, were unable to leave their hotels, i.e. security concerns, insurance companies hired by the papers to insure their lives, all their special security detail like the ex-military people who guard them. They find themselves effectively using their mobile phone from their hotel room, a guarded hotel, right? The problem is they don’t tell their readers, their listeners, their viewers that they’re reporting from the hotel. They give the impression when they give a “Baghdad Dateline” that they’re driving around the streets. You find articles written by someone who is sitting in an office with sandbags around the walls and aren’t let out. The much more serious side is that readers are entitled to believe, if they see it, “Dateline: Badghad” or Basra or whatever – that the reporter has movement. That he can go around and check out stories. But in fact if you read it, it’s just a police source that says, “American military says…American government says” and end of story. And it becomes echo chamber for what anyone in the Green Zone says. I mean I can live in the West of Ireland with a mobile phone and ring the Green Zone and produce the same report. (Laughs.)

ALI: They’re touted as experts in the American media.

FISK: I don’t know. Look, I have American colleagues, one of them in the New York Times, who goes out and gets good stories. So, I’m not pasting my criticism on all journalists. There’s lots of people trying to do what I’m trying to do. But, I do object to reporters who do not leave their hotels, but do not tell their readers that they do not leave their hotels. That’s what I call “hotel journalism.” I’m not talking about any reporter on the beat anywhere as being a hotel journalist.

What’s happening now as stories get more dangerous in the Middle East – and The Middle East is getting more lethal for reporting – as stories get more dangerous, more and more the Western correspondents are sending the local people out to do the story. In other words, Iraqis are on the streets in Baghdad reporting back to the New York Times reporter what they see. I noticed last year you will remember there was an Al Qaeda type organization that started an uprising in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli and took over apartment blocks. And I jumped in a car, and they had taken over an apartment block in Tripoli and were shooting at the Army, and I raced up to Tripoli. I know Lebanon very well, I mean I’ve been living there for almost 32 years. And I got into center Tripoli, which is very Sunni Muslim city, very pro Saddam I might add with [his] pictures outside the window. And there were bullets whizzing around the streets, and there were dead bodies, the armies were about to storm inside this building.

By pure good luck or bad luck, depending on your point of view, I knew the Lebanese Colonel who was going to take the army unit into this apartment block and storm into it and take it back. I’d been to his wedding, actually, which means I’m his friend. (Laughs.) “Robert, do you want to come with us?” I didn’t use a flak jacket because it is too bloody hot. So, I suddenly found the ridiculous Robert Fisk storming into this building with these soldiers, and I never carry a weapon or flak jacket or anything, and seeing the most incredible things.

Afterwards, I was out there in the street with all these dead bodies on the street. What astounded me was that I was the only Western reporter there. Most of the other reporters were either from Lebanese newspapers or Lebanese working for Western news organizations. I was the only blue eyed, Anglo Saxon guy there. My Western colleagues were there and they were in the hotel, and I’m not criticizing them. What was interesting is that on the very first, critical day of the Al Qaeda take over, I looked around the street and I didn’t see another Westerner. There were lots of Lebanese soldiers, policeman, people standing by, other journalists, camera crew, they were all Lebanese. Now, twenty years ago that wouldn’t be the case.

ALI: You just gave a really good microcosm example of how you’re on “the scene.” You’re one of the very few people who is “lucky” – well, I don’t think that is the proper word, I don’t even what the proper word is – to meet Osama Bin Laden and have an interview with him.

FISK: It’s definitely not lucky. (Laughs.) No, it’s not. I’ll tell you this guy will follow me for the rest of my life. It’s more and more unlucky I’ll let you know.

ALI: You interviewed him three times in total, and he made some very interesting comments about you. I don’t know how you feel about that, but he was quite reverential. In America, we see Osama as the horned devil himself, and in certain parts of the Muslim world –

FISK: He sees Mr. Bush pretty much the same way, of course.

ALI: Well, certain parts see him as a halo-wearing messiah. Steve Coll has a new book out on Bin Laden, and in my interview with him he told me one of the main reasons for his charismatic leadership is his ability to be multicultural, to understand the ability to look beyond ethnicity and race in his global jihad.

FISK: No, that’s not – that’s a very trendy explanation. It’s very simple why Bin Laden is popular in the Arab world; it’s because he says things that local presidents and kings won’t say.

ALI: What does he say?

FISK: He speaks about the injustice to Muslim people in a way that Mubarak or King Abdullah would never say. Because of course they’re basically run by us, aren’t they? He presents what millions of Arabs think. I’m not implying a million of Egyptians and Gulfies want to actually fly airplanes into tall buildings – they don’t. But when he describes the collapse of the Caliphate, which was the Ottoman Empire, when he talks about the immorality of the Gulf princes and kings, when he talks of the political or military or psychological occupation of the Muslim world by the West, he’s saying things which millions and millions of Muslims agree with. But they don’t hear their own leadership: the Khaddafis, the Mubaraks, or the King Abdullahs, or the Assads saying.

This doesn’t mean Bin Laden is particularly intuitively brilliant. I mean Ahmadinejad says a lot of things which are absolutely bullshit, but they probably catch somebody’s eye. I mean Ahmadinejad is outrageous, I mean he’s a crackpot. When he starts questioning the Jewish Holocaust, it’s similar to the Turks questioning the Armenian Holocaust, or the Israelis saying that they never drove the Palestinians out of Palestine, they left on their own accord because they were going to wait until the Jews were driven to the sea and they obeyed all the radio instructions. You know the story.

But, you know, Bin Laden has a voice, because the leadership of the Arab world doesn’t have a voice. Or if it does, it’s a weak one supporting the United States in general. I mean, the Mubaraks and the Abdullahs are allowed to say, “ If the war continues in Gaza, there will be an explosion in the Middle East.” That’s all right, that’s part of the course. They said it 70 times and it doesn’t even get reported very often. But the moment they start to talks seriously about the fact that people feel they are under the thumb of theWest, which they do, then they are in trouble. I mean the fact we only express our criticism of Mubarak is when the police lock up the wrong person who has a PhD from Boston or Harvard or whatever.

By and large, you see there is no Arab representative. Nor has there been for decades. It’s very interesting after the First World War, the Egyptians kept wanting democracy, and they kept saying they wanted the King out. So, the British locked them up. And the same thing happened in Iraq in the 1920’s, you the know the British arrived after they invaded in 1917 and the Iraqis said, “You encouraged us to want independence, and when we say we want independence, you put us in prison!” Which is true of course.

Naturally, if you go back to the 20’s and 30’s, where I think a lot of the history also beings, anyone who wanted a real freedom was imprisoned. So, the only way the Arabs learned you can have a change was through a revolution. Which meant no democracy of course. Meant you did everything in secret, whether you did it in office or clubs or a basement of a mosque is irrelevant. So, the failure of the Arab world to have a democracy is partially our fault.

You have to remember before the First World War, Egyptian academics and thinkers and philosophers were returning from France with the most extraordinary sort of Republican – which I’m using in the French Republic sense – views of liberation, freedom and equality. This is the decade where women didn’t want to wear the scarf in Cairo and other cities in Egypt. Where they had willingly embraced the West. You have to go back to the Ottoman Empire, and the biggest, industrial construction in the world was the Suez Canal. It was built by the French but under the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans imported state of the art steam locomotives from Switzerland to Lebanon. In Constantinople, the pashas were learning to paint and play the piano – they wanted to be like us. So we destroyed them. You see? We like it the way it is now. We don’t have to have too many occupation armies, but they all do what they’re told, and if they don’t, then we bomb them.

ALI: If Bin Laden’s grievances against the U.S. and the West are removed, and maybe you can tell us his major grievances since you’ve met him, then –

FISK: The world doesn’t work like this. Bin Laden justifies his actions on certain grounds. Whether it be the corruption of the Saudi Royal Family, the “Crusaders” to use his phrase, he says “Western forces” in the Muslim World. And remember, one of his achievements is that he’s brought Western forces into two more Muslim countries that they weren’t in before – Afghanistan and Iraq. And I used the word “achievement” ironically when I said that.

His raison d’etre will change, like we all do. To suggest that Bin Laden is out there as a negotiable figure is ridiculous. He doesn’t want to negotiate. One of the main problems with Al Qaeda is that there is no negotiation. We still haven’t learned that Bin Laden isn’t important anymore. He’s created Al Qaeda. That’s it. It’s over. It doesn’t matter if he dies of kidney failure, or whether he’s bombed or dies of old age or gets bored or gets assassinated or anything else, it’s over. Al Qaeda exists. And unless we deal with the injustice in the Middle East, there will always be an Al Qaeda. It might not be called Al Qaeda, it could be called “Al Qaeda Al Ummah,” “Al Qaeda Saudia,” “Al Qaeda in Iraq.” The very word is intrinsically rather boring, its foundation doesn’t set me off on a romantic thought. But, I always use the phrase “Al Qaeda-like”, which is inspirational but not card membership type connections.

Still we think, “If we capture Bin Laden and Mullah Omar, then we’ll be ok.” And it’s not true. There was a very fine French historian of the First World War, and he did a very good interview in Le Pointe some months ago, and he said you know we haven’t realized the world has changed militarily. But in the past, after the first and second World Wars, we thought we could have foreign adventures and be free. We could go to Vietnam. No North Vietnamese ever blew themselves up in front of the White House. We went and fought in Korea, but no North Korean soldier came and blew himself up in the London Underground. But today we can’t do this anymore, if we send our soldiers into Iraq, we are not saving Gloucester or Denver. That’s not going to change. We’re not going to back to nice, friendly left wing nationalists who wouldn’t dream of setting off bombs in our cities anymore. That’s gone.

Whether you regard this as increasing immorality of our opponents that is entirely up to you. But factually, we’re not safe at home anymore.

ALI: So, this is the future? We have to face the future and this is how it’s going to be?

FISK: Well, you’ve got to think of the years to come, not just about the next press conference. We’re going back to the same point I made to you earlier.

ALI: I had an interview with Seymour Hersh and asked him about Iran’s activity in the Middle East. He said Iran is doing what it’s always been doing in supporting the Shias. That’s what it’s doing in Lebanon and in Iraq. Now, you mention Ahmadinejad as being a “Crackpot” and –

FISK: I think he’s a crackpot, yeah.

ALI: People say Iran has its fingers in the cookie jar in helping Hezbollah and helping the Iraqi insurgents. Is Iran completely innocent? Should it be attacked? And what would –

FISK: You’re doing what CNN and FOX do. You’re producing a sustained government narrative and then asking a question about it. Yes, they do support Hezbollah financially, militarily, and in training, we know that. Do they support the Iraqi insurgency? Morally perhaps. I mean, mentally they might, but they don’t need to teach the insurgents how to blow up vehicles. I mean Iraqi insurgents, many of them in the Army, fought Iranians for 8 years. They know how to blow up vehicles and put bombs together. They don’t need help from the Iranians. So, from the start you have to disentangle this conventional wisdom on how Iran is this big, dark nation that is manipulating the Shias through out the Middle East. I don’t think the Shias of Iraq need military help from Iran. I don’t think they need money actually. And besides when you have a situation when most of the Iraqi government is beholden to Iran, what the hell are you worried about the insurgents for? When Ahmedinejad took the car from the airport like any normal human being, instead of being flown in armored helicopter, which was quite impressive, the American press didn’t make a lot of it, but it’s there.

You have to go back again. When the Shah was in power, the West wanted Iran to be nuclear power. He was our policeman in the Gulf, wasn’t he? The Shah went to New York and gave an interview saying he wanted Iran to have nuclear weapons, because after all Russia and America had them. And there wasn’t a complaint from the White House. In fact, shortly after he met Carter in the White House. And we in Europe, in particular, climbed over each other’s shoulders to supply the nuclear hardware to produce nuclear power stations.

When Khomeini came to power and the Islamic Revolution, before the Iran-Iraq War, and I actually was present as he said this in Tehran. He said nuclear weapons are gifts of the devil and we will close them down. And all nuclear installations, and they weren’t nuclear weapon instillations, they were just nuclear instillations for power generation, were closed down under Khomeini’s orders. At the height of the Iran-Iraq War in 1986, when Saddam was supported by Britain and the United States, and was using gas, a weapons of mass destruction, against the Iranians, the Iranian High Command came to the conclusion that he was using these weapons, then Khomeini reluctantly reopened the nuclear establishment in Iran as a direct result of our friend Saddam using gas and chemicals. Which in some cases were supplied by companies on the East Coast of the United States. That’s what put the Iranians in the nuclear game.

Now, when you see it from this historical perspective, they’re getting a bit of the raw deal, aren’t they? All the mullahs want their hands on weapons (Laughs.) That wasn’t the case originally. I don’t see any particular reason why the Iranians want to make nuclear weapons at the moment. Because if they fire a weapon at Tel Aviv, they know Tehran will be destroyed. On the other hand, if you look at North Korea, quite clearly you will not be invaded if you have a nuclear weapon. Then again, you have to stand back and look at the long term and ask, are we, or our children or our grandchildren, our future generations always going to around saying, “Well, he can have nuclear weapons, because he is nice and is on our side on the War on Terror and his name is Musharaff. And they can’t have nuclear weapons because they have turbans on.”

I mean are we going to do this A-B-C joke every year deciding who may or may not have these things. If we deal with a world that deals about justice, and this can apply to Eastern Europe, the Far East, Latin America, or the Middle East, the whole institute of worrying about nuclear weapons begins to diminish. After the rising of 1798 in Ireland, where I am now, every Irishman who was found even to have a pitchfork that could be used as a weapon was hanged. But, in pubs you can see them on the walls. Because it’s become irrelevant. There’s this peace here. If you go to England, you can find swords from the English Civil War. Well, if in the aftermath of that war and we’re talking about the 17th century, if you had been found with that sword, you would’ve been executed. But now it’s in a pub on the wall of a bar.

You know, I’m not trying to be naïve when I say this, but with the whole issue of nuclear weapons, once the purpose of the weapon has disappeared, the weapon is pointless. If Iran didn’t feel itself surrounded by the Americans, which it is because the Americans are in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, I mean I don’t think they’d worry so much about defending Iran. Although, of course, you realize getting rid of the Taliban and Saddam, both enemies of Iran, means Iran basically won the American war in Iraq. You’ve got to start your questions not with a narrative: “Are they supporting the Iraqi insurgency?” Probably not. “Are they supporting Hezbollah?” Definitely. But, then again who is supporting the Israelis? The Americans.

There’s no doubt that the missile which the Hezbollah fired at that Israeli gunboat in the 2006 war, which almost sank it by the way, was from Iran. But don’t tell me that the bombs dropped on Hezbollah weren’t from the United States, they were of course. With all these questions you’re asking me, and I’m not trying to be critical of you, you need to go three steps back where you start asking the questions.


As the interview ends, Fisk complains, “And there’s nothing worse than the immortal phrase, ‘I never said that.’ Because people say, ‘Ah, that’s what he says now.’ And you’ll be surprised at the number of people, who might be quite sympathetic to what you’re saying, who manage to blunder into one single quote which they [an interviewer] slightly touch up or forget something quite innocently, and I am fighting off the problems that creates for the next 6 months long after you’ve forgotten ever talking to me. So, please, please be careful and make sure you’re very accurate in what I say, and it’s balanced out.”

“I’ll keep it very fair. I’ll quote you, and I won’t delete a word,” I promise.

“Fine. That’s all I need to hear.”

And with that, the class ends and the student finally exhales.

Wajahat Ali is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” ( is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at He can be reached at

The President’s Executioner: The High Crimes of John Yoo


The title of this article –The President’s Executioner –is a play on words. It refers to professor John Yoo, who teaches law at Boalt Hall, University of California, Berkeley. But this man –mild-mannered by all appearances –is not what he seems.

He is the man who was, more often than nearly any other, behind the White House decisions to violate the international laws of war. He was the one who told the White House how to get away with committing war crimes. While he may have been a henchman for others who instructed him to make the arguments he did, he repeatedly refused to reverse himself, both while he worked in the Department of Justice and after he left that office and returned to academia.

But it was also during this time period, as we now know, that the Department of Justice became “politicized.” Instead of executing the laws as it should have been doing, the Justice Department became an instrument of President Bush, executing his wishes. And John Yoo executed White House wishes to twist the law into something it was not and was not meant to be.

Yoo, however, did more than execute orders. The so-called “Torture Memos,” in the writing of which Yoo was an active and primary participant, opened the door to such abuse of the laws that some detainees were actually murdered. For all practical purposes, they were executed, without a trial or guilty verdict.

Thus, the President’s Executioner.

Yoo & the Unlimited Executive

Professor Yoo teaches the following courses: International Civil Litigation, International Law, Constitutional Law, Foreign Relations Law, Civil Procedure, International Trade, Separation of Powers Law. These courses cover big issues. They relate not to person-to-person issues, to one family’s inheritance, a personal injury lawsuit, or a burglary. Most of the courses Professor Yoo teaches relate to how our country is run and who has the power to do what, internally and internationally.

But it would be a mistake to rely on Yoo’s advice in these areas, for he would be interpreting laws he has broken and advised others to break.

The Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) at the Department of Justice is the office that issues legal opinions for the President and other departments (including the Department of Defense) in the executive branch. OLC opinions are relied on by these offices to guide them in carrying out their jobs. They are rarely rescinded, having almost the precedental effect of judicial decisions.

Yoo was the Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the OLC. While there he participated in authoring several documents, all of which became mainstays of the administration’s policies at particular points and most or all of which the OLC later rescinded. The memos all manifest one characteristic: they all suggest that the President, as President and Commander-in-Chief, has the authority to violate any laws or treaties he sees fit in order to protect the country.

Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor who became Deputy Attorney General after Yoo left and who was the one who made the difficult (and unpopular) decision to rescind Yoo’s opinions (and who later resigned because of it), writes in his book “The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration” that Yoo’s “interrogation opinions” contained an “unusual lack of care and sobriety in their legal analysis,” and that “[n]owhere was this more evident than in the opinions discussion of the President’s commander-in-chief powers.” (p. 148)

Yoo’s opinion went much further than necessary, Goldsmith thought. Yoo wrote:

“Any effort by Congress to regulate the interrogation of battlefield detainees would violate the Constitution’s sole vesting of the Commander-in-Chief authority in the President.” Goldsmith states: “This extreme conclusion has no foundation in prior OLC opinions, or in judicial decisions, or in any other source of law.” (pp. 148-9) Yoo’s pronouncement about presidential powers, furthermore, “was all the more inappropriate because it rested on cursory and one-sided legal arguments that failed to consider Congress’s competing wartime constitutional authorities, or the many Supreme Court decisions potentially in tension with the conclusion.” (p. 149)

Of course, the “interrogation opinion” was not Yoo’s only one, as we now know.

The Yoo Memos

Yoo’s memos were written in the wake of 9/11. On September 18, 2001, Congress issued the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), which authorized President Bush to:

use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

Only fourteen days after 9/11 and a week after Congress issued the AUMF, Yoo submitted his first memo: “Memorandum Opinion for the Deputy Counsel to the President” titled “The President’s Constitutional Authority to Conduct Military Operations Against Terrorists and Nations Supporting Them.” This memo claimed:

The President has constitutional power not only to retaliate against any person, organization, or State suspected of involvement in terrorist attacks on the United States, but also against foreign States suspected of harboring or supporting such organizations. The President may deploy military force preemptively against terrorist organizations or the States that harbor or support them, whether or not they can be linked to the specific terrorist incidents of September 11.

On November 13, 2001, the White House issued a Presidential Military Order (PMO) on detentions, which Yoo co-authored with Vice President Cheney’s legal counsel, David Addington. The PMO purported to authorize the Secretary of Defense to detain terrorist suspects indefinitely and created military commissions to try those he decided to try. It established procedural baselines for commissions which (along with later-issued DOD procedures) were later ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.

A little over a month later, on December 28, 2001, Yoo submitted another memorandum, this time co-authored with fellow Deputy Assistant Attorney General Patrick F. Philbin, to William J. Haynes II, General Counsel to the Department of Defense, titled “Possible Habeas Jurisdiction Over Aliens Held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.” While expressing some uncertainly, the memo argues that “the great weight of legal authority indicates that a federal district court could not properly exercise habeas jurisdiction over an alien detained” at Guantanamo. (The administration maintained this argument all the way up to the Supreme Court, which ruled against it in Rasul v. Bush.)

Then, on January 9, 2002, Yoo submitted a memorandum titled “Application of Treaties and Laws to al Qaeda and Taliban Detainees” and co-authored with Special Counsel Robert J. Delahunty, that purported to address “the effect of international treaties and federal laws on the treatment of individuals detained by the U.S. Armed Forces during the conflict in Afghanistan.”

This memo argued that the President was not bound by international laws in the war on terror. The memo stated that “any customary international law of armed conflict in no way binds, as a legal matter, the President or the US Armed Forces concerning the detention or trial of members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.” The memo purported to deny the protections of international laws to detainees and to exempt from liability those who denied such protections. The memo thus approved and promoted violations by the U.S. of long-standing international laws and treaties.

Finally, Yoo authored a memo that was dated August 1, 2002, titled “Standards of Conduct for Interrogation under 18 U.S.C. ss. 2340-2340A” (the statutes that implement the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT)). According to Goldsmith, “This opinion was addressed to Alberto Gonzales from my predecessor, Jay Bybee, but according to press reports and John Yoo’s public comments, it was drafted by Yoo himself.” (Terror Presidency, p. 142)

Among other criteria, it stated that “[p]hysical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” Goldsmith states: “The opinion formed part of the legal basis for what President Bush later confirmed were ‘alternative’ interrogation procedures used at secret locations on Abu Zubaydah, a top al Qaeda operative; Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the al Qaeda mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks; and other ‘key architects of the September 11th’ and other terrorist attacks.” (p. 142)

Jordan Paust writes in “Beyond the Law: The Bush Administration’s Unlawful Responses to the ‘War’ on Terror,”:

“The memo attempted to justify torture as well as the intentional infliction of pain more generally as interrogation tactics” and it “was completely erroneous with respect to Geneva law and war crime responsibility.” (p. 11)

Media and Legal Experts on Yoo’s Memos

The January 9, 2002 memo, which discusses the application of treaties on detainees, is widely viewed as having sparked the abuse and torture of prisoners by members of the U.S. military. The Department of State (DOS) responded to Yoo that “both the most important factual assumptions on which your draft is based and its legal analysis are seriously flawed.” Two days after Yoo issued his January 9th memo, DOS legal adviser William H. Taft, IV, commented that all three of Yoo’s main premises were wrong as a matter of international law and other arguments he made were “without support,” “contrary to the official position of the United States,” and “legally flawed and procedurally impossible at this stage.”

In a May 25, 2004 Newsweek article, referring to Yoo’s memos, reporter Michael Isikoff stated that

“Critics say the memos’ disregard for the United States’ treaty obligations and international law paved the way for the Pentagon to use increasingly aggressive interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay — including sleep deprivation, use of forced stress positions and environmental manipulation — that eventually were applied to detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.”

(For all the so called “torture memos” and other “Interrogation Documents,”click here.)

Scott Horton — an expert on human rights law and the law of armed conflict, a professor at Columbia University School of Law, a commentator for Harper’s Magazine, and a partner at Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler LLP in New York — wrote that
“ following the issuance of high-level legal advice [eg., the Yoo/Delahunty and other memos] … command authorities in Iraq no longer considered the Geneva Conventions to restrain them in their handling of detainees.”

Isikoff quoted Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, who had examined the memo. Roth “described it as a ‘maliciously ideological or deceptive’ document that simply ignored U.S. obligations under multiple international agreements. ‘You can’t pick or choose what laws you’re going to follow,’ said Roth. ‘These political lawyers set the nation on a course that permitted the abusive interrogation techniques’ that have been recently disclosed.”

Jordan J. Paust, Professor of International Law at University of Houston Law Center wrote in “Beyond the Law” about the memo:

“Yoo and Delahunty knew that their claim” about the application of the Geneva Conventions “was completely contrary to developments in the customary laws of war recognized by the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, but they thought their reliance on a fifty-three-year-old text and ‘historical context’ was preferable…” (p. 10.)

Another eminent law professor, Stephen Gillers, at New York University School of Law noted that:

“Explicitly and by omission, then, the lawyers [Yoo and Delahunty] told the government it could treat detainees from Afghanistan as though they existed outside the rule of law.”

While the Memo purported to consider the effect of international treaties and federal law on the treatment of detainees from Afghanistan, it “ignore[d] duties imposed by the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (which the United States ratified with reservations in 1994) and the federal torture statute, which creates criminal liability for U.S. nationals who commit torture abroad under color of law.” As further explained by Scott Horton (and quoted by Gillers), the Yoo and Delahunty memo “is not only wrong, it lays the groundwork for the commission of war crimes.”

But the January 9th memo is clearly not the only one that could be construed as giving interrogators carte blanche on extreme techniques. The August1st memo specifically deals with the issue of torture and attempts to redefine it to permit interrogations that most experts agree would violate traditional prohibitions. Goldsmith notes that the definition of pain amounting to torture was “culled … ironically, from a statute authorizing health benefits.” (p. 145) According to Yoo himself, the denial of Geneva protections and the coercive interrogation “policies were part of a common, unifying approach to the war on terrorism.” (Paust, p. 177, fn. 14, quoting Yoo, “War by Other Means.”)

Yoo’s Most Recently-Revealed Memo

Last week, the Washington Post published yet another memo that Yoo had authored. This one was dated March 14, 2003 and discussed “Military Interrogation of Alien Unlawful Combatants Held Outside the United States.” (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

Here again, Yoo argues that the President is not bound by federal laws. “Such criminal statutes, if they were misconstrued to apply to the interrogation of enemy combatants, would conflict with the Constitution’s grant of the Commander in Chief power solely to the President,” writes Yoo. The laws by which Yoo says the President is not bound are those that prohibit torture, assault, maiming, stalking, and war crimes. Yoo’s opinion restricts the application of treaties against torture to definitions that, once again, simply authorize torture as long as it doesn’t kill the person.

Further, contrary to current understanding of international law, Yoo’s memo declares that “our previous opinions make clear that customary international law is not federal law and that the President is free to override it at his discretion.” And finally, the memo suggests several defenses (military necessity and self defense) for those brought up on criminal charges for violating laws during interrogations.

According to Vincent Warren, the Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights:

The ‘Torture Memo’ was not an abstract, academic foray. Rather, it was crafted to sidestep U.S. and international laws that make coercive interrogation and torture a crime. It was written with the knowledge that its legal conclusions were to be applied to the interrogations of hundreds of individual detainees… And it worked. It became the basis for the CIA’s use of extreme interrogation methods as well the basis for DOD interrogation policy.

Warrens adds that

“Yoo’s legal opinions as well as the others issued by the Office of Legal Counsel were the keystone of the torture program, and were the necessary precondition for the torture program’s creation and implementation.”

Marjorie Cohn, President of the National Lawyers Guild, analyzing Yoo’s actions in light of the relevant case law, writes that Yoo was an “integral part of a criminal conspiracy to violate U.S. laws” in which “it was reasonably foreseeable that the advice [Yoo] gave would result in great physical or mental harm or death to many detainees.”

Cohn echoes Scott Horton, who writes that

Yoo’s “analysis was false, a point acknowledged ultimately by the [Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice] itself” and points out that “a solid basis exists under the standard articulated by the United States under which John Yoo may be charged and brought to trial” for the false legal advice he gave.


Yoo’s efforts to deny rights to detainees is, alone, a breach of basic requirements of the 1907 Hague Convention, which states that “it is especially forbidden … [t]o declare abolished, suspended, or inadmissible in a court of law the rights and actions of the nationals of the hostile party.” (Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague IV); October 18, 1907, Art. 23)

Breaches of the Hague or Geneva Conventions may constitute war crimes, by definition, under the 1996 War Crimes Act.

“War crimes” are not just crimes under some vague view of unenforceable international law subject to dispute by civilized nations. Nor are they just crimes under widely accepted international laws;they are also crimes under U.S. federal domestic law.

Professor Yoo not only laid the groundwork for the commission of war crimes by others, but his “legal advice” was itself a promotion of crime.

His memos provided advice on how to break the law and avoid prosecution. His continued endorsement of the views expressed in his memo could be construed as continued promotion of unlawful activities, which could subject him to criminal prosecution. (Paust, p. 20.)

Beyond the issue of Yoo’s direct liability for aiding and abetting crimes is the question whether the Yoo/Delahunty memo has misled other departments or branches of the government. In a November 7, 2005, blog entry, Horton pointedly asked:

“Has the Department of Justice been corrupted by its ‘torture memoranda’?” Given subsequent revelations of Justice Department improper “politicization” and firings of U.S. attorneys, the effect of Yoo’s memos seems highly relevant.

Professor Paust, who calls the Yoo/Delahunty memo “manifestly erroneous,” “unprofessional, and subversive,” states:

“What is particularly disturbing is the attempt to mislead and abuse the judiciary to further the denial of required rights and protections.” Paust points to at least one instance where a court has been misled. (Paust, pp. 19-20.) Paust says that the “criminal memoranda and behavior of various German lawyers in the German Ministry of Justice, high-level executive positions outside the Ministry, and the courts in the 1903s and 1940s that were addressed in informing detail in “The Justice Case” … reflect the concern regarding government lawyer attempts to use courts to further a denial of required rights and protections under the laws of war. Consequences for the German legal system were disastrous … and consequences for a number of lawyers included criminal convictions for, among other crimes, aiding and abetting violations of the laws of war.” (pp. 19-20)

Horton, in a response to a statement issued by Christoperh Edley, Jr., dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley, where Yoo teaches, states the legal standard in The Justice Case, also known as U.S. v. Altstoetter:

First, the case dealt with persons under detention in wartime (not POWs, in fact most of the cases in question addressed persons not entitled to POW or comparable protections). Second, it had to be reasonably foreseeable that the advice dispensed would result in serious physical or mental harm or death to a number of the persons under detention. Third, the advice given was erroneous.

Horton sums up:

“Each of these criteria is satisfied with respect to Yoo’s advice under the torture memoranda” and adds that “what [Yoo] did raises not merely ethics issues, but actual criminal culpability.”

Horton’s conclusion bears marking:

Yoo is protected by the political umbrella of the Bush Administration for the moment, which is to say, he is protected by his actual fellow conspirators, including those who continue to run the Department of Justice. That protection will expire soon enough, and it is highly unlikely that the Government which follows in its wake will be prepared to act quite so strenuously as this one in Yoo’s behalf.

Jennifer Van Bergen, a journalist with a law degree, is the author of THE TWILIGHT OF DEMOCRACY: THE BUSH PLAN FOR AMERICA (Common Courage Press, 2004) and Archetypes for Writers: Using the Power of Your Subconscious (Michael Weise Productions, 2007). She can be reached at