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I Was an Icelandic “War Criminal”
Believe me, Secretary Rice, you don't want to go soft on the International Criminal Court.


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Michael Rubin

I looked forward to returning to Iceland. It had been seven years since I last lectured there, and I remembered it as a beautiful, rugged country, great for hiking and swimming. I was scheduled to deliver four lectures on Iran, Iraq, and transformative diplomacy at the Universities of Iceland and Reykjavik, and at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Keflavik.

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This trip would not be so smooth. Word of trouble began to percolate in the morning of the first lecture. A local antiwar activist was demanding my arrest as a war criminal. My crimes were multifold: Writing an article blaming Saddam Hussein–not United Nations sanctions–for Iraqi deaths, and then advocating for Iraqi liberation. This made me responsible for “war-crimes and violating international law by indirectly causing the invasion of Iraq.” Like thousands of others, I had also worked at the Pentagon and volunteered for duty in Iraq. At each university lecture, protesters worked to disrupt my speech. Some were young students, and others were older retirees, members of a group calling itself, “The Movement for Active Democracy.” I was even accused of complicity in a cover-up of the 9/11 attacks. Among my crimes, the protesters pointed out, “[Rubin] is a Jew and a big supporter of Israel.” Guilty as charged. I do not apologize for my religion, and I am also a big supporter of India, Turkey, Taiwan, Mali, and other democracies. Iceland is a small country. Rather than ignore the incidents, both newspapers and television reported it. I was already in Finland when I got an e-mail informing me that the police commissioner dismissed the lawsuit.

The incident would be laughable if it did not foreshadow a growing phenomenon seeking to criminalize debate that is sweeping progressive, libertarian, and antiwar groups at home and abroad. Blogger Juan Cole, for example, a popular anti-Bush pundit, demanded the FBI investigate how Walid Phares “became the ‘terrorism analyst’ at MSNBC.” On June 1, 2004, blogger Laura Rozen lamented that someone she disagreed with was not the subject of an FBI investigation. On September 20, 2004, libertarian Justin Raimondo urged the FBI to “indict the Neocon War Party for treason.” Perhaps hyperbole, but it is dangerous to smear political opponents with death-penalty offenses.

Within the federal government, there is a similar trend toward criminalizing interagency debate. In 2003, a principle deputy assistant secretary of State launched an investigation of another State Department employee for leaking an unclassified document to the Pentagon. After a Chalabi leak, one State Department official with whom I sparred in interagency meetings told law-enforcement officials and journalists that I was responsible, a silly assertion given that I was not in Iraq at the time, seldom had contact with Chalabi while I was there, and did not have access to the material allegedly leaked (not to mention that the charges exist more in the realm of unnamed intelligence sources than in reality). Similar cases are a dime a dozen. Within the U.S. political debate, constitutional guarantees make such hyperbole more immature and nuisance than dangerous, but the Iceland incident is cause for concern.

Many U.S. diplomats–including those appointed to prominent portfolios by President Bush–advocate privately for U.S. inclusion in the International Criminal Court. Recently, the White House has reconsidered its position. Just three days before the Icelandic peace activists filed suit against me, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she would like to soften the U.S. position toward the International Criminal Court. The idea that international bodies will be neutral or operate in the cause of justice is foolhardy and dangerous. On April 15, 2002, Austria, Belgium, France, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden endorsed a U.N. Human Rights Commission resolution legitimizing suicide bombing as a legitimate form of resistance. Human-rights groups have condemned Israel’s security fence, while ignoring previous construction of anti-terrorism barriers on disputed land not only by India, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco, but also by the United Nations itself. The same logic of indirect responsibility used to condemn former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon as a war criminal could just as easily apply–with all due respect to Jonathan Swift–to such human-rights divas as former Irish president and UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson.

International organizations seldom live up to the noble goals of their founding charters, and many European let alone Middle Eastern and Central Asian politicians are venal. In September 2004, Finnish President Tarja Halonen declared the Iraq war illegal. Halonen, like many of her European peers, conflates personal with legal opinion and acts as judge and jury when deciding questions of international law. Such capriciousness is dangerous. If European states accept the idea of indirect responsibility, it is not a far leap to fear that the calls for criminalization of debate which exist in progressive circles could become mainstream. Write an unpopular legal opinion regarding torture? War crime. Peacekeepers in Afghanistan transfer detainees to the host government? War crime. Advocate for a war against terrorism or emphasize democratization in foreign policy? War crime.

Europeans may preach multilateralism and condemn unilateralism. But, increasingly, they seek multilateralism in action, but unilateralism in thought. True liberals and conservatives should band together to defend free speech. Intellectuals should understand that McCarthyism is government censorship, not criticism of their work or labels they dislike. Professors should not cry wolf.

Still, on an international level, Rice may want to smooth ruffled feathers. Career State-department officers may tell her it’s the right thing to do; they have immunity. Offered a choice between mitigating opposition to the International Criminal Court or keeping debate free, the U.S. decision should be clear. Let’s just hope Rice takes the right rather than the diplomatic option; then again, if she doesn’t, her retirement could be in an Icelandic prison.

–Michael Rubin, editor of The Middle East Quarterly, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.



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