Dealing with dictators cost the U.S. its soul. Now it's time to atone.
The gripping story of the quest to bring former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré to justice that appears in this issue of Foreign Policy is deeply resonant for several reasons. In the first instance, it underscores the urgent necessity that our system of international law not allow heads of state to violate the fundamental rights of their citizens or their neighbors with impunity. But the story should also be profoundly troubling to Americans because it reminds us that a consistently amoral U.S. foreign policy had made this necessity all the more difficult to address.
Supporting Habré with arms, enabling him to gain and maintain the power he then used to kill, torture, and imprison his people, is not the kind of aberration one wishes it was for the United States.
Indeed, much of contemporary American foreign policy seems to be devoted to undoing the excesses, missteps, and errors of the 20th century (and, for that matter, those of the first years of this century). In the past 50 years, in South Africa, Rwanda, Laos, Indonesia, the Philippines, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Chile, El Salvador, Brazil, Panama, and Argentina — to name but a few cases that quickly come to mind — the United States supported repressive regimes that violated basic human rights. Today, the change with regard to where America stands on Habré is not unlike other recent or looming about-faces that are currently shaping U.S. foreign policy.
For example, whatever you may feel about the merits of the Obama administration’s efforts to strike a deal with Iran on nuclear weapons — and personally, I think it is a necessary and timely step — U.S. foreign policy over the past several years represents a turn away from an anti-Iran stance that had been one of the key tenets of U.S. Middle East policy since 1979 and had involved supporting bad guys who similarly opposed Tehran. Indeed, possibly more striking than the nuclear deal is America’s recent, willing acceptance of an Iraqi leader who is sympathetic to Tehran, a stunning contrast to anti-Iranian feelings once so strong that, during the 1980s, the United States provided Saddam Hussein’s government with intelligence that it used to target Iranian positions with chemical weapons. This was as dark a policy choice as any involving Habré, and the recent semi-thaw between the United States and Iran (despite our continuing opposition to many of Tehran’s policies) has some of our allies wondering if a jarring shift is afoot.
America’s change of position with regard to Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt was, of course, another of the long-overdue course corrections the United States has made away from a morally compromised alliance. But the example of Egypt does something else, too: It reminds us that the United States entered into such alliances out of convenience and expediency, to advance or preserve U.S. interests at a seemingly low cost. The United States would give a little aid, a little political cover, sometimes weapons — and then look the other way. These were cases of geostrategic Hamburger Helper, extending America’s reach and influence for less money than it would have taken to project force or even bigger aid resources into the region, efforts that could have been associated with seeking out more palatable partners (or putting them in place).
The biggest cost in the end was the nation’s soul. A cynic might observe that nations don’t have souls, and an atheist might suggest that no one does. But of course, nations, like people, have characters and reputations associated with those characters. Leadership and influence derive from both. That’s not to say that many great immoral and amoral powers have not had disproportionate influence. Rather, it is to say that being seen as hypocritical or serially insensitive to international law or basic human values does not enhance any country’s standing. This is only made more the case when a country hails itself as the world’s great beacon of hope, democracy, and respect for law as the United States does.
There is a reason that nations like the United States have behaved in this appalling, dangerous, often despicable way. It is because they can — because they have the ability to choose what they view as the comparatively low cost of collaborating with and enabling despots and mass criminals. ("Realists" among you readers have already shrugged off this critique by saying that’s the way the game is played — we have to do what works for us and not get too caught up worrying about "nice-to-have" attributes like values.)
The United States is seeking to atone for past sins today, not only through policy changes, but also by supporting the prosecution of former dictators like Habré. Still, the country has not embraced all that is needed for international justice: The United States and some of its allies have resisted calls to accept the jurisdiction of human rights treaties and institutions like the International Criminal Court, fearing that their leaders might one day find themselves arrested by an unsympathetic government on a visit overseas and prosecuted for alleged war crimes or crimes against humanity.
If 800,000 Iraqis died in an illegal war waged by the United States, how much culpability do the U.S. leaders who chose to launch the conflict have? In an era of kill lists and drone strikes, of civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is understandable why an international legal position holding America accountable might make U.S. officials nervous. (Imagine how much more nervous they might be if international leaders could also be brought before the bar in a foreign country or at a world tribunal for violating rights of privacy or perpetrating other crimes that do not rise to the level of the most heinous attacks on human rights.)
The U.S. resistance to being a full participant in the international justice system is why, as heartening as it would be to keep a monster like Habré in jail where he belongs, doing so is nowhere near enough. Until leaders and other decision-makers who collaborate with the likes of Habré are also found liable and brought to justice, we will not see the end of the abuses that the world’s worst rulers inflict on the innocent. Specifically, until the top, white-collar officials of rich countries see it as too personally risky to tolerate the intolerable, too dangerous to cut corners and let bad men handle the dirty work of the world’s danger zones, the periodic prosecution of men like Habré will be for little more than effect.
No doubt there will be a reflexive assertion of sovereign protections and a reiteration of the old saw that to allow state leaders to be prosecuted will invite political and ideological abuse of the international justice system by rival countries. But a fair system should filter out and ultimately reject prosecutions with such motives (as must be done within countries as well), and we have already seen the toll that results from the absence of such enforcement of the law.
Sovereignty, like religion and patriotism, is a concept that has become sacrosanct at least as much because of the protections it affords the guilty, the greedy, and the ambitious as for whatever merits may underpin it. Just as constitutional reform is required within countries to hold in check the power of those who govern on behalf of the governed, so too do we need reform in international law. It is hard to imagine any era other than the 20th century that could send the message better that sovereign immunities must be strictly limited and constantly questioned — except, of course, every century since the concept of sovereignty first emerged.
We need better protections against those we have empowered to protect us — or who have arrogated that right to themselves. That means, in the end, ensuring that all who commit crimes must answer for them. Not just the bad men of the underdeveloped world, but also, and especially, the rich and super-empowered who support them at arm’s length and who even allow themselves later the privilege of seeking to purge themselves of guilt with neat, if overdue, policy reversals.