What difference does it make if John Brennan is confirmed?

In the end, what difference does it make if John Brennan is confirmed as CIA Director by the Senate?

1. Well, for one thing, it may be the last chance for the Senate to get control of a failed foreign policy, and to actually put someone in who would complement Secretary of State John Kerry–as a member of a team that can get the nation’s foreign policy back on a track that might avoid further disasters, and maybe even lead to some successes.

Vali Nasr, the Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of International Affairs, is publishing a book, The Dispensable Nation, which is coming out in April and is already making waves as one of the first hard-hitting assessments of Obama’s foreign policy in his first term.. And the story isn’t pretty. Obama has led the nation into one failure after another, but liberals and Democrats have been unwilling to hold him accountable. The president, after all, perfectly represents the mood of the American people, by and large, who just want to get out of Bush’s wars and focus on domestic issues.

But the world exists, regardless of what the public in general want, and it keeps turning. It keeps spinning, in fact, in ways that often seem adverse to U.S. interests, and sometimes it seems even to be spinning out of control.

Brennan’s confirmation will tilt the balance of Obama’s foreign policy team back to the place where it has been for the last four years, with Obama mainly interested in killing terrorists by drones, while at the same time dragging his feet in other international crIsis arenas, such as Syria, Mali, or even Libya (until the French and the British dragged the U.S. into it, once Security Council authorzation was secured). Obama, in the end, is not interested in foreign policy, and doesn’t know how to conduct it. So he, and we, need a strong team.

2. Brennan is the High Priest of the war on terror, the Holy Warrior leading “The Last Crusade” against the Islamic terrorist infidels. And the strategy is simple–simply to kill them before they kill us. He is not plagued by self-doubt. Obama, in becoming a warrior himself, may have modeled himself on Brennan.

The only problem is that we may have been so busy fighting this war of  targeted executions that we failed to notice, much less try to influence, strategic developments of enormous significance.

While Brennan was busy managing the “kill lists” and coordinating drone strikes on the infidels, Obama was giving up the ship to Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, offering Morsi  support and not criticism when he launched his legal coup d’etat on November 22, abrogating the rule of law in the nascent democracy of Egypt. Morsi pushed through his illegitimate constitution, shutting down the Constitutional Court with brown-shirt tactics in the street.

What difference does that make?

Well, for one thing, al-Azhar university, which is the highest center of Islamic learning in the city which is the cultural capital of the Arab world, is now facing increasing pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists to assume a more fundamentalist approach to religious issues. These include those covered by the sharia, or Islamic law, now raised to a position of preeminence in Morsi’s Islamist constitution.

In effect, Brennan was leading Obama to go and try to kill terrorist leaders with drones, while the geotectonic plates of the Middle East were shifting in Egypt. As this was taking place, Obama and Hillary Clinton remained frozen, unable to act as events unfolded in Egypt. Yet the success of terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa is likely to be determined much more by developments at al-Azhar that by mid-level terrorists being killed by drones in Yemen

3. Then there are the moral issues. Torture. Extraordinary renditions to states which torture. Secret CIA “black prisons”, hidden from everyone, even the International Committee of the Red Cross. And targeted executions, including “signature” strikes against unknown individuals who evidenced a pattern of activities indicating they were terrorists. Any male over 14 killed in a drone attack was automatically deemed to be a terrorist, which was one way of keeping civilian casualties down–at least for those living within the White House bubble.

It is interesting how Brennan makes his legal arguments purporting to justify targeted killings.  He paints a picture of the ideal case. The  real cases, however, where unknown boys 14 years of age or older merit having their guts spattered in the sand, are cases we don’t know about, and whose justifying legal memoranda we will never see, because they are secret, indeed if in individual cases they exist at all. A legal opinion to support an execution would have to be individual, taking the specific facts of the case into account, and public, and presented to a competent judicial authority.

4. There are also issues of individual moral responsibility, and guilt, incurred by killing people outside the civilizing strucures of law, including international law.

Senators voting on Brennan face this moral responsibility, and potentially moral guilt from sanctioning actions which, in strictly legal terms, might be characterized as presumptive war crimes or other international crimes.

Like the Argentine politicians and generals who argued they faced the cancer of terrorism, Brennan’s supporters may find plausible arguments for going along with international crimes.

Then there is the argument that we should let bygones be bygones. Just turn the page, and move on.  Of course that was not the position adopted by Justice Robert Jackson at Nuremberg.

If there is one book the Senators might want to read before voting on the Brennan nomination, it is “The Question of German Guilt”, by the famous German philosopher Karl Jaspers. Jaspers, in a series of lectures at the University of Heidelberg in 1948, articulated with elegant distinctions the kinds of criminal, political, moral and existential guilt Germans might feel or be accused of, as the blinders came off about what Hitler and the Nazis had done in the Third Reich. His analysis is exceedingly pertinent to “The Question of American Guilt”.

There are also a few films the Senators might want to watch before voting on the Brennan nomination. One of the best is “The Official Story”, winner of an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1985, which addresses questions of individual moral responsibility in the Argentine context. “Judgment at Nuremberg”, with Spencer Tracy starring as Justice Jackson, would be another.

Given Brennan’s use of the “cancer” metaphor to describe terrorism’s advances, the Senators might benefit from watching “Z”, Costa-Gavras’ film about the right-wing coup in Greece. Then there is always “Missing”, a film starring Jack Lemon which in the context of Agusto Pinochet’s coup in Chile powerfully conveys the impact on individuals and families of those who abandon law in favor of pure force in their battle against the “cancer” of terrorism–as they see it.

5. We must bear witness to the truth and fight to uphold the rule of law. Just as the excesses of the “Palmer raids” in 1919, or the internment of Japanese citizens in World War II, came to be understood as great deviations from the rule of law, so too some day future historians will ask, “Did no one oppose these outrageous violations of fundamental rights, or seek to prevent them from being carried out?”

We and others, at least, must speak out–as loudly and effectively as we can–so that there is some evidence that people opposed these outrages upon the Constitution and the rule of law. The challenges we face are not as great as those faced by Sophie Scholl, who distributed pamphlets in Hitler”s Germany, for which she was executed, or others who faced the power of totalitarian states, yet nonetheless spoke out.

In seeking to answer the historians’ question, the vote of individual Senators on the Brennan nomination will be duly noted, and the judgment of history will be entered, and it will fall upon those who vote, or abstain or are absent, on the Brennan nomination in the Senate.

Did this or that Senator stand up for the rule of law, and vote against a confirmation that would send a clear signal to the world that America endorses holy warriors who have no regard for international law and human rights? Or not?

How did these Senators, on the dates of these votes, define the nature of American Democracy in 2013? That is the question historians will ask, and about which they will write.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

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