Speaking truth to power

This is cute. And incredibly stupid. Leaving aside the issue of what constitutes a war crime that should be prosecuted in international courts--you heartless fiend! my liberal readers cry, we knew all along that you loved torture!

No, really, leave it aside, because the moral question is irrelevant to the practical one. What will be the effect of this? Will it build the credibility of international justice institutions by proving that even the powerful US can be brought to heel?

Ummm . . . no. Can a Barack Obama administration sit by while this happens? The liberals who think it can have spent far too much time in the Bat Cave telling each other that justice will soon be restored to the universe. Seizing US officials and trying them for war crimes will be perceived by most of the American public as an act of war. An Obama administration that became complicit in this would find itself wistfully hoping that they could, perhaps someday, get their approval ratings up to those enjoyed in the later Dubya years. There would be not inconsiderable pressure to invade Spain to get them back.

That we would do so seems farfetched. What does not seem so unlikely is that the US would almost have to pull out of any organization that supported this action, up to and including the UN. We are still the country of Monroe and Roosevelt.

I know that at this point you are itching to argue that in the long run we'd all be better off if we submitted to international justice. Well, first of all, this won't be international justice, in that sense; it will be the justice of whatever court system seizes our officials. And second of all, it doesn't really matter if we should; we won't. American politics is not behind that kind of internationalism.

The result, therefore, seems almost certain to be some sort of horrific blow to the power of all these international institutions, which become fundamentally irrelevant if the United States does not participate. America provides most of the military force that supports those institutions; even when they are not our troops, it is our air support, our logistical support, our sea power that stands behind the boots on the ground. The public political pressure in Europe will undoubtedly be just as strong for these actions as the pressure here will be against them. It will only be after the damage is done that Americans will realize it is sometimes convenient to have allies, while Europeans belatedly discover that internationalism doesn't just run on solemn conferences and soft power. Not to mention how cute they'll all look trying to hem in Russian expansionism without the implicit threat of the American troops now stationed in their countries.

It might be nice if international justice were like a real national legal system, where everyone, rich and poor, submits themselves to the impartial will of the courts. But it is not. This is not fair--life isn't, you may have noticed. When the gap between the real and nominal power is as wide as it is in institutions like the UN, the institutions survive by not testing the boundaries--by defining deviance down rather than reveal that the institution does not have the actual ability to rein in its most powerful members.

I know that I have a lot of seething war opponents reading this, their souls screaming that the practical considerations are secondary to the moral ones. But the US flatly cannot be brought to heel in this manner, while other nations can. Shall we enjoy the righteous satisfaction of expressing our moral outrage, at the cost of severely eroding the international community's ability to encourage peace in the rest of the world? Only if you think that American politics is so overwhelmingly important that it overrides trivial considerations like dead Bosnians.