Holding President Bush to the rule of law

By Charles Tripp

There's no doubt President George W. Bush violated both international and U.S. domestic law by invading Iraq. Here are just several examples of ways in which he personally did so.

* United Nations Resolution 1441 (2002), an agreement that the Bush administration helped create, gave the Security Council sole power to punish Iraq for any "material breaches" of the resolution's provisions. Ignoring the Security Council's role, however, President Bush invaded Iraq contrary to the wishes of most of the council's members in clear disregard for the resolution's intent and chapters one, six and seven of the U.N. Charter as well. This means the president failed to abide by several international agreements that were binding upon the U.S. government and its officials.

* Domestically, Mr. Bush violated the U.S. Constitution's Article VI provisions that require its governmental officials, whether elected or appointed, to recognize international agreements the U.S. has ratified as the "supreme law of the land."

Unfortunately, however, although necessary, eventual legal action against Mr. Bush seems highly unlikely. This is due to a widespread lack of will in the U.S. Congress to deal with lawless presidents and also partly to the Bush administration's efforts to protect itself, as the following accounts illustrate.

During May 2003, a case claiming U.S. troops committed crimes in Iraq had been entered in a Belgian court on behalf of ten Iraqis against General Tommy Franks. In response, Bush officials threatened Belgium with economic punishment, including withholding NATO funds and/or moving NATO headquarters out of Brussels, if the case progressed.

Belgium's courts promptly responded to U.S. economic threats by throwing the Franks case out, and later, by July 2003, Belgium's government announced it would change the controversial law that allowed its courts to try allegations of crimes committed during war that did not occur in Belgium nor directly involve Belgians.

The president dodged a bullet on this one, since the 1945 Nuremburg Charter clearly would hold Mr. Bush accountable for any proof of U.S. misdeeds in Iraq. However, loss of the Belgian law meant the world community had to scratch an effective means of prosecuting war crimes.

There's more. During May 2002, Bush withdrew any possibility the U.S. would ratify the International Criminal Court (ICC) treaty. This made the ICC treaty DOA in the USA, a treaty which actually does more to enable eventual judicial scrutiny of wartime combatants than any other international measure yet available. Cross off another means of investigating war crimes.

To be sure, any U.S. president who tramples on the law while serving deserves to be prosecuted for that. Failure to do so will undermine respect for the rule of law both at home and abroad. Since primacy of law provides the rationale for all government and politics in the U.S., punishment of presidential lawbreakers is essential, the loftiness and power of their official position notwithstanding.

The world needs a forceful demonstration that Americans understand their presidents are not above either domestic or international law. If the will to indict Mr. Bush emerges, then U.S. institutions will regain the credibility they've lost in recent years around the globe.