It’s supposed to be Sept. 12—that’s to say, the post-9/11 era. For over seven years the entire Western world was forced to live out a kind of geopolitical Groundhog Day in which Bush, Cheney, Rummy and the rest of the gang woke up each dawn to the same eternal Tuesday morning in September, the same long shadows of the Twin Towers, the same undying certainty of another six decades of hard, cold, martial winter. It wasn’t only the ideologically opposed among the campus left and the Euro-elites: the vast mass of a once supportive citizenry got ground down, too, exhausted by the very lingo of the “war on terror” and anxious to inter it with the Bush presidency. That’s why Barack Obama was cheered from Berkeley to Berlin. He offered liberation. To invert the old line, war may be interested in him, but he wasn’t interested in war. And in those heady days of late 2008 that seemed almost plausible.
Jaw-jaw is better than war-war, as Churchill said, although he might feel differently if he had to sit through an Obama state of the union. But what about law-law? In the United States, the United Kingdom and even Canada, it’s not enough to move on to Sept. 12: the Bush era itself has to be put on trial. In London, something called “the Chilcot inquiry” has been investigating the process by which the country signed on to the Iraq invasion. For weeks, the usual bunch of shifty grandees have killed any potential awkward line of inquiry with the all-purpose brush-off, “You’ll have to ask Mr. Blair about that.” So finally they did, summoning the now reviled prime minister into the witness box to grill him on the “legality” of the Iraq invasion. Outside, protesters denounced “Bliar,” as his name is now universally spelled: “BLIAR LIED! THOUSANDS DIED!” Like a pedophile serial killer, he was smuggled into the building before dawn, lest the mob turn on him: “The People vs. Ex-Generalissimo Bliar”—or, at any rate, as near as his former comrades on the left seem likely to get to hauling him up before a war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
Come to think of it, one wouldn’t entirely rule that out. George Monbiot, the Guardian columnist and “climate change” warm-monger, is now overheating on the Bliar front and—following an aborted attempt to perform a citizen’s arrest on neo-con hard man John Bolton during his book tour—has now started a website called arrestblair.org offering a bounty for any plucky Brit willing to do the right thing and deliver the war criminal into custody.
In Washington, despite ever whinier and self-pitying references to all the problems he’s “inherited” from the Bush junta, President Obama isn’t yet ready to have his predecessor arrested. That’s not to say his unlovely attorney general hasn’t looked into it: Eric Holder’s Justice Department was happy to waste much of the last year investigating Bush administration lawyers to see if their legal advice on interrogation methods was grounds for disbarment. Instead, however, they decided to demonstrate their postwar bona fides by taking Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man who planned 9/11, out of Guantánamo and giving him a criminal trial in New York City. In the Obama world view, KSM did not perpetrate an act of war but simply pulled off the equivalent of a liquor-store holdup with a somewhat higher body count: it’s not a war, it’s a law enforcement matter.
Meanwhile, in Ottawa, the Supreme Court of Canada has denounced the use of sleep deprivation techniques on KSM’s fellow Gitmo poster boy, Omar Khadr. Their Lordships were gracious enough to acknowledge that the federal government exercises the royal prerogative in respect of external relations, but hinted strongly that they’d be mighty tempted to wade in if Mr. Harper’s ministry doesn’t jump to it and start pressuring Washington re: shipping home the Maple Kid. That’s quite an accomplishment: an ugly little nickel ’n’ dime jihadist is one court decision away from fundamentally reshaping the Dominion’s entire conception of government.
In the fevers of Western civilization’s death throes, few delusions are more potent than the notion that everything can be litigated—everything, from insufficient government support for an enemy combatant, to the nation’s casus belli, to the aggressor’s act of war itself. Invariably, this descent into self-paralyzing legalisms is justified with the pious insistence that unless we wage this war in a manner consistent with “our values,” then the terrorists will have won. As it happens, “our values,” as variously demonstrated in London, Ottawa and Washington, are at odds with our entire history. But when an advanced society now goes to war it is obliged to demonstrate its even-handedness to ever more absurd degrees, to the point where we have no dog in our own fight.
What’s striking is the passion attached to all three campaigns. There are many reasons why Canadians might be appalled by the Khadr family’s story. They might be mad at Immigration Canada for letting ’em in and giving ’em citizenship in the first place. They might be furious at Jean Chrétien for personally intervening to get ol’ Pop Khadr sprung from jail in Pakistan so he could resume his, ahem, “charity work.” Canadians might reasonably be steamed at this magazine for peddling the same old sob-sister hooey as the other media eunuchs in the politically correct harem: “Caught in a muddle: an arrested aid worker appeals for Chrétien’s help” (Maclean’s, Jan. 9, 1996). They might be ever so slightly peeved at young Omar’s brother, paralyzed in a firefight in Pakistan and not fancying a prison hospital in Peshawar, flying “home” to Toronto to enjoy the benefits of Ontario health care.
They might raise an ever so slightly quizzical eyebrow at M. Chrétien for telling another of Omar’s brothers, a mere weapons purchaser for al-Qaeda, that “once I was a son of a farmer, and I became prime minister. Maybe one day you will become one.” Indeed.
But instead Canadians reserve their rage and fury for Omar Khadr’s capture and detention by the Americans. In less enlightened times, he would have been regarded as a traitor. Today, he’s the Billy Bishop of the new war, a hero to all the usual campaigners for “justice,” the ones who managed to maintain a scrupulous indifference to the fates of Omar’s fellow Canadians Bill Sampson, tortured by the Saudis, and Zahra Kazemi, questioned to death by the Iranian authorities.
Likewise, the British obsession with whether the war in Iraq was legally permissible. At the time, the late Lord Williams, then leader of the House of Lords and formerly attorney general in Mr. Blair’s ministry, remarked to me that the prime minister had been advised by his lawyers that if he expressed support for regime change in public it would risk having the war ruled “illegal.” I scoffed that any civilized human being, never mind one as self-righteous as Mr. Blair, ought to favour regime change in Iraq. But, in an increasingly legalistic conflict environment, it was felt that the narrow rationale of WMD was all that was available for London to sign onto, so president Bush decided to go along with it, mainly for Tone’s sake. That brought the Bush administration a ton of domestic political trouble down the line, and became the easiest cudgel with which the Democrats relentlessly delegitimized the war.
But, again, the legalistic obsession with the casus belli in Iraq is in marked contrast to Warmonger Bliar’s previous war. By the standards applied to Iraq, the Kosovo campaign was not only illegal, it was so illegal Blair and Clinton didn’t even bother to try to make it look legal. No attempt at UN resolutions there. They just cried “Bombs away!” and got on with it. And nobody minds.
Why? Because, for an advanced Western nation in the 21st century, war is only legitimate if you have no conceivable national interest in whatever war you’re waging. Kosovo meets that definition: no one remembers why we went in, who were the good guys, or what the hell the point of it was. Which is the point: the principal rationale was that there was no rationale. The Clinton/Blair argument boiled down to: the fact that we have no reason to get into it justifies our getting into it. Whereas Afghanistan and Iraq are morally dubious if not outright illegal precisely because Britain and America behaved as nation states acting in their national interest. And we’re not meant to do that anymore.
The cultural relativism of the dopier university campuses is to be applied globally.
That suits the enemy just fine. When he was facing a military commission, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed decided to cut to the chase and plead guilty: get those virgins ready, I’m on my way! When Obama scrapped the commissions and loosed KSM on the civilian justice system, the previously guilty man revised his plea to not guilty. So he’ll get a billion-dollar trial. And Tony Blair will be investigated to the end of his days. And don’t rule out one of those Khadr boys making it, if not to 24 Sussex, at least to the House of Commons.
Remember what they used to say about Sept. 11? “The day that everything changed”? No. It should have taught us how much had already changed—and how unlikely we’ll ever change back.