Sunday, May 22, 2005

SkivviesGate and the rule of law 

The Glittering Eye has its skivvies in a twist over, er, SkivviesGate. His argument is, essentially, that da law is da law:
Saddam Hussein is a prisoner of war. We are obligated by the treaty to protect him from public curiosity. That taking pictures of him in his underwear and then allowing those pictures to be published in a newspaper is a failure to protect him from public curiosity would appear to be self-evident. That it is a failure to secure “respect for his person and his honor” would also appear to be self-evident. If you don't believe so, just read any of the many outraged comments from Iraqis.

That Saddam Hussein is vile and loathsome is irrelevant. The United States is a party to a treaty and the terms of that treaty should be scrupulously observed.

I agree with those who point out that in the total scheme of things a picture in his skivvies is small potatoes compared with the thousands or hundreds of thousands of atrocities that Saddam committed, ordered to be committed or condoned. But that, too, is irrelevant. The issue isn't Saddam, it's the United States.

Well, sure. Far be it from me to come out and approve of a palpable violation of the law. But was the leaking of these photos some sort of heinous crime, or was it the moral equivalent of stealing from the Mafia?

In any enterprise as large and chaotic as war, violations of law are bound to occur. In this war, more than any before it, the violations of one side -- the United States and its allies -- are exposed to the scrutiny of billions of people. In virtually every case, American violations of law were brought to light after they had been investigated by the United States itself. Even in SkivviesGate, the United States responded quickly at the highest levels. How a government responds to a violation of international law is important. Notwithstanding the partisan bleatings of the left, I cannot think of another example in history of a government responding as openly as the United States has to charges of war crimes (other than perhaps Israel on various occasions). How many internal investigations did the Russians launch during their long occupation of Afghanistan? Did Saddam prosecute any of his own soldiers for the crimes they committed in his wars against Iran and Kuwait? I think we know the answers to both questions.

The other fairly obvious point is that the Geneva Conventions protect the dignity of soldiers in part because rank-and-file grunts are considered to have been doing their duty, substantially under compulsion. They are, to a great degree, innocent, insofar as they had no meaningful choice but to fight for their country. Saddam, however, is a dirtbag of a different order. While it is true that he is a prisoner of war because of his membership in the Iraqi military, his culpability is of a palpably more heinous nature than that of the typical soldier for whom the Geneva Conventions were devised.

SkivviesGate has not degraded the rule of law. It has reinforced the rule of law. The United States has responded with an almost laughable gravity to a technical violation of the Geneva Conventions. Indeed, most of the public expressions of rage at the United States over this episode are disingenuous (not that of The Glittering Eye), and motivated by purposes other than concern for the rule of law.


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