by Laurie Calhoun | Apr 13, 2022
The top-ranking U.S. diplomat, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, recently denounced Russian president Vladimir Putin as a war criminal, which has resulted in a marked uptick in the usage of that term throughout the media. Putin decided to invade Ukraine in February 2022 and has killed people in the process. That’s what happens when leaders decide to address conflict through the application of military force: people die. The U.S. government has needless to say killed many people in its military interventions abroad, most recently in the Middle East and Africa. Yet Americans are often hesitant to apply the label war criminal even to figures such as George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, whose Global War on Terror has sowed massive destruction, death, and misery, adversely affecting millions of persons for more than twenty years.
Nor do people generally regard affable Barack Obama as a war criminal, despite the considerable harm to civilians unleashed by his ill-advised war on Libya. “Drone warrior” Obama also undertook a concerted campaign to kill rather than capture terrorist suspects in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen, with which the United States was not at war, and he armed radical Islamist rebel forces in Syria, which exacerbated the conflict already underway, resulting in the deaths of even more civilians. Obama’s material and logistical support for the Saudi war against the Houthis in Yemen gave rise to a full-fledged humanitarian crisis, with disease and starvation ravaging the population.
Moving a bit farther back in time, U.S. citizens and their sympathizers abroad typically do not affix the label war criminal to Bill Clinton either, despite the fact that his 1999 bombing of Kosovo appears to have been motivated in part to distract attention from his domestic scandal at the time. The moment Clinton began dropping bombs on Kosovo, the press, in a show of patriotic solidarity, abruptly switched its attention from the notorious “blue dress” to the war in progress. Throughout his presidency, Clinton not only bombed but also imposed severe sanctions on Iraq, as a result of which hundreds of thousands of civilians died of preventable diseases.
Despite knowing about at least some of the atrocities committed in their name by the U.S. government (torture, summary execution, maiming, the provision of weapons to murderers, sanctions preventing access to medication and food, etc.), many Americans have no difficulty identifying Vladimir Putin as a war criminal while simultaneously withholding that label from their own leaders. Viewed from a broader historical perspective, none of this may seem new. During wartime, much of the populace dutifully parrots pundits and politicians in denouncing the foreign leaders with whom they disagree as criminals, while supporting the military initiatives of their own leaders, no matter what they do. Is the use of the term of derogation war criminal, then, no more than a reflection of the tribe to which one subscribes?