Clinton Is The WorId's
Leading Active War Criminal

Clinton's crimes, after just seven years in office, are competitive with Suharto's

by Edward S. Herman

Z magazine , December 1999


I use war crimes to encompass the commission of all acts declared illegal under international rules of war as enumerated in the various Hague and Geneva agreements and conventions and pronounced in the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals. Among these acts are the carrying out of wars of aggression, the use of poison gases and other inhumane weapons, deliberately killing and starving civilian populations, and the use of force beyond military necessity. War crimes can be carried out directly or through proxy forces that are funded, encouraged, and protected in their own war criminality. This means that inaction-failure to discourage or prevent the carrying out of war crimes known to be going on, planned for enlargement, and preventable-is itself a form of war criminality. Thus, if the Clinton administration knew that Indonesia was killing large numbers of East Timorese and planned to ravage East Timor on a larger scale if it lost an independence referendum, and did nothing to prevent the crimes, Clinton and associates were guilty of war crimes by inaction.

Clinton and Suharto

I put the adjective "active" in the title to this article because Indonesia's now retired president Suharto probably holds the overall top place today, as the person responsible for three genocides (Indonesia, East Timor, and West Papua). But Suharto had 33 years to carry out his crimes whereas Clinton has become competitive within 7 years. Who can doubt that if Clinton had more time to add to his mark in history he would easily top Suharto?

There are links between Suharto and Clinton. When Suharto visited Washington in 1995 a Clinton administration official was quoted in the New York Times as saying that Suharto was "our kind of guy." But it would be wrong to infer from this that the Clinton official was expressing approval of Suharto's mass murders; rather, he was saying that Suharto was easy to do business with in arranging trade deals and joint public relations statements. Still, it was quite clear that Suharto's murders and dictatorial rule were of little consequence to the Clinton leadership, not detracting significantly enough to make Suharto a "bad guy."

This brings us to the deeper connection between Clinton and the U.S. economic and political establishment to Suharto's crimes: because Suharto has been "our kind of guy" since 1965 when he took power during his first genocidal outburst, he has been protected and given positive support by the U.S. establishment, which therefore has a shared responsibility for his crimes. This was clearly evident in the U.S. provision of arms and diplomatic support during the first round of Indonesian genocide in East Timor, and has now been followed up with U.S. support for the second round where this country, with the closest links to the Indonesian military, took no action to curb its client's behavior.

This form of war crime-by the provision of military support and follow-up inaction as the proxy army kills-is a longstanding U.S. mode of operation. These U.S.-organized and/or supported proxy armies have mainly killed people the U . S. wants killed, although sometimes they have "gone too far" and their excesses may be deplored, though not stopped. This purposefulness was most obvious and notorious in the rise of the National Security State in Latin America in the 1950s and thereafter. Internal documents make clear the official worry over Castroism, the hostility to popular movements seeking "an immediate improvement in the low living standard of the masses" (NSC, 1954), and the determination to combat them. This was done through U. S. military aid, training, arms supply, and the anti-populist politicization of the Latin military, who served as U. S. gendarmes. The triumph of these U.S. proxies was closely correlated with the ending of democracy-11 constitutional regimes were overthrown by our Latin American gendarmes in the 1960s-along with the rise of death squads, disappearances, and systems of torture.

With the help and genius of the U.S. media, however, the U.S. connection to and responsibility for this continent wide regression was not acknowledged-it was all a remarkable happenstance that we regretted but apparently couldn't do anything about. On the other hand, in the phony campaign of the 1980s to blame the Soviet Union for the world's terrorism, it was enough to find any link of the terrorists to the Soviets for the latter to be responsible. As the London Economist said, "The Soviet Union, as it were, merely puts the gun on the table and leaves others to wage a global war by proxy." But although the United States did far more than "leave guns on the table," the actions of its proxies were never its responsibility.

Power, Arrogance, and Criminality

Clinton follows in a great tradition, although the special characteristics of the man and his Administration, along with the end of the limited Soviet containment of U. S. anti-populist interventionism, have helped make a long-standing global rogue into a super-rogue. The U.S. has long considered that it has the right to intervene at will among the "savages" occupying its own backyard in Latin America, but especially after World War II when its predominance was overwhelming and its global interests were growing rapidly its managers felt it could straighten things out everywhere. Because of U.S. power and the longstanding racist arrogance of its leaders, they have never felt that laws apply to themselves-they only apply to others. And what for the Soviet Union would be described as "aggression" or "subversion" was felt to be perfectly reasonable when done by us. The Soviet Union was declared to be engaging in subversion and even aggression in Central America when Czechoslovakia shipped one boatload of arms to Guatemala in May 1954 as that virtually disarmed country, under relentless U. S. subversive attack, was within a month of being subjected to a U.S.-organized proxy invasion. The U.S. could deliberately subvert a dozen countries in Latin America via arms, military training, and support of coups (most notably Brazil and Chile) and not be guilty of any misbehavior at all.

It could also invade and bomb other countries at its discretion and be free from international sanction. In the case of Indochina, the U.S. and its supportive media accomplished another propaganda miracle. It committed blatant aggression, overturned the Geneva Accords of 1954, installed its puppet in "South Vietnam," and in the process of trying to keep that puppet in power, killed as many as 4 million people and virtually destroyed all of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. It did this using the most fearsome technology-including the largest quantity of chemical weapons ever employed-against virtually defenseless peasant societies. The racism underpinning this mass killing was strong: "In Vietnam racism became a patriotic virtue. All Vietnamese became 'dinks,' 'slopes,' 'slants,' or 'gooks' and the only good one was a dead one." And there was great enthusiasm for "skunk hunts" and "turkey shoots" that killed innumerable farmers and their wives and children. (Philip Knightley, The First Casualty).

But the only "crimes" the world now recognizes in connection with this holocaust are those of Pol Pot, whose criminality was real, but less far reaching than that of the U.S., in an important sense a derivative of the larger U.S. assault, disruption, and mass killing. In the United States, however, this country is seen as having "lost" the war because of an adversarial media and the insufficient use of force (the conservative view); or as a result of a "tragic error" carried out with the "best intentions" (the liberal view); or in a noble failed effort that was a "necessary" part of the struggle of good against evil (the latest revisionism, harking back to old Cold War and neocon ideology).

The propaganda system allows the U.S. Ieadership to commit crimes without limit and with no suggestion of misbehavior or criminality; in fact, major war criminals like Henry Kissinger appear regularly on TV to comment on the crimes of the derivative butchers. The loyal U. S. allies neither contest this vision of criminality nor seriously impede the global rogue's behavior.

From Truman to Bush

Because of its power and global interests U.S. leaders have committed crimes as a matter of course and structural necessity. A strict application of international law would,( I believe,) have given every U.S. president of the past 50 years Nuremberg treatment. The sainted Harry Truman, for example, not only dropped atom bombs on two Japanese cities, in clear violation of the rules against the use of inhumane weapons and targeting civilians, he was also the engineer of the vicious U.S. counterinsurgency war in Greece in 1947-1949 that reestablished the rule of fascists who had sided with the Nazis. In Korea also, although others too were guilty of serious crimes, Truman's ferocious use of air power in which "we burned down every town in North Korea and South Korea, too" (General Curtis LeMay), made him principally responsible for the devastation of Korea, the killing of perhaps four million Koreans, and the firming up of the power of the murderous dictator Syngman Rhee. In its heavy use of napalm in all these victim countries, the sponsorship of torture and concentration camps in Greece during that war, the ruthless use of air-power against civilian targets and a food deprivation strategy in Korea, the Truman administration gave advance notice of the kind of merciless anti-people war the U.S. would bring to its culmination in Indochina.

Jumping to Clinton's immediate predecessor George Bush, war crimes were committed in his invasion of Panama in 1989, arguably a war of aggression in clear violation of the OAS agreement and the UN Charter. It was done to capture a leader who was involved in the drug trade, although the U.S. had backed him for many years with full knowledge of and no objection to his drug connections-until he ceased to be cooperative in support of the U.S. war on Nicaragua. Several thousand Panamanian civilians were killed and scores of thousands injured in the U.S. invasion, many in bombing raids on civilian areas in Panama City.

Bush's criminality escalated in his war against Iraq. Although the U.S. was able to obtain Security Council agreement to this assault, it evaded efforts at a peaceable settlement in violation of the UN Charter, so that even this UN sanctioned war can be called a war of aggression. The war was also fought with the use of weapons that would be condemned in a hypothetical Bush-Iraq War Crimes Tribunal, including enhanced uranium shells and fuel air bombs. Thousands of helpless Iraqi conscripts and fleeing refugees were butchered in cold blood in the "turkey shoot" on the "Highway of Death," and hundreds of Iraqis were deliberately buried alive in the sand and large numbers were dumped in unmarked burial sites in violation of the rules of war. The civil society infrastructure of Iraq was shattered far beyond any military justification. In the aftermath, Bush insisted on the continuation of sanctions that prevented recovery of the civil society and was responsible for many thousands of civilian deaths from disease and starvation. This was first class criminality.

Clinton: Postmodern War Criminality

This brings us to Bill Clinton, who has gone beyond the Bush record of criminality, and has brought to the commission of war crimes a new eclectic reach and postmodern style. A skilled public relations person, he has refined the rhetoric of humanistic and ethical concern and can apologize with seeming great sincerity for our earlier regrettable sponsorship and support of mass murder in Guatemala while carrying out similar or even more vicious policies in Colombia and Iraq at the same moment.

Clinton's military and other aggressive forays abroad have been partly a result of his political weakness, the need to divert attention from his domestic policy failures, and the longstanding need of Democrats to prove their anti-Communist and militaristic credentials. It will be recalled that Truman could not end the Korean War; its termination had to await the arrival of the Republican Eisenhower. Kennedy and Johnson could not get us out of the Vietnam War; it took Nixon, although with a horrendous time lag.

Clinton's crimes range from ad hoc bombings to boycotts and sanctions designed to starve into submission, to support of ethnic cleansing in brutal counterinsurgency warfare, and to aggression and devastation by bombing designed to return rogues to the stone age and keep them there.

On June 26, 1993, Clinton bombed Baghdad in retaliation for an alleged but unproven Iraq plot to assassinate former President George Bush. Eight Iraqi civilians, including the distinguished Iraqi artist Layla al-Attar were killed in the raid, and 12 more were wounded. This kind of unilateral action in response to an unproven charge is a violation of international law. The legal excuse given by U.S. officials, which they relied on in justification of the bombing of Libya in 1986, is the right to self defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter. But that Article requires that the response be to an immediate threat to the retaliating party, clearly not the case, and therefore a legal fraud. This was a crime-petty by the usual U.S. standard-but still a crime. And it had the further repellent feature that it was done almost surely for purely internal political reasons-to show Clinton's toughness, despite his Vietnam War record, and to countervail right-wing attacks on his lack of militancy.

The same point can be made as regards his 1998 bombing of Afghanistan and the Sudan. Unknown numbers were killed in Afghanistan (and by the missiles that accidentally landed in Pakistan), and the pharmaceutical factory destroyed in the Sudan was the major source of medical drugs in that poor country. All evidence points to the fact that the Sudan factory destroyed had no connection whatever to chemical weapons or Bin Laden, and was bombed on the basis of insufficient and poorly evaluated data. But following the attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa, Clinton felt compelled to act for internal political reasons once again, and there are no international constraints or costs to him or his country if he chooses to bomb small and weak countries to score political points at home. This was rogue and criminal behavior.

Clinton has given unstinting support to Turkey in its war against its indigenous Kurds. He has also escalated his aid to Colombia. In both of these countries the civilian casualties from counterinsurgency warfare and death squad operations during the Clinton years has exceeded the pre-NATO bombing deaths in Kosovo by a large factor.

In the Clinton years these recurrent U.S. policies have impacted heavily on Cuba and most dramatically on Iraq. The tightening of the embargo on Cuba under the Toricelli-Helms bill, signed into law and enforced by Clinton, which banned the sale of U.S. food and curtailed access to water treatment chemicals and medicines, took a heavy toll. According to a 1997 report of the American Association of World Health, the food sale ban "has contributed to serious nutritional deficits, particularly among pregnant women, leading to an increase in low birth-weight babies. In addition, food shortages were linked to a devastating outbreak of neuropathy numbering in the tens of thousands. By one estimate, daily caloric intake dropped 33 percent between 1989 and 1993." The decisive offsetting consideration, however, was that Clinton was able to preserve some of his political support from the powerful Cuban lobby in Florida.

The most monumental of Clinton's war crimes, however, has been his policy of sanctions on Iraq, supplemented by the maintenance of intense satellite surveillance and regular bombing attacks that have often resulted in civilian casualties. UNICEF reports that in 1999 more than 1 million Iraqi children under 5 were suffering from chronic malnutrition, and some 4,000-5,000 children are dying per month beyond normal death rates from the combination of malnutrition and disease. Death from disease was greatly increased by the shortage of potable water and medicines, that has led to a 20-fold increase in malaria (among other ailments). This vicious sanctions system, causing a creeping extermination of a people, has already caused more than a million excess deaths, and it is claimed by John and Karl Mueller that Clinton's "sanctions of mass destruction" have caused "the deaths of more people in Iraq than have been slain by all so-called weapons of mass destruction [nuclear and chemical] throughout all history" (Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999). U.S. mainstream reporters, who have so eagerly followed the distress of the Kosovo Albanians, somehow never get to Iraq for pictures of the thousands of malnourished children.

One of the notable features of the NATO-U. S. war against Yugoslavia was the gradual extension of targeting to civilian infrastructure and civilian facilities-therefore civilians who would be in houses, hospitals, schools, trains, factories, power stations, and broadcasting facilities. Two months after the war was over, the BBC "revealed" that the attack on Yugoslav television on April 23 was part of an escalation of NATO bombing whereby the target list was extended to non-military objectives; NATO was "taking off the gloves." According to Yugoslav authorities, 60 percent of NATO targets were civilian, including 33 hospitals and 344 schools, as well as 144 major industrial plants and a large petro-chemical plant whose bombing caused a pollution catastrophe. John Pilger noted that the list of civilian targets included "housing estates, hotels, libraries, youth centres, theatres, museums, churches and 14th century monasteries on the World Heritage list. Farms have been bombed and their crops set afire."

This NATO targeting was in open violation of the laws of war, although this was certainly neither publicized nor condemned in the mainstream media; U.S. pundits like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times frequently called for a more aggressive bombing of Serb civilian targets and the commission of more war crimes (Rachel Coen, "Lessons of War: Leading papers call for more attacks on civilian targets next time," EXTRA! Update, August 1999). There can be little doubt that Yugoslavia finally agreed to a military exit from Kosovo mainly because they recognized that, although their forces had not been defeated on the battlefield, the NATO strategy of attacking civilian targets in violation of international law, was subject to no limits.

On May 27, in the midst of this criminal operation by NATO, Louise Arbour, chief prosecutor of International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, issued an indictment of Milosevic for war crimes, thereby implicitly exonerating and facilitating the NATO commission of war crimes. By allowing her Tribunal to be so mobilized in NATO propaganda service, Arbour and her colleagues were arguably guilty of war crimes themselves.

The U.S. played an important role in the "international community's" failure in Rwanda, as it worked hard to prevent any international action to interfere with the gigantic 1994 massacres (Omaar and de Waal, "Genocide in Rwanda: U.S. Complicity By Silence," CovertAction, Spring 1995). Bill Clinton has apologized for this, suggesting that his recognition of the earlier failure spurred him on to his Kosovo policy, which involved his commission of further war crimes under the guise of a "humanitarian intervention" that was devoid of humanitarian intent or effect.

Furthermore, in 1998-1999 Clinton was once more put to the test in East Timor, where he and his Administration knew of the Indonesian plans to interfere with the referendum and eventually to take revenge for any ensuing defeat, but did nothing whatsoever to prevent this criminal performance. This was worse than Rwanda in that Clinton had long advance knowledge of Indonesian intentions and easy access and close links to Indonesian leaders that made prevention relatively easy. But prevention would have been at the cost of disturbing the long and warm relationship of Clinton and his associates with the killers. Clinton once again easily failed the moral test, and is guilty of criminal behavior by inaction.


U.S. Ieaders commit war crimes as a matter of institutional necessity, as their imperial role calls for keeping subordinate peoples in their proper place and assuring a "favorable climate of investment" everywhere. They do this by using their economic power, but also (by means of "bombs bursting in the air" and) by supporting Diem, Mobutu, Pinochet, Suharto, Savimbi, Marcos, Fujimori, Salinas, and scores of similar leaders. War crimes also come easily because U.S. Ieaders consider themselves to be the vehicles of a higher morality and truth and can operate in violation of law without cost. It is also immensely helpful that their mainstream media agree that their country is above the law and will support and rationalize each and every venture and the commission of war crimes.

Thus, Clinton's civilian extermination policy in Iraq, which the Muellers contend has killed more people that all the chemical and nuclear weapons throughout history, is completely normalized in the U.S. and brings no discredit to this country via the elite-dominated global system. The defeat of Milosevic, not on the battlefield, but by an expanding attack on the civil society of Serbia in direct violation of the rules of war, also raises few eyebrows in the West and is not seen as incompatible with the new "humanitarian" foreign policy of this country and NATO. While hostage taking is viewed as a form of terrorism, treating the entire populations of Iraq and Serbia as hostages, and imposing mass suffering and death on them to achieve a political end, is acceptable in the West.

But whatever the success of doublethink in making the commission of war crimes feasible, Clinton has broken new ground as a war criminal, and people with any concern for human rights should recognize him as the true world leader in this sphere.


Edward S. Herman is an economist and media analyst. His latest book is The Myth of the Liberal Media: An Edward Herman Reader (Peter Lang).

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