What's With Ramsey Clark?

Since his days as a Justice Department lawyer in the Kennedy Administration and as Attorney General in the Johnson Administration, Ramsey Clark has become an object lesson in the flawed logic of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." No doubt Clark became radicalized by his opposition to the Vietnam War, and came to see U.S. foreign policy as a force for ill in the world. I don't agree with that view in general, although liberal internationalists like myself would certainly concede that some U.S. military interventions have been unjustified, unwise and/or illegal under international law. But even if one takes the Clark (read Chomsky) view of American motives, that is hardly a reason to embrace all American enemies. Most critics of U.S. foreign policy should have learned this lesson the hard way in Vietnam, when some prominent anti-war activists embraced Ho Chi Minh's Communist Party, a totalitarian regime that was not qualitatively different from Stalin's Soviet Union or Mao's China.

Apparently, Clark learned no such lesson. To be clear, I have no quarrel with Clark's choice to represent radical anti-establishment figures. Such representation falls squarely within the honorable traditions of the legal profession. But Clark has gone much farther than mere zealous advocacy. He has actively identified with the causes of the unsavory characters he represents. Thus, Clark was quoted as saying of his client Slobodan Milošević: "History will prove Milošević was right. Charges are just that, charges. The trial did not have facts." Lately, he has taken not only to criticizing the procedures that were used to try and sentence his former client Saddam Hussein (which is fair enough), but to praising and excusing Saddam's actions while in power.

There are at least three plausible reasons one might have for objecting to the execution of Saddam. First, one might think that the death penalty is categorically immoral, even when imposed after a scrupulously fair trial that produced irrefutable evidence of monstrous crimes by an unrepentant evildoer. Second, one might legitimately question some of the procedures used in Saddam's trial. And third, on pragmatic grounds one might worry that executing Saddam will only make a martyr of him (although it seems at least equally likely that keeping him alive will inspire the hopes for a revival by his followers. Consider Napoleon.) But it should not count as an independent reason to oppose Saddam's execution that the original U.S. invasion of Iraq was illegal, even though it was in fact illegal. To borrow a concept from American constitutional criminal procedure, it makes no sense to treat Saddam's trial as the "fruit of the poisonous tree" of invasion, unless one is also prepared to invalidate every legal decision that has been reached by the Iraqi government since Saddam's overthrow.

President Bush and his congressional facilitators inflicted awful damage on the United States and thousands of Iraqis by starting this war. But that's no reason to whitewash the crimes of Saddam's regime.