Patriots Can Commit War Crimes

When the American Enterprise Institute hired Marc Thiessen, I argued that the organization suffered a blow to its credibility — it employs so many top-notch thinkers, and they deserve better than to have the reputation of their think tank sullied by its association with a man whose work frequently fails to meet even minimal standards of factual accuracy.

Those complaints stand, but today I want to focus a different flaw revealed in Mr. Thiessen’s latest post at the AEI blog. It is titled Hero or War Criminal, and the sloppy thinking on display is an intellectual embarrassment.

He writes:

The Washington Post reports today on Monday’s memorial ceremony at the CIA, at which a dozen new stars were placed on the wall honoring CIA officers and contractors who have given their lives in defense of our country—including those killed by an al Qaeda suicide bomber at a CIA base in Afghanistan.

One of those stars commemorated a CIA officer whose identity was only made public yesterday—Jennifer Lynne Matthews, a mother of three from Northern Virginia who was the chief of the CIA base struck by the terrorists. According to the Post, Matthews “had been one of the CIA’s top experts on al-Qaeda and a veteran targeteer in the agency’s air war against terrorist groups.”

As I point out in the Washington Post today, in the eyes of the American Civil Liberties Union and the United Nations, this makes Matthews not a hero, but a murderer. According to the ACLU, Matthews was engaged in a “program of long-premeditated and bureaucratized killing” and that “violates international law.” According to the UN special rapporteur, her actions “constitute extrajudicial executions.” In fact, neither is true. Matthews was not a war criminal; she was a patriot who gave her life so that the rest of us can live safe from terror. She deserves better.

As commentary on the Sean Hannity show, this would do well to rile up the least thoughtful members of the audience by appealing to their jingoism instead of there brains. That Mr. Thiessen is offering it up to AEI’s audience ought to be insulting to them. The phrase “war criminal” is loaded with negative connotations and often used pejoratively in political discourse, but that doesn’t change the fact that whether or not someone has committed war crimes is a legal question, not a moral one. A patriot is someone who loves their country. It is perfectly possible to be a patriot, to perform patriotic acts in a war, and to commit a war crime in the course of doing so. A dispassionate analysis renders the point rather obvious, which is why Mr. Thiessen’s readership at AEI should be insulted by the post. Apparently he thinks that by using loaded terms like “war crimes” and “patriot” he can write a post that makes no sense without anyone noticing. Indeed, if you click over, via the link Mr. Thiessen provided, to his Washington Post column, part of his argument is that President Obama is exposing patriots in the CIA to legal jeopardy by conducting assassinations by drone without appropriate legal cover. In other words, they may be guilty of war crimes, even though Mr. Thiessen believes that this would be deeply unfair, and could be remedied if only President Obama would conduct things differently.

Now consider another part of the AEI post. Stipulated is that the tragically deceased CIA patriot, Jennifer Lynne Matthews, was a targeteer in the CIA’s drone war against Al Qaeda. Mr. Thiessen writes:

According to the ACLU, Matthews was engaged in a “program of long-premeditated and bureaucratized killing” and that “violates international law.” According to the UN special rapporteur, her actions “constitute extrajudicial executions.”

I don’t know whether Ms. Matthews violated international law — let’s say for the sake of argument that she did not, and that she is not a war criminal. Let’s further stipulate that in her duties she only killed Al Qaeda terrorists, never harming so much as a single innocent person. It is nevertheless obvious that a targeteer in a CIA drone war is engaged in “long-premeditated and bureaucratized killing.” What other fate could possibly befall a bureaucrat after her bureaucrat bosses assign her to killing-people-by-drone duty in the bureaucracy responsible for such things, and she follows the orders?

As obvious is that her actions “constitute extrajudicial killings.” She killed people outside the judicial system. That is what CIA assassins do.

Is Mr. Thiessen uncomfortable defending long-premeditated, bureaucratized, extrajudicial killing, and so trying to change the name? Is he savvy to all this and just trying to distract the reader with illogical rhetoric? I cannot say, never having been able to understand what it is that goes on inside the mind of Mr. Thiessen. But I do know that AEI should be above blog posts of this kind appearing under its banner, and that if I were one of their scholars I’d be furious. Unless I were Lynne Cheney, in which case I’d probably love that blog post.


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6 Responses to “Patriots Can Commit War Crimes”

  1. Did you know it was once illegal to import GSD's to Australia … | adoptionmastiff Says:

    […] Patriots Can Commit War Crimes – Conor Friedersdorf – Metablog … […]

  2. brianwood Says:

    Support the patriotic troops!! The Germans supported theirs.

    Patriotism is the philosophy of idiots.

  3. Oria Bjorklund Says:

    I’ve never been able to understand the current conservative cries to respect the patriotism of torturers and assassins puncuated by constant rhetoric that our government is evil and seeking to destroy all of our freedom.

    Shouldn’t people who believe Obama is part of some sinister conspiracy that is trying to outright destroy America want to curb extrajudicial assasinations authorized by his administration?

    It’s a shame that a good portion of ‘conservatism’ has devolved into simple-minded rationalization of the worst rascist, self-servingly greedy, and blood-thirsty aspects of human nature. It has become a system for idiots to excuse their frankly evil behavior and wishes, or for evil people to exploit idiots for power, wealth and war. Now we have conservative commentators espousing beliefs and encouraging actions that would have classic conservatives like Teddy Roosevelt roaring in fury!

    Thiessen is cashing in. He is spouting idiocy to idiots, because the idiots will give him money to reinforce their pre-existing beliefs that torture and assasination and law-breaking government are all good deeds to be encouraged – so long as rich, white people are benefitting and Muslims are dying!

    Real, intellectually honest and rational conservatives – PLEASE HANG IN THERE! We need you more than ever, espescially since there is very little difference between Democrats and Conservatives in deeds; they only vary in the promises they break.

  4. mattw1 Says:

    by appealing to their jingoism instead of there brains.

    This isn’t what is displayed, oddly. It says “there brains.”

    Great post!

  5. Connor McGowan Says:

    “Apparently he thinks that … he can write a post that makes no sense without anyone noticing.”

    I don’t labor under the assumption that even Mr. Thiessen notices when he writes something that makes no sense.

  6. voxoctopi Says:

    I think Thiessen is less wrong than usual here. Calling someone a criminal because they jaywalk is technically true but misleading; so is calling someone a felon if they committed the wrong minor non-violent offense or calling them a rapist if they slept with someone in high school. The laws of war have only really been enforced against some of the worst people in history, so calling someone a “war criminal” implicitly compares them to, for example, high level Nazi officials.

    I guess I’m just splitting hairs here because I agree that Thiessen ought to have mentioned the difference between the technical and colloquial definitions of “war criminal” but IMO even hacks deserve a competent defense.

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