Are Presidents Entitled to Kill Foreigners?

The Future of Freedom Foundation is shotgunning out an op-ed I wrote about presidents’ right to kill.  My favorite line from this piece:

Sometimes the threat of a noose is the best way to keep the peace.  


by James Bovard

What is the common term for ordering soldiers to kill vast numbers of innocent people?

A war crime.

But not when it is done on the command of the U.S. president.

Killing innocent foreigners seems to be a perk of the modern presidency — akin to the band’s playing “Hail to the Chief” when he enters the room.

Bush is revving up the war threats against Iran. Seymour Hersh reported in the current issue of the New Yorker that the administration is advancing plans to bomb many targets in Iran. British newspapers have confirmed that the Pentagon has a list of thousands of bombing targets. Hardly anyone claims that Iran poses a threat to the United States.

Yet few people in Washington seem to dispute the president’s right to attack Iran. It is as if the presidential whim is sufficient to justify blasting any foreign nation that does not kowtow to the commands of the U.S. government.

Jack Goldsmith, a former top Bush appointee in the Justice Department and now a Harvard Law professor, observes in his new book, The Terror Presidency, “The president and the vice president always made clear that a central administration priority was to maintain and expand the president’s formal legal powers.” And the power to attack foreign nations is one of the most valued prerogatives of today’s Republicans.

Bush’s top advisors — and especially the vice president — are devoted to a Nixonian view of absolute power for the commander in chief. After he was driven out of office in disgrace, Nixon told interviewer David Frost in 1977, “When the president does it that means that it is not illegal.” Frost, somewhat dumbfounded, replied, “By definition?” Nixon answered, “Exactly. Exactly.”

This seems to be the attitude of Bush and his war planners towards Tehran. Pentagon Deputy Assistant Secretary Debra Cagan recently told several British Members of Parliament that “I hate all Iranians.” Perhaps Cagan got her position because of such prejudice towards nations that Bush formally designated as “evil.” At the same time that Congress is considering hate-crime legislation, ethnic hatred may be driving U.S. plans to slaughter Iranians.

For Bush, attacking Iran may simply be a question of checking off another item on his final To Do list — or one more wild swing at making himself a legacy. Bush told a biographer that, after he leaves office, he looks forward to receiving “ridiculous” (in his words) speaking fees of $75,000 per talk. He is also looking forward to putting in some time on his “fantastic” Freedom Institute.

The fact that thousands or hundreds of thousands of Iranians might die is irrelevant. Bush appears far more concerned about baseball statistics than the body counts compiled by the U.S. military abroad. The fact that many Americans could also die — either during the attack or from Iranian retaliation on U.S. forces in Iraq — doesn’t appear to be costing Bush any sleep.

No American politician has ever been sentenced to death for ordering U.S. soldiers to kill innocent foreigners. Such orders have gone out many times — from the Philippines in the early 1900s, to Haiti in the 1910s, to Vietnam in the 1960s. There have been many other conflicts in which American presidents rubber-stamped U.S. military rules of engagement that guaranteed carnage among foreign women and children.

Americans cannot expect to have good presidents if presidents are permitted to make themselves tsars. The president and his top officials should face the same perils common citizens face when they are accused of breaking the law. Seeing a president answer for his crimes would be public education at its best. Consider how the subsequent course of American foreign policy might have differed if Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon had been tried, convicted in federal court, and punished for committing war crimes.

Perhaps Bush thinks that starting another foreign war will help boost demand for his speeches among groups that want to see U.S. forces kill more Muslims. But if he cares about freedom as much as he claims, he will cease acting as though he is above the law. And if Bush refuses to restrain himself, Americans should remember the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson: Sometimes the threat of a noose is the best way to keep the peace.

James Bovard is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy [2006] as well as The Bush Betrayal [2004], Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil [2003], and Lost Rights [1994] and serves as a policy advisor for The Future of Freedom Foundation.


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17 Responses to Are Presidents Entitled to Kill Foreigners?

  1. Lawhobbit October 5, 2007 at 4:39 pm #

    Answer: Yes, but they have to do it with their own bare hands.

  2. Ryan October 6, 2007 at 7:34 am #

    “The Future of Freedom Foundation is shotgunning out an op-ed I wrote about presidents’ right to kill.”


    I’m not sure that is the best choice of words, i.e., “shotgunning” and “president” with this administration. Are there any strange cars parked nearby?

    Good writing, as always. It isn’t just folks of this administration that think this way, obviously. We have the rapture bunny in chief who told Charles Goyette just that the other day about having a president who can do whatever the hell he (possibly she) wants. You have heard the I bet, but here’s the link for others who haven’t.

    I personally think Hagee is running a scam. What scares me is so many of his followers actually believe this crap.

    My fantasy would be to see dual war criminals put on trial at the same time. Bush for Iraq and Clinton for Serbia.

  3. Tom Blanton October 6, 2007 at 1:07 pm #

    I share Ryan’s fantasy. It would be the bi-partisan thing to do. For 5 years prior to the joint trial, I would like to see the two criminals share a small air conditioned (50 degrees) room at Gitmo that is well lit (perpetually) and has a loud sound system that plays death metal 24/7.

    Of course, recreation would be required. Something like water-boarding sports might be fun those two.

    After their long vacation in paradise where they would be well fed through nose tubes, they could be offered a plea deal – plead guilty or continue the vacation.

    I know some people might think this wouldn’t be harsh enough for these two, in which case maybe they could turned over to a neutral country, like Sudan, where they would be tried.

  4. Tom Blanton October 7, 2007 at 7:48 am #

    Editorial revision to my comment above: insert the words “be” and “for” in the appropriate places – or in inappropriate places as you wish, kids.

    LewRockwell.Com and CounterPunch have picked up the article above and it’s always good to see Jim’s stuff widely distributed. I always like to link to the FFF though because that is a damn good site.

    Anyway, I just wanted to note that the good Rev. Hagee (listen to the bizarre interview posted above) is back in the news. This time it is in regards to the sex/money scandal at the very anal Oral Roberts University. Hagee is on the ORU Board and will be looking into the matter. A 900 foot neon Jesus appeared before me last night and informed me that Hagee will insist that ORU be nuked. Son-of Oral, Dick Roberts has said God told him to deny any wrongdoing.

  5. Ryan October 7, 2007 at 10:06 am #

    “A 900 foot neon Jesus appeared before me last night and informed me that Hagee will insist that ORU be nuked.”


    How I wish, Tom.

    You know, we can develop our ideas about war crime trials for the Bush/Clinton regimes and their helpers in the media. Under the provision used to try Julius Streicher. Limbaugh would be a good candidate for water sports at “Club Gitmo”. I’d require he wear some of that tasteless clothing he came up with for aspiring members of the future NKVD.

    We could also rotate death metal with complete three hour shows featuring such worthies as Rush, Sean and Michael Medved. Talk about “enhanced interrogation methods.” Can you imagine having to listen to Sean’s whiny voice for not just three hours? After exposure to that they would beg to be sentenced for their crimes.

    What might work even better than the Sudan might be to land a C-130 at Baghdad International and when it taxes around use the cargo off loading capability to roll off a pallet with Bush, Cheney and their strap hangers tied down for the Iraqis to give them whatever justice they wish.

    Ah, dreams…

  6. Tom Blanton October 7, 2007 at 8:56 pm #

    I’m for saving the taxpayers some money and just giving Limbaugh a hillbilly heroin enema and send him off to hell.

    The shock jock that wins the Hans Fritzche Award for broadcast excess is Glenn Beck, in my book.

    This bootlicker recently did a week-long diatribe he called the “Perfect Day” about how the Islamofascists were plotting multiple attacks on schools to kill the boys and rape the girls. I’m not kidding. He even reported that school buses had been stolen in Texas and implied that al Qaida would use the buses to train for future hijackings.

    He reported that the government wasn’t telling us about all this because it would create a panic, but he felt that citizens should be informed so that they wouldn’t panic on the “Perfect Day”.

    After a week of this fearmongering, he implored parents to contact their children’s schools to demand that school officials prepare for the “Perfect Day”. It would seem to me that the result of all this would be to create fear in children and indoctrinate them to hate Muslims.

    A modern day “duck and cover” program – all to ramp up the fear and loathing.

    Glenn Beck deserves a free ski trip to Waziristan for his propaganda efforts.

  7. Jim October 8, 2007 at 9:06 pm #

    Tom – thanks for the kind words for the piece – and thanks for linking to it on your Project for a New American Revolution site.

    I had not heard about Beck’s latest triumph in public service. Geez.

  8. Marc October 8, 2007 at 10:29 pm #

    It must be frustrating for someone who suffers from a messianic complex to realize that his political reign is nearing an end before being able to fully neutralize what he has claimed is a major threat to America’s freedom – islamofascism. I’m sure that prominent historians will give Bush his due for years to come. I strongly suspect, however, that their scholarly appraisals will generally stop far short of deification.

  9. Jean October 9, 2007 at 12:23 pm #

    Jim, as usual right on. I always found it interesting that when people over there are defending their lands against invaders, (and that what most Iraqis feel right now about the presence of American troops) are labeled either insurgents or terrorist, but yet, 200 or so years ago, the colonists were protecting their property from invaders and they were called patriots. Slippery slope here for sure. As far as Hagee, I heard the interview live, and my thoughts were that he should be the poster boy for Atheists.

  10. Tory October 9, 2007 at 4:56 pm #

    All of the world’s hypocrisy is piled up here in America.

    Belsen was a gun free zone until some murderers arrived there.

    A certified Imperialist is now in charge; his predecessors have laid the groundwork for an infinite supply of campaign contributions (for both parties). Thousands of American business people will make millions off of our wars. When the profits slow they can instigate another attack to drum up more business. The torture and murder proves the authenticity of the threats – the bigger the lie the harder it is to believe the truth.

    Exploiting cheap labor still occurs. I would hope sugar cane was the last market for US entrepreneurs, but I doubt it. Tea, tobacco, bananas, and Polish iron ore (near Auschwitz). The shrub would know, you think so (oil) ?

    Fearmonger (and profiteer) Glenn Beck thinks it’s all connected. With Rush we know, but with Glenn it takes a few shows to learn to ignore him. I like Rush; when he’s free to say the things he says then so am I. They protect free speech (the kind that needs protection.) Not long ago Rush said the President should suspend habeus corpus – good for him. He helps protect people like Jim Bovard, Ron Paul and Jacob Hornberger (the kind we really want protected.)


  11. Chris S October 10, 2007 at 1:46 pm #

    I imagine if you asked all the current republican candidates, minus one of course, they would kill the foreigners first, then reply, “let me ask my cheerleader lawyers at the Justice Department,” and have the sycophants come up with all of the legal mumbo jumbo that made it A-OK.

  12. Tory October 10, 2007 at 2:28 pm #

    Giulianni can’t wait to clean up Iraq (with nazi tactics).

  13. petey October 17, 2007 at 2:19 pm #

    “I’m for saving the taxpayers some money and just giving Limbaugh a hillbilly heroin enema and send him off to hell.”


  14. David October 17, 2007 at 3:23 pm #

    Your op-ed was far too urbane for those hicks.

  15. JLS October 17, 2007 at 7:04 pm #

    Wrong. Innocent people have always died in war. Atomic bombs timed to schoolchildren walking down the street…WWII bombings over Germany. We can go back to prehistory. Not an example of modern presidency. Just a fact of human nature. Nothing new under the sun, here. Enlighten us with something everybody already knows.

  16. Armed and Hammered October 21, 2007 at 3:59 pm #

    Death metal gets such a bad rap…Six hours of mindless patriotic drivel from any contemporary country music “artist” would have me gnawing the arteries out of my own wrists and admitting to everything from shooting the Pope to causing the great Midwestern blackout of ’03.


  1. BOVARD » Editors Rave Over my "President's Right to Kill" article - October 17, 2007

    […] The good folks at the Future of Freedom Foundation kindly forwarded to me some of the lively responses they received  after sending out my op-ed, “Are Presidents Entitled to Kill Foreigners?” […]