Law Man

There was admittedly something strange about the man. As a young US Marine scanning the rubble of the Reich Chancellery in 1946, he spotted a bronze bust of Hitler which he took back with him to Dallas, idly telling himself he would one day return it to a German museum for safe-keeping, but which rested in a box in his Manhattan apartment for the better part of a century. Psychological speculation in the case of Ramsey Clark, who died this year at 93, is very nearly pointless. How did the Attorney General under Lyndon Johnson – in which capacity he prosecuted the likes of Dr. Spock for protesting the Vietnam War draft ­– become a welcome guest in Hanoi and Tehran, the legal defender of last resort to enemies of the US state, a reliable champion of Palestinians, Kurds, and other stateless peoples; a man who would come to denounce American imperialism with incantatory consistency – who once publicly mourned not being able to procure a copy of Pablo Neruda in Santiago after Pinochet’s coup?

A certain puritanical streak ran in the family. Clark’s Mississippi great-great grandfather was an ersatz southern ‘general’ who owned 67 slaves but did not allow alcohol in the house, except for cooking purposes. Clark’s grandfather was a judge in Dallas who was responsible for uprooting prostitution from the city. His own father, Tom Clark, was a militantly anti-union Attorney General under Truman, who later appointed Clark senior to the Supreme Court. Ramsey Clark’s first taste of a major legal event was as an observer at the Nuremberg tribunals. He had little doubt that they constituted a liberal show trial, but still believed they could become the foundation of a more just world order. In Clark’s view of himself, he was never a fringe character in American politics but rather the bearer of the true cross of American liberalism, the one that had been destined to prevail in the long run, and which his own liberal contemporaries – Robert Kennedy, above all – would have duly taken up if they had only stayed alive.

But Clark was less significant for the road-not-taken he thought he represented than for the function he served in the projection of US power. Not since Roosevelt’s second Vice President, Henry Wallace, who immolated his career in 1946 with a speech denouncing the Cold War in its infancy and who co-founded the still-born Progressive Party, was there such a high-level dissenter from the ranks of the postwar American political establishment. Clark was a driving force for civil rights inside the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. But after his time in office, and failing at two bids for a seat in the US Senate, he joined with many of the radical liberals whom he had formerly had in his prosecutorial sights. By the 1980s and 1990s he was a jack-in-the-box figure on television, who, once the smoke from the bombing had cleared, predictably popped up to defend figures from Slobodan Milošević to Charles Taylor when he was not protesting the illegality of the US invasions of Grenada, Panama, and elsewhere.

Liberal capitalist states have a different way of digesting dissidents than their rival regime-types. When they are low-level soldiers or technicians, prison or execution is the blanket solution as it has been for most communist, socialist, theocratic and monarchic states. But for high-level state defectors, the solution has been to incorporate them as court jesters. In the postwar Communist world, the highest-level defector from a regime was Milovan Djilas, who was second-in-command of Yugoslavia in January 1954, minding the state while Tito was on holiday, when he denounced his own regime in a thinly fictionalized parable. When Tito returned home, a show trial began, with Djilas, his old comrade, in the dock. Belgradians were stunned by the live broadcast of his circular self-defence (‘I did criticize every aspect of the system, but I’m not against the system as a whole!’). After seven years in prison for this ‘hostile propaganda’, Belgrade let him leave for England. Like Clark, Djilas criticized his regime for not living up to its own ideals – post-war Yugoslavia, in his view, instead of building a classless society, had merely manufactured a ‘new class’ of communist elites. Likewise, Clark portrayed America as a country that professed to uphold ‘the rule of law’ at home and ‘rules-based order’ abroad, but was in fact the most lawless actor. For all of the clarity of this insight, however, when it came to his actual understanding of law, Clark was a naturalist in the mould of Martin Luther King. Jr, who believed that there was a higher law that America needed to adhere to, and with which the formal law of the country simply needed to be brought into alignment.   

Clark’s finest and loneliest hour came during George H.W. Bush’s Persian Gulf War. Along with Neil Young (cf. ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’) and the American political left at its historical low watermark, Clark had little trouble detecting the capacity for mass-murder behind the patrician mumble and mountains of thank-you notes. In The Fire This Time: U.S. War Crimes in the Gulf (1992), Clark documented in full detail the carnage of Desert Storm on Iraqi civilians, and called for the president to be impeached on the grounds of having violated the US constitution by going to war without congressional consent, something which Bush had openly boasted about (‘I didn’t have to ask Senator Kennedy, or some liberal Democrat whether we were going to do it. We just did it.’) America could be ‘liberated’ once this justice was meted out. It was almost touching how much Clark expected to be listened to about constitutional niceties amidst the Bush administration’s endless trumpeting about how the US was operating under a heavenly edict from the UN Security Council.

Whatever the extra material incentives behind the Persian Gulf War, the most important motivation was ideological. As Peter Gowan argued in NLR at the time, the rhetoric behind the war neatly captured the migration of US domestic legal language to the international sphere, with the ‘criminal’ Saddam Hussein’s invasion triggering ‘the standard procedures of a police response’. The projection of a depoliticized international arena, with the US simply acting as a custodian of liberal norms, was meant to be the main attraction of Bush’s ‘New World Order’. (Never mind that the opposition to Saddam Hussein inside Iraq was fiercely opposed to any kind of intervention). Clark himself fell prey to some rather under-nourished theories about the war. He believed George H.W. Bush’s administration had intentionally encouraged Saddam to start the conflict in order to claim his oil fields, a highly untenable conclusion considering how little encouragement Saddam required. He widely publicized his desire to revise the Ottoman-Anglo Convention of 1913, which had granted Kuwaiti autonomy in the first place, and his determination to expose the ‘Zionist plot’ of the Kuwaiti Emir, Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, was no secret. (As Wikileaks revealed in 2011, the US Ambassador April Glaspie’s meeting with Saddam in 1990 may have been ambiguous, but she did in fact attempt to get him to nudge away his troops from the Kuwaiti border.) The value of Clark’s account was not what he exaggerated or distorted, but what he didn’t: the mass abuses committed by the Kuwaiti regime which expelled its minority populations during the conflict, the US backing of Saddam and his periodic genocidal adventures until it no longer required his services, the newspeak of ‘smart’ bombing, and the UN-US imposed sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, many of them children.

For his pains, Clark became a favourite horse to beat in the liberal press. Christopher Hitchens declared him a Saddam apologist, and went on to make the perplexing argument that, while Saddam in principle deserved the best possible legal representation, Hitchens himself was personally pleased that such a slapstick figure as Clark had turned up for the job since it would mean the opposite. Norman Podhoretz meanwhile tarred Clark as a nihilist, driven by ‘hatred of the United States and automatic support for anyone opposed to the United States, for any reason whatsoever in any context whatsoever’. Neither of them paused to consider the service he was rendering their war project. Clark did his best to raise the standards of the liberal show trial – and even more grizzly execution of Hussein – to standards that could pass muster of ‘justice having been done’ in wider world opinion. He was hardly the thorn in the side of the Iraq War he was often portrayed to be, but rather an unwitting partner in the projection of US hegemony, who bore the message: ‘See, in America, we have fair trials, and even let our own dissidents defend our state enemies’. Clark did the regime the further favour of treating the project of US hegemony as a kind of episodic phenomenon, to be treated on a case-by-case basis, in a fanatical legalistic fashion that often made it seem as if the demand of formal justice – the sanctity of due process – was somehow independent of other political values.

I saw Clark once in midtown Manhattan, when I was covering a meeting of semi-active Tamil Tigers in the ballroom of the New York Bar Association. The two dozen men and women who showed up visibly sagged with a sense of duty. A photo of Prabhakaran rested between engravings of Lincoln and Chester Arthur. After a few words from Visvanathan Rudrakumaran, the Prime Minister of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, Clark strut into the room and delivered a short speech while standing under the LTTE flag emblazoned with crisscrossed AK-47s. He misattributed some banalities about world peace to Wallace Stevens and seemed to have gotten the landscape of Jaffna mixed up with that of Kurdistan. It felt like he was performing a ritual blessing, like one of Tolstoy’s hermit monks, an image only undercut by his this-worldly beardlessness. The moral fervour was undiminished. His death was barely noticed on the major networks. The New York Times obituary was long and dull. They could at least have honoured him for the legal propriety he tried to inject into American savagery abroad.

Read on: Peter Gowan, ‘The Gulf War, Iraq and Western Liberalism’, NLR I/187.