No Comment, Six Questions — March 15, 2010, 3:51 pm

Is International Law Really Law? Six Questions for Michael Scharf

Neoconservative legal scholars and their allies argue aggressively that international law isn’t really law because the nations who make it–through treaties and conventions and by practice–don’t really treat it as law. But Michael Scharf and Paul Williams, two alumni of the Legal Adviser’s office in the State Department–known inside the Beltway as “L”–decided to take a deep look inside the process of policy decision making to test this theory. They convened the ten living legal advisers in meetings in Washington and later also gathered some of their equals from Russia, China, and the United Kingdom, and asked them to address the question directly. Did their governments in fact treat international law as law in making decisions? Working through crises including Vietnam, Watergate, and Iran-Contra, they found that international law did in fact directly shape executive decisions. I put six questions to Case Western Reserve University Law Professor Michael Scharf about his new book, Shaping Foreign Policy in Times of Crisis.

1. Jack Goldsmith and Eric Posner argued in their 2004 book, The Limits of International Law, that international law was really just policy, that modern nation states may sign a lot of treaties and agreements but a study of their conduct suggests that they don’t feel bound by them. Your book comes to just the opposite conclusion. Explain the different approaches you used and how you came to opposed results.


Goldsmith and Posner based their conclusions on selective use of anecdotal case studies, and their identification of the motivations of the decision makers is based entirely on conjecture. They made no attempt to penetrate the black box of foreign-policy decision making. In contrast, our research was based on a series of meetings with the ten living former State Department legal advisers, from the Carter, Reagan, elder Bush, Clinton, and Bush Administrations. The legal advisers provided remarkably candid accounts of the role international law actually played in behind-the-scenes deliberations on foreign policy during the major crises that occurred during their tenure. They confirmed that senior U.S. policy makers of both parties perceived international law as real law, that international legal rules contained in treaties and customary international law are often clear enough to constrain policy preferences, that the policy makers understood that there were serious consequences to violating international law, and that they recognized that it was almost always in America’s long-term interest to comply with international law.

2. Can you cite any specific cases in which a president has been advised not to take a contemplated action because of international law and he followed that advice?

If international relations are to be more than just power politics, international lawyers must be moral actors who see their job as more than simply doing as they are told.
— Harold Hongju Koh, Obama Administration Legal Adviser
—From Shaping Foreign Policy in Times of Crisis
Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Cambridge University Press. Copyright © 2010 Michael P. Scharf and Paul R. Williams

The ten former State Department Legal Advisers provided a number of examples spanning thirty years. Examples detailed in the book include President Carter’s 1979 decision not to use force against the Iranian Embassy in Washington during the hostage crisis, President Reagan’s 1985 decision not to authorize the shooting down of an Egyptian airliner carrying the terrorists responsible for the Achile Lauro cruise-ship hijacking, President Clinton’s 1994 decision to halt the supply of counter-narcotics intelligence to the Peruvian air force after it shot down a civilian aircraft, and President Bush’s decision to direct the State of Texas not to execute a Mexican national convicted of rape and murder in order to comply with an International Court of Justice order. The legal advisers said there were only four times during the past thirty years in which they were intentionally cut out of the decision-making process on issues involving the interpretation or application of international law, and they described each as a “train wreck.” The first was the mining of the Nicaragua harbor, the second was the Iran-Contra affair, the third was the kidnapping of Mexican doctor Humberto Álvarez Machaín, and the fourth was the drafting of the so-called “torture memos.”

3. Goldsmith and Posner were at the heart of a political movement that (in Goldsmith’s words) “was skeptical about the creeping influence of international law on American law.” Looking back over the last eight years, do you see the influence of that movement within the Bush Administration? How did it manifest itself in terms of process?

Goldsmith and Posner, along with University of California Berkeley Law Professor John Yoo, were part of a group of scholars whose self-proclaimed agenda was to convince government officials, political elites, and the general public that it is permissible for policy makers to ignore international law whenever they perceive it to be in their interest to do so, especially in the context of the war on terror. After the 9/11 attacks, a small cabal of government lawyers, which included John Yoo, then an assistant deputy attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel, formed what they called “the War Council.” The War Council drafted a series of legal memos, now known as the “Torture Memos,” that opined that international law did not prevent the government from detaining suspected terrorists indefinitely without judicial process, sending suspected terrorists to CIA black sites for interrogation, or employing extraordinary interrogation techniques such as waterboarding. John Yoo has admitted that the War Council cut out the State Department Legal Advisor from the “clearance” process because it anticipated that the Legal Adviser would issue contrary conclusions about the legality of these proposed tactics. The Department of Justice ethics probe documented that the War Council accomplished this by classifying the memos above “top secret.” William Taft, who was the State Department Legal Adviser at that time, told us that he thought his office had been cut out for fear that it might leak the conclusions of the draft memos in an effort to prevent them from becoming policy. It is worth speculating whether if Taft had been permitted to weigh in about the legality of the proposed tactics, this might have been sufficient to keep them from being approved by the President and implemented.

4. The Chilcote Inquiry, currently running in Britain, has had a strong focus on the legality under international law of the military intervention in Iraq. A review of the British media coverage in the run-up to the war shows the same strong focus, across political dividing lines. Yet in the United States, the “legality” issue was something on the fringe, for law professors perhaps, and not a matter for serious public concern–neither then nor now. How can you explain the differing attitudes between the United States and Britain on the importance of international law?

I am convinced that if we had been involved and our views considered, several conclusions that were not consistent with our treaty obligations under the Convention against Torture and our obligations under customary international law would not have been reached.
–William Taft, Bush Administration Legal Adviser
—From Shaping Foreign Policy in Times of Crisis
Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Cambridge University Press. Copyright © 2010 Michael P. Scharf and Paul R. Williams

The Bush Administration initially argued that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was justified under the doctrine of pre-emptive self-defense because Iraq had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction and was supporting Al Qaeda. There wasn’t much debate at the time because the Bush Administration kept the predicate intelligence confidential, and the American public were largely willing to trust their government about matters involving U.S. security in the aftermath of 9/11. Months later, it was revealed that the intelligence did not in fact support either of those conclusions. That revelation was part of the reason the Iraq war ultimately became so unpopular in the United States. Interestingly, in contrast to the “torture memos,” the State Department Legal Adviser was fully consulted on the issue of the legality of invading Iraq. The Legal Adviser at the time, William Taft, opined that the invasion could be justified based on the UN Security Council’s 1991 Resolution authorizing use of force against Iraq, and the subsequent cease-fire resolution which set forth several conditions that Iraq later breached. As detailed in our book, the acting Legal Adviser in Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, did not agree with the U.S. interpretation of the resolutions, and resigned from office when Prime Minister Tony Blair disregarded her legal opinion. When we discussed Wilmshurst’s resignation, one of the former State Department Legal Advisers said that “when there is an important matter and the government refuses to follow advice that you consider to be essential, you are supposed to resign.”

5. In his effort to minimize the influence of international law, John Yoo advanced the notion that treaties and conventions were not law except as adopted by Congress, and then became law only through Congressional acts. Even in the recent Justice Department ethics review, the Convention Against Torture was seen as creating law only through the Anti-Torture Statute, 18 U.S.C. sec. 2340A, and was not otherwise seen as controlling on the Executive. How does this perspective compare with the view historically taken by the Legal Adviser at the State Department?

Historically the Legal Advisers have taken the position that all treaties that are ratified by the United States are binding on the United States on the international plane, but that non-self-executing treaties are not enforceable in a U.S. court unless there is federal implementing legislation. In this case there are federal statutes that make it a crime to commit war crimes or torture. As implementing legislation, those federal statutes must be interpreted in harmony with the treaties they implement, taking into account international precedents as persuasive authority. In other words, the torture memos should have cited the international precedent that indicated that waterboarding was clearly torture.

6. Under the principle of complementarity, international and foreign legal tribunals don’t need to concern themselves with matters upon which the criminal investigators and courts of the nation state most directly involved are engaged. Stephen J. Rapp, the U.S. war crimes ambassador, argued on January 25 that the United States Justice Department was seriously looking into allegations of torture as a consequence of policy in the Bush-era War on Terror. The next day, the Spanish Audiencia Nacional issued a decision in Madrid concluding that it was not, and opening a formal criminal investigation into the role played by Bush Administration lawyers in the torture of a Spanish citizen at Guantánamo. Who’s right?


Prosecution of former Bush Administration officials may be politically inexpedient for the Obama team. But the United States has an international obligation under the Geneva Conventions and the Torture Convention to investigate diligently and prosecute in good faith cases of war crimes or torture committed by American officials, including lawyers whose advice is intended to facilitate commission of such crimes. Because these are crimes of “universal jurisdiction,” if the Obama Administration does not in good faith pursue prosecution of former officials where there is probable cause to conclude they have been complicit in war crimes or torture, other countries may legitimately pursue criminal complaints against such individuals in their courts. The recent controversial decision of David Margolis, the Associate Deputy Attorney General, to override the advice of the Department of Justice ethics probe concerning responsibility for the “torture memos,” and the very limited mandate of the special prosecutor’s torture inquiry may give countries like Spain valid reason to perceive that the United States is not in fact pursuing these cases in good faith. Special prosecutor John Durham has been given the authority to evaluate whether a criminal investigation is warranted, not to commence a criminal investigation, and Attorney General Holder has made clear that the focus of Durham’s preliminary inquiry would be on individuals who went beyond what was authorized in the OLC memos, not on the drafters of those memos or the higher-level officials who pushed for the memos as a way to get around the law criminalizing torture and inhumane treatment. In any event, in this particular case, Spain has a right under international law to pursue criminal charges whether or not the U.S. decision to forego prosecution was made in good faith, because the victim of the alleged torture was a Spanish citizen.

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Combustion Engines

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
There Will Always Be Fires·

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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
The End of Eden·

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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
How to Start a Nuclear War·

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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