Donald Trump and his advisers’ infatuation with Vladimir Putin is well known. Trump seems not to know or care that Putin has invaded Ukraine and Georgia, continues to have his troops occupy parts of both, represses gays and political opponents, is linked to the murder of numerous journalists, and operates an economy for the benefit of himself and his oligarchs. But what about those who should know better?
Hugh Hewitt argues: “Putin’s an evil man. POTUS a good but incompetent man. Putin has served his country’s national interest better.” Really!? It’s in Russia’s interest to repress civil rights, have a Third World economy, lack a non-corrupt judicial system, shoot down a civilian airliner, jail dissidents, become an international scofflaw, etc.? The praise of an “evil” man is indicative of the moral confusion that has overtaken many on the right. A freshman philosophy student learns that an evil man does not advance his country’s interests (See: European despots of the 1930s).
As a practical matter, Russia is a basket case under Putin. James Pethokoukis cites the Index of Economic Freedom:
Russia’s prospects for long-term, diversified, sustainable economic growth remain bleak. There is no efficiently functioning legal framework, and government continues to interfere in the private sector through myriad state-owned enterprises. Corruption pervades the economy and continues to erode trust in the government. … Progress with market-oriented reforms has been uneven and often reversed at the urging of those with an interest in maintaining the status quo. Increasing inflationary pressure poses a major risk to overall macroeconomic stability. Large state-owned institutions have increased their domination of the financial sector at the expense of private domestic and foreign banks.
Oh, and the Russian economy shrank 5 percent since 2013, and life expectancy is 70.4 years, “#153 on the global league tables, by the way, a sweet spot just below Bangladesh and above North Korea.” No, Trump and more-educated defenders are bizarrely wrong. Putin has not been good for Russia.
Aside from his Putin adulation, Trump wants to go “beyond” waterboarding and kill terrorists’ family members, including noncombatant women and children. This would put the United States in violation of international war, turn our military men and women into war criminals and destroy America’s moral standing for years to come. And still the right-wing echo chamber cheers.
Trump is a know-nothing from whom we expect no appreciation for international obligations, but what is Rudy Giuliani’s excuse? The former U.S. attorney and New York mayor declared that Trump’s bizarre suggestion to leave a force behind to take Iraq’s oil was perfectly legal. “Of course it’s legal. It’s a war. Until the war is over, anything’s legal.” This is morally repugnant and legally illiterate. Trying to sound macho — as if only lack of will keeps weak-kneed pols from defeating our enemies — Giuliani and Trump endorse what is plainly forbidden in war.
The Hague and Geneva Conventions codified in the U.S. Army’s manual for land warfare were designed to “protect noncombatants and private property from the scourge of war.” In practical terms, this means private property is respected, pillaging is prohibited, and historic and cultural property must be preserved.
The issue of Iraqi oil was raised and answered early on with the declaration that private property would be respected and oil would be used for the benefit of the Iraqi people. From the Los Angeles Times:
[“Taking the oil"] would have violated decades of international law, including the Geneva Conventions, as well as the United Nations mandate that authorized the invasion. . . .Taking oil after the invasion would not only have devastated the Iraqi people, it would likely have increased the size of the insurgency that fought against the U.S. military — feeding on beliefs that Americans were there as modern-day crusaders — and undermined U.S. efforts to build allies throughout the Middle East.“Every country in the region would have opposed us,” Kori Schake, a top defense and security advisor to Bush, said in an email. ”And it would have made governments the world over suspicious of U.S. involvement.”
Other international law experts agree that “under the fourth Geneva Convention, when you are an occupying power, you are a caretaker, you are administering the territory. The idea is to keep it as close to status quo as possible and give it back. It’s not yours to do with it what you want.” If Trump ordered troops to engage in such conduct, a constitutional crisis could well ensue. (“Matthew Waxman, a professor at Columbia Law School who worked at the Pentagon on Iraq reconstruction issues following the war, also said international law would have prohibited the U.S. from taking Iraq’s oil and that the military might have refused a White House order to take it.”)
From every standpoint — legal, moral, strategic — “taking the oil” would have been disastrous. One doesn’t expect Trump to know the fine points of international law, but every presidential contender and senior staffer (and certainly Giuliani) should understand how morally repugnant the concept is. (“It’s not like this is some unclaimed land where everyone is running to grab the candy from the piñata,” said one expert.) But then, a man who uses his own charity to make an illegal political donation or pay for a 6-foot painting of himself would never dream that he has no right to dispense with others’ property in such a way.
Trump and his crop of crackpot advisers have no moral or legal guide-rails. They are modeling themselves upon dictators of old and upon the axiom that “might makes right.” It’s shocking enough for an average person to hold these views; it is terrifying to think that someone seeking high office does.