Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, speaking to UCLA faculty and students Monday, said that observing the Geneva Convention is crucial to America’s interests and its ability to mobilize other countries for collective efforts.
Clark -- who was supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization under President Clinton and led a coalition of nearly a score of countries to successfully end Serbian oppression of Kosovo’s Albanians in 1999 -- said the Bush administration’s insistence on more leeway in applying Geneva Convention standards to the interrogation of terrorism detainees runs counter to America’s history of observing international law.
“We were anti-colonial,” he said. “We did not support the French re-conquest of Indochina. We helped force the Dutch out of the East Indies. We did not support the invasion of Suez by Britain and France in 1956. We were a nation that operated selflessly. People saw us as different because we followed international law.”
Making his debut as a senior fellow at the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations at the university’s International Institute, Clark called law “the ultimate human construct -- more important than bridges, more important than [micro]chips.... Law is sacred in the American system.”
Clark’s appearance was the first in what he said would probably be monthly visits to UCLA to speak with faculty, address graduate seminars and participate in academic conferences. A former Rhodes scholar with a master’s degree in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford University, he taught political science at the U.S. Military Academy for three years.
Recent congressional action authorizing the administration to try terrorism suspects before military tribunals and banning torture -- while not prohibiting specific coercive techniques -- will not silence the debate over the Geneva Convention, he said. The trials of the suspects will raise questions, he said: “What coercive tactics were used? How reliable was the information” thus obtained?
“It’s going to bring everything back to the surface,” Clark said.
Most important, he told the approximately 40 people who attended the breakfast roundtable, backtracking on the Geneva Convention represents a retreat from values America once promoted to the world.
“It was America that led to the creation of the Geneva Convention,” he said, “and now we’re walking away from it, from the very values we espoused?”
In an interview after the breakfast, Clark, who briefly contended for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, characterized America’s struggle with Islamic extremism as “a battle of belief systems and ideas. If you give up your own beliefs and ideas, you’ve lost the very weapons you need to fight the war.”
He noted that although America is currently the world’s only superpower, breakneck economic development in China and India, “with four or five times America’s population,” might well result in those nations attaining similar status. “Scale is one of the most important laws of economics, and they’ve got scale over us.”
As those countries close the power gap with America, he said, “we have to have a set of rules of international behavior that work to our benefit and are accepted by other nations.”
Clark said experience shows that coercive tactics against detainees tend to break only those who are undisciplined or uncommitted to their causes, and that such tactics often result in unreliable information given in the hope of stopping the abusive treatment. By contrast, he noted, prime Al Qaeda suspects tend to be “hard and tough.”
The way to deal with them, he said, is not to apply coercion but to seek to change their minds. Yemeni authorities, he added, “actually bring imams in and try to deprogram them and challenge their interpretation of Islam. Eventually, they blurt out everything -- and you can believe them.”
Clark said the Bush administration’s indifference to public opinion in other countries about U.S. violations of accepted international standards makes it difficult for leaders of those countries to collaborate with America.
“It’s bad, bad policy for a legitimate state to mistreat people in its power,” he said.
“If you can’t move French public opinion, you can’t expect their political leaders to sign on the bottom line. We have an international constituency, and that’s what we’ve lost.”