Heard the One About Obama Denouncing a Breach of International Law?



International law is suddenly very popular in Washington. President Obama responded to Russian military intervention in the Crimea by accusing Russia of a “breach of international law.” Secretary of State John Kerry followed up by declaring that Russia is “in direct, overt violation of international law.”

Unfortunately, during the last five years, no world leader has done more to undermine international law than Barack Obama. He treats it with rhetorical adulation and behavioral contempt, helping to further normalize a might-makes-right approach to global affairs that is the antithesis of international law.

Fifty years ago, another former law professor, Senator Wayne Morse, condemned such arrogance of power. “I don’t know why we think, just because we’re mighty, that we have the right to try to substitute might for right,” Morse said on national TV in 1964. “And that’s the American policy in Southeast Asia — just as unsound when we do it as when Russia does it.”

Today, Uncle Sam continues to preen as the globe’s big sheriff on the side of international law even while functioning as the world’s biggest outlaw.

Rather than striving for an evenhanded assessment of how “international law” has become so much coin of the hypocrisy realm, mainline U.S. media are now transfixed with Kremlin villainy.

On Sunday night, the top of the New York Times home page reported: “Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has pursued his strategy with subterfuge, propaganda and brazen military threat, taking aim as much at the United States and Europe as Ukraine itself.” That was news coverage.

Following close behind, a Times editorial appeared in print Monday morning, headlined “Russia’s Aggression,” condemning “Putin’s cynical and outrageous exploitation of the Ukrainian crisis to seize control of Crimea.” The liberal newspaper’s editorial board said that the United States and the European Union “must make clear to him that he has stepped far outside the bounds of civilized behavior.”

Such demands are righteous — but lack integrity and credibility when the same standards are not applied to President Obama, whose continuation of the Bush “war on terror” under revamped rhetoric has bypassed international law as well as “civilized behavior.”

In these circumstances, major U.S. media coverage rarely extends to delving into deviational irony or spotlighting White House hypocrisy. Yet it’s not as if large media outlets have entirely excluded key information and tough criticism.

For instance, last October the McClatchy news service reported that “the Obama administration violated international law with top-secret targeted-killing operations that claimed dozens of civilian lives in Yemen and Pakistan,” according to reports released by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Last week, just before Obama leapt to high dudgeon with condemnation of Putin for his “breach of international law,” the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed piece that provided illuminating context for such presidential righteousness.

“Despite the president’s insistence on placing limits on war, and on the defense budget, his brand of warfare has helped lay the basis for a permanent state of global warfare via ‘low footprint’ drone campaigns and special forces operations aimed at an ever-morphing enemy usually identified as some form of Al Qaeda,” wrote Karen J. Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University’s law school.

Greenberg went on to indicate the scope of the U.S. government’s ongoing contempt for international law: “According to Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the Obama administration has killed 4,700 individuals in numerous countries, including Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Obama has successfully embedded the process of drone killings into the executive branch in such a way that any future president will inherit it, along with the White House ‘kill list’ and its ‘terror Tuesday’ meetings. Unbounded global war is now part of what it means to be president.”

But especially in times of crisis, as with the current Ukraine situation, such inconvenient contradictions go out the mass-media window. What remains is an Orwellian baseline, melding conformist ideology and nationalism into red-white-and-blue doublethink.


Norman Solomon is co-founder of RootsAction.org and founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. His books include “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.” Information about the documentary based on the book is at www.WarMadeEasyTheMovie.org.

Norman Solomon

Co-Founder at RootsAction
Norman Solomon is the author of “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.” He is the executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and co-founder of RootsAction.org.

30 Comments on "Heard the One About Obama Denouncing a Breach of International Law?"

  1. Liam_McGonagle | Mar 3, 2014 at 10:33 am |

    There has to be something better than a competition for the ‘Lesser Evil’. Real people are suffering, here, even if by and large it is at their own hands.

    Secessio Plebis.


  2. Gjallarbru | Mar 3, 2014 at 10:41 am |

    I actually studied international politics at university. I ended my bachelor’s degree as it became clear that international relations boiled down to simple things.

    Internations relations are about money, or colloquially called economics. Economic interests are persued by politics. When politics fail, the military do the work that politics failed to acheive. It would seem that the US is failing at economy and politics, to the point of being in constant war.

    The reasons behind the current state of affairs are too numerous to point out here, and I would need some time to gather my facts in a concise manner. It might be a good text to submit to disinfo I guess…

    • Do you want my Monkey Man to write the post for you? He’s got nothing to do all day except exist and eat, you know. Plus, he’ll avoid the clichés and vague generalities and propaganda fed through the International Politics Blow Hole they serve at Universities. Yep, Monkey Man gets right down to the Business at hand, down to the street level where the action is, because Monkey Man is a Public Genius, and very well-read too.

    • Write that up and submit it!

    • Do it!

    • Rhoid Rager | Mar 3, 2014 at 2:32 pm |

      While on the surface of things, you are not fundamentally wrong in your thesis about the practice of IR ultimately relying on violence after more ritualistic levels do not fulfil their stated objectives, the study of IR, itself, can be significantly more nuanced. I found that the origins of the study of IR to be in sociology and early anthropology, and the field changed according to concomitant changes (advances in understanding) in those two realms. Thus, the war-centered realpolitik concentration of the realists and the sociological institutionalism of liberalism were challenged by the critical discourse analysis brought to the fore in sociology and anthropology by the Frankfurt School and structuralist/poststructuralism. These approaches tended to dovetail with the pre-existing Marxist approaches to IR, spearheaded by none other than V.I. Lenin in his work on Imperialism.

      But to me, even these new critical approaches to understanding how the study of IR ought to be given more subtle analysis seemed insufficient. They did not resonate with my lived experience because they assumed a dark calculus of a fundamentally divided humanity continuously at war with itself. This was a wholly unsatisfying premise to me, so I explored new avenues and began in earnest to piece together what I thought was (and still do think is) an alternative anarchist theory of IR. I published in the scholarly journal Millennium in 2010, I organized a roundtable with like-minded anarchist scholars in 2011 at a major academic conference in London, and organized a forum proposal for an up-and-coming journal that focused on the sociology of international politics. When I saw that there was little reaction to all of this, I realized that academia wasn’t receptive to the assumptions underpinning anarchist thought–that the human species was a single complex system (an organism), that mutual aid is a constant sociological phenomenon, that agency is something we all possess, that the global state of affairs that IR problematizes (our perceived divisions as a species) is a result of abstractions, like the state and other institutions, providing a context in which to articulate our agency, and that the complex systems theory approach required to study the field of IR yields uncomfortable conclusions about who is actually in charge. Academia wasn’t going to change, so I did, and promptly left.

      But that isn’t to say that the critical approaches academia currently embraces aren’t helpful. They certainly are, but not in the ways academics think they are. These critical approaches are simply personal heuristics that academics ought to use to examine their own lives, rather than pontificate about how others ought to change. In this sense, the study of IR becomes a profound journey of the study of the Self–a psychoanalytical tour of one’s own worldview and the power to change it.

      • Gjallarbru | Mar 3, 2014 at 3:06 pm |

        Honestly, I get what you are saying at some level, but I think you’re way too far into ideas, not far enough into facts.

        For instance, prentending that “mutual aid is a constant sociological phenomenon” is confusing IR, as you put it, with social interaction. War has shaped this world for a long time. Altruistic “mutual aid”, on the other hand, has shaped very little if anything. I also do not embrace “academics” that much. They too present many ideas and explanations that don’t reflect reality. I left my studies exactly because of the mental masturbation that “experts” and academics presented. I don’t have any love for Lenin or anybody else.

        There is no self in IR. Your “life experiences” as an individual are far removed from the subject at hand in the current state of things. I can foresee a future where the “fundamentally divided humanity continuously at war with itself” will be resolved. But at this time, it is not, in particular for the western world.

        For instance, if you think the EU exists for humanitarian reasons, and facilitating exchange, you’ve been given the wrong pill. The EU was thought up as a possible control structure for a unified Germany. That plan is currently crumbling with Germany grumbling ever more.

        International relations does not, at this time, share anything with relations between individuals.

        • Rhoid Rager | Mar 3, 2014 at 4:12 pm |

          I don’t think you have understood what I have written. It’s not my intention to talk down to you, but I’m not so sure that you have as much of a handle on IR as you may think you do.
          I don’t really know where to start to clarify my points and rectify yours, but I’ll give it a shot.
          – The study of IR (not the practice of realpolitik or institutionalism) has become increasingly focused on understanding IR as social interaction. It’s called the ‘sociological turn’ and this began in the 80s.
          – War has shaped specific aspects of human interaction, but previous ways of studying IR have given too much focus on war and not focused on the internecine periods. This has a lot to do with the _purpose_ of academia, which is to indoctrinate people into a specific subset of thinking convenient to the status quo. The critical analysis of IR that came to prominence in the 90s has offered a critique of this, but it has become mired in its own intellectual masturbatoryness, as you pointed out.
          – Mutual aid is not altruistim. I will not spare the rod on you for this, because you are dead wrong. Mutual aid is practiced everyday around the world in informal circles and associations. It has nothing to do with self-sacrifice and everything to do with community survival in harsh circumstances.

          – The self is present everywhere if you are willing to look. The world at large is a reflection (a metaphor) of your (not personally you, but the general ‘you’) own internal struggles. This is clearly present in IR, if you were to look deep into the field. But, again, I don’t think you have delved that deeply into it.
          – ‘Foreseeing a future where war is resolved’ misses the point about what conflict is. Again using the external world as metaphor, conflict (war, if you want) is a reflection of inner turmoil. Conflict resolution happens everyday, just like mutual aid. It’s just not picked up by the high-minded academics that you and I have agreed to reject. Informal conflict resolution–between parent and child, spouses, friends, lovers, partners of some sort etc.–is viewed as unimportant to mainstream IR, because it is not of analytical value. But that’s simply one particular strand of IR. As I have said previously, there have been critical approaches adopted from the larger sociological and anthropological fields to adopt a wider and deeper view of human interaction than just at the state or institution level.

          – And finally, to deal with your last sentence, IR has everything to do with relations between individuals, because it is the aggregate of how humans think of themselves in their relations with others right now. The practice of IR is a reflection of our modern self-disempowered human agency. The practice of IR reflects our submission to authority, yet, paradoxically, through the crystallization of silly abstractions, like the EU or Germany or the US, it affirms that human agency is the only thing that props it up.

          • Gjallarbru | Mar 3, 2014 at 6:27 pm |

            You sir, I perceive to be a political philosopher, while I am purely a pragmatist. You insist on verbiage like realpolitik, institutionalism or the sociological turn, while missing the point that I deliberatly avoid those. You are trying to frame the debate in a way that satisfies you, even before I have exposed the totality of my analysis. I am not that interested in the debated as you have framed it.

            What’s worse, you claim to reject academia but feel quite content to reference to them, or their concepts . In fact, you are more academia than I ever could be, as I never thought a class. I have not perceived an original thought from you, including the cliché of anarchy.

            You do present yourself as an anarchist, which is fine by me. But such dispositions also tint your perception and analysis of the subject. I do not ascribe my positions to any particular current of thought or of politics. In fact, I vehemently deny of being anything but a pragmatist in all things.

            I have no doubt that you are well read and that you have taken much time to study works in existence. But I submit to you that those very works have limited the very understanding you claim so deep by rigidly framing the subject. A trick you are in turn trying to make use of here.

            Lastly you read what I wrote, you seem to presume that a simplistic principle implies a simplistic mechanism. That is not the case, I assure you. I do not see IR as either the result of only institutions, nor is it the simple calculations of national interest, and it is not merely sociological. These concepts are too old, too out of touch for the current political landscape.

            I assure you, I have yet to expose anything of substance in the thread. And, just for fun, I’ll tell you it’s not about what I know, or my credentials, it’s about what I see. In the mean time, feel free to think me ignorant…

    • Check out the Power Elite as a starting point.

      • Gjallarbru | Mar 3, 2014 at 3:29 pm |

        Exactly, for who else runs the “economics” if not for the “Elite”.

        • Rhoid Rager | Mar 3, 2014 at 4:42 pm |

          Also check out C. Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination. The nexus between biography and history is exactly what my point was above. I taught a class on this work several years ago. Mills was a liberation sociologist, and viewed the importance of everyone in contributing to the society we live in by way of their imagining it themselves, hence the term ‘sociological imagination’. And, in the Power Elite, Mills is not positing that elites ‘run’ economics, but that there are resilient networks in society that span across all fields of industry, academia and politics, and that these networks persist over generations. He was identifying a sociological phenomenon to counteract the structural functionalist approach to sociology, which views society as inherently stable based on a functional purpose. To think that elites ‘run’ society gives too much credit to them and diminishes the power of the self–the same narrative that the elites thrive on.

  3. Laws are for little people.

  4. emperorreagan | Mar 3, 2014 at 11:19 am |

    President Obama has won the Nobel Peace prize. No lesser men should dare impugn his moral and ethical superiority, because it comes from the Divine.

  5. BuzzCoastin | Mar 3, 2014 at 12:29 pm |

    internation law my ass

  6. emperorreagan | Mar 3, 2014 at 1:26 pm |

    One could read the hyper-masculinity of Putin (and the homophobia and abuse of homosexuals in Russia) as a response to the loss of influence and esteem on the part of the former USSR.

    One finds the same thing in marginalized groups in the US, primarily centered around churches as opposed to nationalism here.

    • Liam_McGonagle | Mar 3, 2014 at 1:58 pm |

      Some cultures tend to emphasize in-group solidarity more than others. I think Russian culture is one of them.

      In certain applications that can be a good thing. But quite often ‘solidarity’ spills over into intolerance and aggession.

      The Chinese, who probably hold the balance of power in this situation, have a very interesting take on this. They stress in-group solidarity to a high degree–but prefer to emphasize the reduction of tension as the primary means to enforce it, rather than overt violence. It is much more flexible than most European cultures, which are hostile to ambiguity.

      Nobody here ought to overplay their hand.

      • emperorreagan | Mar 3, 2014 at 4:23 pm |

        I wasn’t even thinking of my comment with respect to the situation in the Ukraine – just with respect to the current treatment of homosexuals in Russia as was discussed in the article posted by American Cannibal.

        Some of the commentary about Russia intervening on behalf of the ethnic Russians/Russian speaking peoples certainly does play in to in-group solidarity (at very least in building morale for the Russian forces to be sent in to occupy Crimea and in the Russian public for the effort). If you couple that with the strategic value of the Mediterranean port, and Putin’s general tendency towards aggression, the only thing that’s surprising is the initial move was so restrained.

        I don’t think the EU/US really have a hand to play here. I think Putin values Ukraine far more than the EU/US are willing to spend on it. Maybe it ends in corrupt elections in May, maybe it ends with some sort of split within the country, but I don’t think any possible scenario for this ending will be among the preferred NATO options.

  7. InfvoCuernos | Mar 3, 2014 at 5:59 pm |

    I can’t wait to hear the RT take on all of this. Where’s Abby at?

Comments are closed.