Pardons of War Criminals and the Future of Allied Cooperation

by Stephen M. Saideman

The weekend’s news suggests that President Donald Trump’s pardon of a war criminal, former Army officer Michael Behenna, is not going to be a one-off thing but part of a broader trend of pardoning those accused or convicted of war crimes.  While this policy presents challenges to the American armed forces—endangering discipline and cohesion, my focus here is on the impact on present and future allies.  Simply put, this new stance will make it much harder for many countries to join the US in any future military campaign.  Here, I take a quick look at what the allies provide and then focus on how pardoning war criminals is likely to affect future military cooperation.

The ongoing debate about burden-sharing within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] might cause one to believe that America’s allies do not contribute much. However, other than the quick and minor military efforts in places like Grenada and Panama, the US does not fight alone.  American allies bore far more of the costs of World War I and World War II than did the US.  Many countries joined in the American efforts to push back the North Koreans and then the Chinese in Korea.  South Koreans, Australians and others joined American troops in Vietnam.  The Cold War effort to deter the Soviet Union required a global effort requiring not just bases in foreign lands but significant military assistance from dozens of countries.

The Gulf War of 1991 involved hundreds of thousands of non-American troops, where the multinational nature of the alliance—fighting alongside not just British and French troops but also Syrian and many others reduced the risks the Americans faced.  When the Bush Administration shifted its focus from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2003, it meant that there were more allied and partner troops fighting to hold the fort in the former than American troops.  Even in that very unpopular campaign in Iraq, the “coalition of the willing” fought alongside American forces and paid a significant price.

It became much harder for our allies to fight in Iraq and even in Afghanistan after the pictures of American crimes at Abu Ghraib came out.  Our allies, particularly France, Germany and other European countries, had pushed for the creation of the International Criminal Court, established by the 1998 Rome Statute, expending significant political capital because they felt that those who commit war crimes should be held accountable particularly after the horrors of the post-Yugoslav conflict and the genocide in Rwanda.

In 1998, the US voted against the Statute, concerned that it not be subject to ICC law. This subsequently has been a sore spot in relations with allies. When it was clear in 2002 that the Statute would come into effect due to accomplishment of the necessary number of ratifications,  the Bush Administration pushed to change all of the mandates for UN and NATO missions in which Americans played a role to write exceptions so that the countries hosting American troops would not send suspected war criminals to the ICC [I was on the Bosnia desk of the US Joint Staff at this time, and I got to watch this up close].  This effort antagonized our allies at a key moment—as the preparation for the next Iraq war was underway.  To be clear, under its doctrine of “complementarity,” the ICC only to pursue suspected crimes if a country does not handle its accused war criminals responsibly.

By pardoning convicted and/or suspected war criminals, Trump shows that the US system of military justice does not live up to international standards, is and will be irresponsible.

Our allies already take concerns with war crimes quite seriously.  In Afghanistan, mentoring Afghan troops was a major part of the training effort, and it meant going out on patrol and into battle alongside Afghan troops.  Some countries were most reluctant to do so, including the otherwise quite aggressive Danish forces who were willing to fight in the most dangerous parts of the country.  Why?  Because they did not want to be present if and when their trainees engaged in war crimes.  They did not want to be complicit.

For many democracies, it is difficult enough to get mandates from the parliaments to approve these deployments.  Countries governed by coalition governments often have a hard time agreeing on the conditions they will impose upon their troops when they join a cooperative military effort.  If the President continues to pardon war criminals, two things are likely to happen:

  1. Some countries will impose restrictions on their troops, so that the forces they contribute to an allied operation are not be allowed to fight alongside Americans;
  2. Many countries may find it politically impossible to join American-led campaigns at all.

American forces are currently working with allies in partners in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Trump’s pardons of war criminals will make it more likely that we will get less help in those places.  Getting allies to join the US in a new Iran war was always going to be tough but will become even harder if these pardons continue.

The US military was stretched to the breaking point when it was fighting wars in Afghanistan an Iraq at the same time even with much allied assistance.  Alienating allies via these pardons will make any future war effort unnecessarily more challenging. Yes, the US can fight alone, but it will mean more Americans pay the price in blood, more US tax dollars expended, and far less legitimacy.  This may be a price that Donald Trump is willing to pay, but the American military and the American people should not.

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