Bush was adamant on the prosecution of war crimes in other countries. In 2003, he insisted, "War crimes will be prosecuted, war criminals will be punished, and it will be no defense to say, 'I was just following orders.' " On June 26, 2003, conservatives applauded as Bush told the United Nations that the United States "is committed to the worldwide elimination of torture, and we are leading this fight by example."
Our failure to investigate and prosecute accused war criminals has led some United Nations officials to accuse the United States of violating treaty obligations. More important, our continued debate over this question puts our troops in danger. We will be hard pressed in the future to call for prosecution of leaders who torture our citizens and soldiers.
We cannot continue a war on terrorism while being violators of international law ourselves. Torture and terrorism are cut from the same legal bolt: Both are violations of human rights and international law. If we want the world to join us in fighting one crime against humanity, we cannot continue to obstruct the prosecution of another crime against humanity.
Ultimately, we all become accessories after the fact if we stand silent in the face of these war crimes. Bush ordered these war crimes because he believed that he was above the law, and others like Rice have claimed that, if the president orders such actions, they are by definition legal. They were both wrong. The law is clear. The only remaining question is whether we have the national character and commitment to the rule of law to hold even our leaders to account for crimes committed in our name.
Such prosecutions do not weaken a nation. They reaffirm the difference between ourselves and those we are fighting. To abandon our principles for politics would be to hand al Qaeda its greatest victory: not the destruction of lives or buildings but our own self-inflicted wound of hypocrisy and immorality. True victory against our enemies will be found only on the other side of prosecuting those who (like our enemies) claim the right to wage war by any means.