Saturday, April 30, 2005

William Taft IV: Neocon Bully

Chris and I had a nice little exchange a few weeks ago about a speech made by former State Department Legal Adviser William Taft IV that criticized the U.S. detention policy in Guantanamo Bay. Today's Guardian has a long expose alleging that Taft, and other U.S. lawyers, were involved in pressuring the UK's attorney general to change his mind over his view of the legality of the Iraq War.

According to the Guardian, during the run-up to the Iraq War vote in the UK, the UK's Attorney General Lord Goldsmith made a "secret visit" to the U.S. to meet with various "neocon U.S. lawyers" including Taft and his soon-to-be-successor John Bellinger (then with the National Security Adviser). After a series of "grueling" meetings, especially with Taft, Goldsmith returned to the UK with new confidence on the legality of the Iraq War.

The Guardian portrays this as nefarious, somehow, and brings in the reliable Prof. Phillipe Sands, Q.C. to sarcastically dismiss the involvement of U.S. lawyers:

How delightful that a Labour government should seek assistance from US lawyers so closely associated with neo-con efforts to destroy the international legal order.

I still think that this UK brouhaha over the Iraq War's international legality is a bit overdone, and even the Guardian suggests that the political damage to Blair may be relatively slight. All that really happened is that Goldsmith had doubts about the international legality of the Iraq War, but that he ultimately concluded that there is a plausible argument for legality. He then went to DC, where U.S. lawyers, Taft most of all, apparently, convinced him that his initial conclusion was right and stronger than he had initially thought. This is hardly the stuff of neo-con conspiracy. After all, the U.S. had drafted the original version of the Security Council Resolution 1441 on which the U.S. was basing its legal authority.

Moreover, Sands (who appears to have contempt for all U.S. international lawyers who are to the right of, say, Harold Koh) is simply wrong to classify Taft as one of the "neo-con" lawyers seeking to "destroy the international legal order." As I pointed out here, Taft was a leading voice against the U.S. policy on detentions at Guantanamo. Yet Taft still maintains today that the Iraq War was legal under the existing Security Council Resolutions. This suggests that Taft's view is a good faith legal interpretation which cannot be simply dismissed as right-wing ravings by international lawyers simply because they disagree with it.

Finally, the Guardian blithely ignores the larger evidence of Goldsmith's independence. The U.S. administration plainly believed that it had the legal authority under a theory of "pre-emptive" self defense to invade Iraq. Yet Goldsmith did not subscribe to this view and, despite his "grueling" sessions in Washington, he never did.

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