Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the Trump administration was reversing 40 years of U.S. policy that considered Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal. This move ignores international law, a 1978 State Department legal opinion, a ruling by the United Nations, and the legal opinion of the European Union.
Why would the Trump administration do this, you ask?
Stephen Collinson of CNN hypothesized that since the ruling was recognized and upheld by previous administrations, our allies in Europe, the United Nations, and international courts, Trump just couldn’t help himself. And, of course, the move pleases Trump’s friend Benjamin Netanyahu, recently indicted for corruption in Israel and who, like Trump, needed a distraction from scandals in the news.
The move to recognize illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank is consistent, as Collinson points out, with Trump’s overall philosophy of foreign policy: The heck with the rule of law or what is in the interests of the United States; If it helps Trump politically, it’s a good thing.
Trump’s decision regarding Israeli settlements reminds me of Trump’s treatment of Ukraine. As stated by the ambassador of the European Union, Gordon Sondland, Trump was less concerned about helping the new Ukrainian president defend his nation from Russian aggression than he was about getting Ukrainian officials to dig up dirt on his political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.
While Trump trumpets an “America First” foreign policy, his actions reflect a Trump first reality.
Before Pompeo’s announcement overturning a 40-year policy about Israeli settlements, Trump announced that he had issued full pardons for three U.S. soldiers who were either convicted of war crimes or being tried in military court for war crimes. More distractions from the impeachment hearings, of course, but if you are going to poke your finger at international, U.S., and military law, why not go big and pardon war criminals.
The three men were former Navy Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, Army Maj. Mathew Golsteyn and Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance.
Lorance was the most interesting on Trump’s pardon list. On the day of his pardon, he was serving a 19-year sentence in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for murder. He was a rookie lieutenant in the Army, assigned to Afghanistan to command a platoon. On his second day on the job in 2012, he ordered his platoon to fire on unarmed villagers who posed no threat to his platoon. Several villagers were killed. According to testimony from his own platoon members, “He then called in false reports over the radio to cover up” his actions. Lorance was turned in by his own platoon members.
Writing about the incident for The Atlantic, Kori Schake, professor of War Studies at King’s College, wrote, “All were brought to justice by their fellow service members; each prosecution relied on testimony from servicemen in the same units who witnessed the war crimes and reported them to military superiors.”
Then again, we all know how Trump feels about whistleblowers.
The civilian and military chain of command at the Pentagon, including Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, the secretaries of the Navy and Army, and the commander of the SEALs all advised Trump against the pardon. Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy stated that the pardons “damage the integrity of the military judicial system, the ability of military leaders to ensure good order and discipline, and the confidence of U.S. allies and partners who host U.S. troops.” But Trump knows “more than his generals,” as he likes to say, so he ignored their advice.
In response to Trump’s interference in the Gallagher case, the Navy Secretary Richard Spencer wrote in his resignation letter, “I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath I took in the presence of my family, my flag and my faith to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Trump’s pardon of Lorance was a slap in the face of the troops in his platoon who did the honorable thing and stood up for American values and military law they took an oath to defend. Trump also took that oath but has not been known for standing up for American values or the rule of law.
As stated by Schake, “Civilians, too, should worry about a commander in chief who seeks to undermine the military chain of command … to behave unethically and in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”
The pardons were given on the same day that one of the president’s friends and campaign aide, Roger Stone, was convicted on seven counts of witness tampering and lying to Congress. But Stone shouldn’t worry; Trump will surely pardon him. Once you have pardoned a couple of convicted war criminals, forgiving witness tampering and lying to Congress is a walk in the park.
Tom Zirpoli is the program coordinator of the Human Services Management graduate program at McDaniel College. His column appears on Wednesdays. Email him at email@example.com.