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National Perspective | INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

Don't Blame Helms for World Court Vote

July 22, 1998|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — If Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) didn't exist, others in the murky bureaucratic depths of Washington would probably have to invent him.

For often Helms, in his simplistic public nay saying and his courtly obstreperousness, provides an excuse when others in government--yes, even upstanding Democrats in the Clinton administration--really don't want to do something on their own.

If outsiders point the finger at big bad Jesse, no one minds. Better that way than to try to explain, to a nation seeking simple answers, the complexities of U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War era.

The latest example of this blame-Helms phenomenon was America's remarkable defeat last week in the creation of a new international criminal court. This new tribunal is being established to prosecute genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, such as torture.

Bringing war criminals to justice is a cause that the Clinton administration has been championing for years. And yet at a U.N. conference in Rome, the administration opposed the court and sought to weaken it. In the showdown vote, the United States was humiliatingly outvoted, 115 to 17, with 25 nations abstaining.

Many of America's closest allies, including Britain, Australia and Canada, voted in favor of the court. In the end, the United States was supported by only a handful of governments, including Iraq, Libya, China, Indonesia, Turkey, Mexico and Israel.

How could this happen? The United States played the leading role in the Nuremberg trials after World War II. More recently, the Clinton administration was a driving force behind the creation of war-crimes tribunals for the Balkans and Rwanda.

Moreover, within the administration, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright often has been one of the staunchest advocates of U.S. military intervention to keep the peace or, in the case of Bosnia, to pursue war criminals.

But the United States is now formally opposing the creation of a new international court to prosecute war crimes and genocide--goals that Clinton and Albright often have embraced. Indeed, one of Albright's closest aides, Ambassador David Scheffer, led the American efforts in Rome to weaken the power of the new court.

Over the last few days, a series of commentaries has suggested that the Clinton administration took a hard line because it was catering to the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The real reason for the U.S. position may have been Sen. Jesse Helms," explained New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis.

Helms had indeed warned that he would try to kill any treaty for an international court that opened the way for the prosecution of Americans. But let's look further. Helms is not the only, or even the main, factor behind the American opposition to the court.

To understand what really happened, you need to start with the Pentagon. American military leaders have been reluctant to commit troops abroad for peacekeeping missions and even more resistant to using American forces to track down war criminals.

The Pentagon is extremely nervous about the new war-crimes court because it fears that American troops on peacekeeping missions could be subjected to a variety of accusations, some of them frivolous. Clinton and Albright don't always support what the Pentagon wants, but they were willing to do so in this case.

Why? Probably because they want to be able to commit American forces to future peacekeeping missions--and they know the Pentagon will be ever more reluctant to let its troops be used if they could be prosecuted in the new court.

Hence the paradox: Those in the Clinton administration who, like Albright, are most assertive about using force on behalf of American ideals abroad also have the strongest interest in limiting the scope of the new criminal court, because they want the greatest legal protection for American troops overseas.

Helms may be against the criminal court, too--but if it were up to him, the United States wouldn't take part in many international peacekeeping missions anyway.

America's activist military role overseas creates other dilemmas as well. Allies such as the Canadians find it easy to blame the United States for trying to eviscerate the new criminal court. Yet the Canadians ignore the reality that the United States has taken a leading role in international peacekeeping operations.

If Canada were to guarantee that its own troops would take the place of American forces around the world, the United States would be far more willing to support the new war-crimes court.

"It is likely to be more and more the case that U.S. forces find themselves in peacekeeping missions in places like Bosnia," observes Alan Henrikson of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston. "And so American troops are more likely to be exposed" to legal charges, even when they are unwarranted.

In short, the American opposition to the new war-crimes court arises out of the delicate interplay between the Pentagon, which seeks to head off any prosecutions of American soldiers, and the White House and State Department, which want the Pentagon's support in future peacekeeping operations.

That's the complicated underlying reality. Helms is only the cover story.

Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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