Democrats and even some Republicans opposed to or wary of President Trump’s protectionist “America First” agenda have long complained about his hostility to multilateral international organizations.
Late last week, however, his tough approach to the International Criminal Court, which both Republican and Democratic presidents have refused to join, reaped a win for the Trump administration that will be hard for many Democratic leaders to deny. The approach also has broad bipartisan support in Congress, nearly unheard of when it comes to this president’s foreign policy.
The surprise ICC decision by a three-judge panel in the U.S.’s favor came on a Friday before Congress’ two-week spring recess, and there were few official statements or responses from Capitol Hill heralding the move or giving Trump credit for the turn of events, in which the court rejected a request from its chief prosecutor to launch a probe into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan by the United States and its allies in the early days after the 9/11 attacks.
But this was one of those rare occasions in Washington when the complete dearth of responses taking sides on the issue spoke volumes, signaling tacit support from both sides of the aisle for Trump’s combative approach.
Over the last year and a half, Democrats haven’t been shy about decrying Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate treaty and the U.N. Human Rights Council and to end U.S. funding for a U.N. Palestinian organization, not to mention its repeated jabs at NATO. Most recently, Trump called the 70-year-old alliance “obsolete” before backtracking and sending the mixed message that the U.S. supports NATO “100 percent, but as I told countries, you have to step up.”
Democrats have slammed the moves as misguided isolationism that has lowered U.S. standing and trust throughout the world while many Republicans have furiously worked to reassure Western allies that the U.S. is not weakening its resolve or commitments.
The ICC’s announcement Friday was widely considered across Washington as a victory for his approach – even by those who slammed the decision as a weak capitulation to Trump’s so-called bullying.
A month ago the administration revoked the visas of several ICC personnel, including the prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, and threatened to do the same with those who seek to pursue war crime charges against Israel.
There’s no definitive proof that the ICC’s decision not to pursue the investigation was linked to the sanctions, but in a statement Friday Trump called the panel’s ruling a “major international victory” for the U.S. military and targeted intelligence officers as well as for the rule of law.
Trump signaled that the current visa sanctions will remain in place and threatened to issue new ones if there are any “attempt to target Americans, Israeli, or allied personnel for prosecution.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reacted to the ICC decision by referring to a major foreign policy speech he delivered in Brussels in December in which he explained Trump’s antipathy towards multinational institutions as “principled realism” that denies “malign” countries, such as China and Russia, the opportunity to abuse Western politeness.
“As I explained in Brussels in December, the Trump administration seeks to reform international institutions so they hew to their core missions, respect national sovereignty and retain their effective legitimacy,” he said.
A State Department official told RealClearPolitics that the U.S. wants to reform the ICC, not terminate it.
“We’re not saying disband, we’re saying please don’t do extrajudicial things” that impinge on the national sovereignty of non-member states, the official said.
John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, was far more gleeful. Last September he had said the U.S. will let the ICC “die on its own,” adding, “For all intents and purposes the ICC is already dead to us.” On Friday, he called the decision not to move forward with prosecution a “vindication of our position” that the court has no jurisdiction over American citizens.
“Today’s my second-happiest day,” Bolton said. He has previously referred to his “happiest day” as the moment in 2002 when he took action preventing the U.S. from joining the ICC the same year it was established by U.N. treaty.
“We have the toughest training and doctrination of our military and intelligence personnel on the laws of war of any country in the world,” Bolton said Friday. “We are a democratic society. We are accountable for what we do. We hold our own citizens accountable for their actions. No international court under those circumstances can be constitutionally legitimate.”
Bensouda had requested that the ICC examine possible crimes by U.S. troops, the CIA and the U.S.-allied Afghan National Security Forces, as well as the Taliban and the Haqqani network. She said she had found that the U.S. military and the CIA may have committed acts that constituted “torture, outrages upon personal dignity and rape and other forms of sexual violence” dating back to 2003 and 2004.
Those were the early years of the war on terror when the Bush administration authorized use of so-called enhanced interrogation, such as waterboarding and other harsh techniques that the U.S. has since outlawed and that the Senate Intelligence Committee documented during the Obama administration.
Several human rights organization, including Amnesty International, denounced the ICC decision not to move forward with a prosecution, arguing it abandoned the victims of the alleged war crimes and further weakened its credibility by buckling under pressure from the Trump administration.
“Coming so closely on the heels of a series of unhinged attacks by senior USA officials, and following long and unexplainable delays up to this point, the decision ultimately will be seen as a craven capitulation to Washington’s fully and threats,” said Biraj Patnaik, South Asia director of Amnesty International.
But those celebrating the decision said even President Obama, who offered some public praise for the court’s intentions, never asked the Senate to pass a bill for the U.S. to join the ICC.
“No U.S. president or official was going to help them prosecute Americans, even a president with a generally good globalist vibe,” Eugene Kontorovich, a professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia School of Law, told RCP. “President Trump took it much further, he rightly said we didn’t agree to prosecute Americans in The Hague. We’re going to use pressure, we’re going to take measures – denial of visas – to drive that point home.”
The Trump administration, he said, is already girding for its next battle with the ICC over a Palestinian suit in the court accusing Israel of war crimes in Jewish settlements and Gaza. An ICC prosecutor in December said violence against civilians could constitute an international crime, as could the use of civilians to defend military activity.
Though support for Israel is dividing the Democratic Party right now, when the ICC was considering allowing the Palestinian Authority to join in 2015, Sens. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, and Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York who is now running for president, led a group of 75 senators in urging the Obama administration to push back against the PA’s efforts to join.
In the letter to then-Secretary of State John Kerry, the senators highlighted their concerns regarding the Palestinians’ attempt to use the ICC as means to threaten Israel.
“President Abbas’ effort contravenes the spirit of earlier agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and erodes the prospects for peace,” the senators wrote. “Therefore, the United States must make clear that joining the ICC is not a legitimate or viable path for the Palestinians.”
The letter was signed by 23 Democrats, including prominent liberals such as Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Sheldon Whitehouse, Ron Wyden and Richard Blumenthal. Amy Klobuchar, another 2020 Democratic hopeful, also signed the letter.
Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.