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Trump Is The Latest In A Long Line Of US Presidents Trampling On International Law

Trump, like many presidents before him, essentially argues that international law must be broken if it is to be saved. With the bombing of Syria, however, he violated more than just international law.

The U.S. missile attack on Syria in response to unproven chemical weapons use by the Assad regime once again puts America in violation of the international laws that we claim to support. The UN charter forbids such action unless it is in self-defense or approved by the UN Security Council, neither of which applies in this case.


Ominously, the historical record shows that whenever a U.S. president takes the kind of action Trump did with his bombing of Syria this month, there is big trouble. Not only do many people die, but national economies, democracy, peace, and freedom all end up in the trash can.

Trump, like many presidents before him, essentially argues that international law must be broken if it is to be saved. With this bombing, however, he violated more than just international law. He, like his predecessors, also trashed the U.S. Constitution which gives the power to wage war to Congress, not to the president. There is no Congressional authority for any attack on Syria.

A Syrian soldier films the damage of the Syrian Scientific Research Center in Barzeh which was attacked by U.S., British and French military strikes to punish President Bashar Assad for an alleged chemical attack, near Damascus, Syria, April 14, 2018. (AP/Hassan Ammar)

Trumpian disregard for international and U.S. law when it comes to making war, unfortunately, adds nothing new to the pages of American history. Way back in 1898, President William McKinley, with no proof, said, after the destruction of the battleship Maine in Havana’s harbor:

“The naval court of inquiry, which it is needless to say commands the unqualified confidence of the government, was unanimous in its conclusion that the destruction of the Maine was caused by an external explosion—that of a submarine mine.”

McKinley went on to say this finding justified what he called “the enforced pacification of Cuba—in the name of humanity, in the name of civilization, in behalf of American interests which give us the right and duty to speak and to act.”

The results: Four months of war in Cuba, four years of war in the Philippines (at the time another Spanish colony), the eventual seizure by the U.S. of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and occupation and rule over Guantanamo until this very day. Years after the McKinley speech, it was found that faulty munitions storage, not a foreign attack, was responsible for the sinking of the Maine.

What Lyndon B. Johnson said in 1964 about Vietnam also sounded a lot like what Trump said this month. In a speech to the nation, Johnson said:

“As president and commander-in-chief, it is my duty to the American people to report the renewed hostile actions against our ships on the high seas in the Gulf of Tonkin that have today required me to order the military forces of the United States into action in reply.”

The results: The U.S. dropped three times more bomb tonnage over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia than all sides had dropped everywhere in World War II. It is estimated that more than 350,000 tons of live bombs and mines remain in Vietnam today and that, at the current rate of removal, it will take 300 years to clear them away. Cluster bombs with hundreds of baseball size bomblets designed to explode near ground level are the most common type left all over the country—these are the ones children continue to find and play with until the deadly “toys” explode. These bomblets have killed some 40,000 Vietnamese since the end of the war in 1975 and maimed 67,000 others.

Separate from these bombs and mines, the U.S. dropped 18 million gallons of chemical herbicide, including Agent Orange, with our planes drenching an estimated 3,800 villages in the poison. To this day, Vietnamese babies continue to be born with grotesque deformities including misshapen heads, bulging tumors, underdeveloped brains, and non-functioning limbs.

During the My Lai massacre, an American contingent of soldiers called Charlie Company encountered a peaceful village whose inhabitants were having breakfast. The soldiers raped the women, burned the houses, and turned their machine guns on the unarmed population.

A brutal scene following the March 16 massacre in My Lai, South Vietnam. (Photo: Ronald L. Haeberle/U.S. Army)

A U.S. Army private, Paul Meadlo, gave details:

“Once we got there, we began gathering up the people…. [We] fired round after round into the ditch (full of civilians) and tossed in a few grenades. Then came a high-pitched whining, which grew louder as a two or three year-old boy, covered with mud and blood, crawled his way among the bodies and scrambled toward the rice paddy. His mother had apparently protected him with her body. The commander saw what was happening and, according to the witnesses, ran after the child, dragged him back to the ditch, and shot him.”

In October 1983, Ronald Reagan made another of these speeches fit for Trump when he told the American people how 1,000 American citizens, students, and a medical school were threatened on the island of Grenada. Cuban troops were stationed on the island he said, busy establishing a Cuban-Soviet “colony.”

It turned out the students were never threatened, and the Cubans were there only to expand the airport for tourism.

The list continues.

President George W. Bush in October 2001:

“My fellow Americans. On my orders, the U.S. military has begun strikes against al Qaeda terrorist training camps of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations. As we strike military targets, we will also drop food, medicine, and supplies to the starving men, women, and children of Afghanistan. The U.S. is a friend to the Afghan people.”

The results: On July 6, 2008, a large number of Afghan civilians were walking in a wedding procession in an area called Kamala in the Haska Meyna district. When the group stopped for a rest, it was hit in succession by three bombs from U.S. military aircraft. The first bomb hit a group of children who were ahead of the main procession, killing them instantly. A few minutes later, the aircraft returned and dropped a second bomb in the center of the group, killing a large number of women. The bride and two girls survived the second bomb, but were killed by a third while trying to escape from the area. All told, 47 civilians had been killed, the BBC later reported.


The same George W. Bush in October 2002:

“My fellow Americans, tonight I want to discuss a grave threat to the peace and America’s determination to lead the world in confronting that threat. The threat comes from Iraq. Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction [it was later proven there were none] are controlled by a murderous tyrant.”

Credible estimates of Iraq War casualties range from 150,000 to 460,000. Disputed estimates such as the 2006 Lancet Study and the 2007 Opinion Research Business Survey put the numbers as high as 650,000 and 1.2 million respectively, with 1-3 million displaced from their homes and 2 million fleeing the country.

And once again, as in Vietnam, the use of poison remains an issue years after the war. Dramatic increases are reported in infant mortality, cancer, and leukemia in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, which was bombarded by U.S. Marines for much of 2004.

Iraqi doctors have been complaining about large numbers of serious birth defects, with as much as a 12-fold increase in cancer for children under age 14. Dr. Chris Busby, a visiting professor from the University of Ulster, said that “to produce an effect like this, some very mutagenic exposure must have occurred in 2004 when the attacks happened.”

Now we know they used weapons that included depleted uranium—all of course to show the Iraqi people too that we were their friends.

Then there was what President Obama said in March 2011:

“Tonight, I’d like to update the American people on the international effort that we have led in Libya. I want to begin by paying tribute to our men and women in uniform who, once again, have acted with courage, professionalism, and patriotism. For generations, the U.S. has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and as an advocate for human freedom. We are reluctant to use force to solve the world’s many challenges, but when our vital interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act. That’s what happened in Libya over the course of the last six weeks. For more than four decades the Libyan people have been ruled by a tyrant—Muammar Gaddafi. Confronted by this brutal repression, we have a responsibility to act.”

A photo from 2011 shows buildings ravaged in Sirte, Libya where the U.S. military carried out extensive airstrikes. (AP Photo)

The results: The violence and instability stemming from the U.S. military campaign created a vacuum allowing Islamist fundamentalism to dramatically increase its reach and power. In March 2013, Sadiq Gharini, the Grand Mufti, issued a fatwa against the UN report documenting violence against women and girls in Libya. He condemned the UN report for “advocating immorality and indecency in addition to rebelliousness against religion and clear objections to the law contained in the Quran and Sunnah.”

As of February 2015, damage and disorder from the war has been considerable. There are frequent electrical outages in Libya, little business activity, and a loss of revenues from oil of up to 90 percent. Over 4,000 have died from the fighting, with as much as a third of the country’s population having fled to Tunisia as refugees.

And finally, President Trump in April, 2018:

“My fellow Americans, a short time ago, I ordered the United States Armed Forces to launch precision strikes on targets associated with the chemical weapons capabilities of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The purpose of our actions is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread, and use of chemical weapons. Establishing this deterrent is a vital national security interest of the United States.”

The results and what happens next are, in large part, up to us.



John Wojcik
John Wojcik is editor in chief at He started as labor editor of the People's World in May, 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There he served as a shop steward, as a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee, and as an activist in the union's campaign to win public support for Wal-Mart workers. In the 1970s and '80s he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.

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