09 Jan John Yoo Reviews David Scheffer’s Memoir in WSJ
The choice of book reviewer might be surprising but the result, unfortunately, is not. Yoo reviews two books: David Scheffer’s memoir All the Missing Souls and William Shawcross’ Justice and the Enemy. Scheffer’s book details his time working on war crimes issues, ultimately as the Ambassador at Large on War Crimes, in President Clinton’s State Department. (Disclosure: we hope to have Scheffer guest blog with us sometimes in the next couple of months about his book.) Shawcross’s book, as Yoo describes it, “asks whether diplomats and specialists in international affairs, among whose number Mr. Scheffer must be counted, have any realistic alternative to the Bush administration’s strategy of using the military to detain, try or kill terrorists.”
OK, that’s a pretty provocative opening. Yoo is an interesting choice to review a book on war crimes tribunals since his professional career has been about skepticism towards such tribunals. Hhe’s also an interesting choice to review a book about the Bush era policies that he played a part in defining. So, I thought’ I’d review his review, so to speak.
Aftert the shot-across-the-bow opening, Yoo has some eloquent passages (invoking Lincoln) and interesting observations about how interstate wars are decreasing but intrastate conflicts are becoming all the bloodier. As he starts in on Scheffer’s book, though, the critique is what you’d expect: an argument against the efficacy of international criminal tribunals. Fair enough (although keep in mind the book is billed as “a personal history” ). But then the review transforms and seems to be less and less about the books and more and more about the Bush administration (which Yoo was a part of). And especially about how it was misunderstood. Yoo uses Shawcross’ arguments to criticize Scheffer and, implicitly, rehabilitate his own image. After indicting Scheffer for not doing enough to stop genocide in Rwanda, he goes on to write:
Mr. Scheffer tries to spice up this combination of diplomatic detail and depressing passivity with a stray attack on the Bush administration’s approach to world affairs after 9/11—the war on terror, as it was once known. With precious little analysis, he claims that the Bush administration destroyed America’s leading human-rights position, though naturally he fails to mention the Obama administration’s decision to continue, and even expand, many of the U.S. policies adopted in the wake of the attacks.
We get the sense that this review is most interested in going once more around the track on the Bush Administration’s record. By contrast to Scheffer,
Mr. Shawcross describes how left-wing groups, with the cooperation of gullible journalists, spread outright lies about conditions at Guantanamo Bay, about American detention and interrogation policy, and about the trials of terrorist leaders…
America’s response to 9/11 caused outrage among intellectuals precisely because it proved so successful: preventing further attacks on the United States, eliminating Osama bin Laden and the al Qaedaleadership, and beginning the overthrow of vicious authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. The Bush administration rejected the ineffectual internationalnetwork of activists, rights groups and courts in favor of a robust unilateral response that drew upon the traditional sources of state power, including diplomacy, economic sanctions and military force.
Funny thing is, I don’t know who supposedly argued that the U.S. must never act unilaterally or that force and sanctions are not key tools in statecraft. (I haven’t heard anyone make those claims.) That was not what the major Bush-era arguments were about. They were about torture and legal black holes and unilateralism for its own sake. They were also about recognizing the possibility that engaging (rather than running from) international institutions can actually broaden America’s options. Addressing these actual issues might have made for an interesting essay.
Picking John Yoo to review a book about war crimes tribunals is a provocative choice. I wonder why the editors at the WSJ did it. But the result was not so much thought-provoking as almost exactly what one would have expected. And that, as far as editorial decision-making goes, is an opportunity lost.