John Bellinger Reflects on Four Years as Legal Adviser at State

John Bellinger Reflects on Four Years as Legal Adviser at State

John Bellinger has been legal adviser to the State Department for the past four years.  In this speech to the International Law Weekend (October 17, 2008), he offers some reflections on his experience.  (We here at OJ were privileged to have John guest blog here in a unique and highly successful experiment in ‘blogging with the Legal Adviser’.)  I excerpt part of the speech below, and here is the link.  I will offer some thoughts of my own in a separate post; here let me just say that John is someone I know personally, a friend, and someone for whom I have enormous respect and admiration.   

Today, I would like to reflect a little on my tenure as legal adviser and hopefully offer a few insights about the nature of that office and the issues we have confronted in the past four years. I was confirmed as legal adviser in April 2005, shortly after Dr. Rice herself took office as Secretary of State. At that time, I set out three principal goals for my tenure.

The first – it almost goes without saying – was to provide the best possible legal advice to the Secretary, to the Department of State, and to the U.S. government. A key part of carrying out that duty for me as legal adviser was to ensure that international law is considered and respected in decision-making by every component of the Department of State and by every department of the U.S. government. That has not always been the case. In this administration or any other, international legal rules are not always accorded the consideration they warrant. My principal goal was to change that, and to ensure that policymakers’ decisions are appropriately informed by international law.

My second goal – closely related to the first – was to demonstrate to the world the United States’ commitment to international law by engaging other countries in dialogue on international legal issues. During the Administration’s first term, the United States received considerable criticism for its perceived attitude toward international law and international institutions. Secretary Rice set out to change that. Upon entering office, she declared that “[t]he time for diplomacy is now.” And the job of engaging in international legal diplomacy fell to the office of the legal adviser. For my part, I believed that the perception of the United States as unconcerned with international law was largely inaccurate. It was based partly on misunderstandings of the U.S. position on particular issues, and sometimes fueled by critics who cast their policy disagreements as legal claims. Still, some of the criticism hit closer to the mark, and reflected the fact that the United States at times appeared to stand apart on key international legal issues. I set out to engage in dialogue on these issues, and to demonstrate that despite disagreements on particular issues, the United States values, and is committed to, international law.

My third goal was to further strengthen the legal adviser’s office – that institution we refer to inside the building as “L” – and to ensure its position as the premier international legal office in the U.S. government. This meant recruiting the best lawyers we could find – from top law schools, from premier clerkships, and from great law firms. L’s 180 or so attorneys handle every kind of legal issue affecting the Department of State – from advising on UN Security Council Resolutions to resolving employment issues – and they occupy postings in Washington and around the world, including Geneva, The Hague, Paris, and Baghdad. They are first and foremost great lawyers, but they are also, for lawyers, an unusually satisfied group of people. It has been an absolute pleasure for me to work among them for the last four years.

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Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

I was speaking at the National Lawyers Guild in Detroit the same day so was unable to come to the ILW and challenge John Bellinger as I have in this space.  I hope that others were there to challenge him.  Notwithstanding he is a friend of someone or he may even seem to be a nice guy, his written answers to Senator Levin’s questions along with Condoleezza Rice’s response show that at their level there was discussion and countenancing of torture.  He did not resign then.  Also, once at State as I have noted here and other places he spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get other states to waterdown the Geneva Conventions to fit with the perverse view of those conventions that he supported in this Administration – in contrast to his Legal Adviser predecessor William Taft.   Fortunately, these other states rejected those efforts.  So this kind of valedictory address (job interview) speech may be a pleasure to read but we should not allow these words to mask the awful things he participated in putting in place and never resigned over.