Setting the Record Straight on Rosa Brooks

Setting the Record Straight on Rosa Brooks

[ Laura Dickinson is Foundation Professor of Law, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University.]

It seems that in some quarters, support for international law (combined with a little bit of humor) is enough to get one labeled “so out there” to be unqualified for government service. A few commentators on the right have recently decided to attack international law scholar and former L.A. Times columnist Rosa Brooks, who just accepted a position as an adviser to Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy. For example, Bill O’Reilly recently called Brooks a “radical leftist” whose appointment was “madness.”

These kinds of assertions are so unjustified that I thought it was important to set the record straight. Brooks, with whom I worked at the State Department in 1999 and 2000, has routinely adopted moderate positions that are well within the mainstream of our political culture. To take one example, in a column from February, 2009, Brooks advocated for a long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan. In a 2004 article published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Brooks contended that in the face of challenges posed by terrorism, we ought to consider scrapping many elements of the law of war framework embedded in the Geneva Conventions. Indeed, as to this point, some commentators have criticized Brooks’ position for potentially opening the door to watered down protections of individual rights.

The claims of O’Reilly and others are based on quotations taken completely out of context and ignore both the underlying arguments that Brooks has made, as well as her (quite vigorous) sense of humor. One comment that drew O’Reilly’s ire, for example, was her statement in a December, 2008 column that the man who threw the shoes at President Bush “reminded the powerful and powerless alike that a single symbolic gesture can be more effective than a thousand grenades.” O’Reilly chastised Brooks because in his view she “supported” the shoe-thrower. Yet he neglected to mention that Brooks actually opened the column with the assertion that she was not supporting him: “I’m not defending Muntather Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who flung both his shoes at President George W. Bush during a Baghdad news conference.” The column, taken as a whole, is actually a strong condemnation of terrorist violence. Another Brooks statement that O’Reilly picks on was her claim in an October 2007 column that “George W. Bush and Dick Cheney shouldn’t be treated like criminals who deserve punishment. They should be treated like psychotics who need treatment.” Here O’Reilly fails to note that Brooks is making a joke. In fact, the overall point of the column is to argue against those calling for the impeachment of then President Bush and Vice President Cheney.

And with respect to another comment by Brooks, it is just hard to fathom how O’Reilly could view it as extremist. In a March 2009 column, Brooks asserted that, “The Bush administration’s big legal lies paved the way for some of the most shameful episodes in our history, including the official authorization of torture.” Last night, President Obama noted that waterboarding, an interrogation technique authorized by Bush administration lawyers, was torture. Indeed, the United States prosecuted Japanese war criminals for the practice after World War II. The legal memos that authorized this practice neglected to cite important precedents and stretched the law beyond recognition. Under these circumstances, it is hardly radical to call the acts of torture that these memos authorized “shameful.” Indeed, one might argue that the true radicals are those who fail to acknowledge the shamefulness of these incidents.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
National Security Law
Notify of
Charles Gittings

“Indeed, one might argue that the true radicals are those who fail to acknowledge the shamefulness of these incidents.”
Indeed. For example, war-criminal Condoleeza Rice espousing what is essentially the Nazi view of real-politik in a You-Tube clip posted here…
Balkinization —
April 30, 2009
by Jack Balkin

This has all gotten completely uncomplicated: facts are facts, and it is a fact that the previous administration spent seven years committing an elaborate series of despicable war crimes by policy in violation of our own laws.
Anyone who claims that is either untrue or unclear that at this point is either a liar or a fool. Facts are facts, and 1 + 1 = 2, not 0 or 3.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

I’ve read virtually all of Brooks’ columns for the LA Times, as that is our “local paper” (in part because our true local paper, the Santa Barbara News-Press, is about as awful as they come, and not just because they’re dedicated to the dark arts of union-busting), and I think she comes across as fairly “moderate,” and I find myself not infrequently to her Left. She strikes me as more conservative than her mother, Barbara Ehrenreich (…but then most people are!), whom I adore. In any case, she’s eminently well qualified and suited to her recent appointment.

I think intelligent folks spend too much time responding to what the likes of O’Reilly, Limbaugh and Hannity have to say about such things. It goes without saying that their comments will be outrageous and utterly irresponsible. These individuals are simply sycophants in slavish service of demagoguery, and whatever attention we pay them should only be by way of better understanding the ideological and sociological mechanisms of same.

Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

The question that comes to my mind is whether being “moderate” in the context of our current culture is a compliment or a damning of someone.  What was Barry Goldwater’s phrase? “Extremism in the Defense of Liberty is No Vice. And Moderation in the Pursuit of Justice is No Virtue”

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Indeed, one reason why I put the word in scare quotes. On the other hand, I think in Brooks’ case, moderation sometimes signifies something on the order of the classical Greek virtue, sophrosyne. A similar, when not identical, virtue is found in several ethical traditions, as well as both secular and religious worldviews. In that case, moderation serves to denote a compliment.

David Shuford
David Shuford

Response…I just re-read Ms Brooks column where she stated the President and the Vice-President were insane.  I’m just an engineer, but if that was irony, I’d suggest that Ms Brooks not quit her day job.  It sounded like a pretty serious accusation to me.  Ms Dickinson – you missed the target on that one.  Ms Brooks appears to hold some viewpoints considerably to the left of the mainstream.  Whether that makes her unqualified to serve at DoD is yet to be determined.  It all depends on if she can put aside some of her more naive opinions and be willing to be educated by those who have the training and experience.  Just to set the record straight, you know…