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Speaking truth to power: saving the soul of higher education

By all accounts, the University of Texas System’s incoming chancellor, Admiral William McRaven, is a smart, thoughtful fellow with a sense of humor who knows how to listen — all important qualities for a leader.

My new boss sounds like a pretty nice guy, for someone who has been involved in a long-running criminal enterprise.

That may seem a harsh judgment, but only because Americans are so used to ignoring international law and the U.S. Constitution that an accurate description of foreign policy and military affairs is jarring. When the UT Board of Regents announced last month that they had selected McRaven to be the system’s top administrator, there was little discussion of such questions — a sign not just of the Board’s politics but of our nation’s inability to engage in the critical self-reflection essential to moral decision-making.
 
McRaven is best known for directing the raid that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, when he was in charge of the Joint Special Operations Command. Shortly after that he was promoted to head of the U.S. Special Operations Command. He is widely admired for his long special-forces service, starting as a Navy SEAL and then advancing to those high-level positions. But just as important as McRaven’s personal qualities are to his fitness to be chancellor is an evaluation of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq of which he was a part.
 
Let’s start with Iraq, where the facts are crystal clear: The 2003 U.S. invasion was unlawful. Even if the distortions and lies peddled by the Bush administration, and backed by lots of Democrats in Congress, had been true, there would have been no legal justification for the invasion. The charter of the United Nations is clear about when the use of force in international relations is legal: War must be authorized by the U.N. Security Council, and in this case the council rejected a resolution authorizing war. The only other condition under which a member state can go to war is in self-defense when attacked, a principle that is extended to the right to respond to an imminent attack, what is sometimes called “the customary right of anticipatory self-defense.”
 
These basic principles are uncontroversial and clearly articulated in Articles 39 and 51 of the U.N. Charter, though there is debate among legal experts about interpreting terms such as “imminent” and “anticipatory.” But whatever one’s position in those debates, there is no way to stretch the facts of the Iraq invasion to justify a self-defense claim.
 
At this point, many people respond by dismissing international law as irrelevant. Because U.S. policymakers’ first job is to protect Americans, they argue, our leaders shouldn’t be constrained by international law — the Constitution trumps international law or treaties.
 
But a small problem arises: Article VI of the U.S. Constitution states that “all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States” are part of “the supreme Law of the Land.” Since the United States signed the U.N. Charter (and, in fact, wrote most of it), to reject international law is to express contempt for the plain meaning of the U.S. Constitution, which no patriot would dare.
 
No matter what agreements subsequent Iraqi governments signed accepting U.S. forces in Iraq, the occupation began with an unlawful invasion, a “crime against peace” under the principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal. A government put in place by an occupying power is likely to acquiesce to the occupation, at least at first, but that doesn’t automatically make an ongoing occupation legal, and certainly not moral. Top civilian and military officials — including admirals — who plan and execute these operations are morally responsible and potentially legally culpable.
 
The same case can be made about the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, although Americans have a harder time understanding the illegal nature of that invasion, given the emotion around the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Bush administration never bothered going to the Security Council in that case, and since the terrorist attacks had not been carried out by the government of Afghanistan, it’s not clear why the U.S. invasion could be considered self-defense. To cut to the core question, here’s a simple test: Would people in the United States endorse the same actions if they were taken by any other country? If China or Russia had followed the same course, would we be congratulating them?
 
So, in moral terms, McRaven and other high-ranking military officers, along with the civilian leadership, are complicit in crimes against peace and resulting war crimes. Legally, we should leave it to the International Criminal Court — except that the United States is not a party to the court and rejects its authority. For U.S. policymakers, international law sets standards to be imposed on others, not accepted by us.
 
The typical American response to this critique is hubris and selective memory: The United States is the only nation that can bring to the world stability and the hope of freedom, we are told, and sometimes things get messy. Even a cursory review of history indicates that U.S. foreign and military policy in the Middle East and Central Asia has long aimed at extending and deepening U.S. domination, allowing policymakers to assert as much control as possible over the flow of crucial energy resources and profits from their sale. The United States has not been a consistent supporter of freedom or democracy, often preferring regional instability it could manage to self-determination it couldn’t control. U.S. actions since World War II have created conditions that have undermined democracy in those regions and created long-term risks for us, and more of the same won’t keep us safe from the terrorism that grew out of conditions we fostered.
 
This history, of course, is not McRaven’s fault. But he committed his life to the military, in an era when critical analyses of U.S. power have circulated widely for a long time, not only concerning policy in the Middle East but before that in Latin America. To find out what he was signing up for, he might have considered the views of Smedley Butler, a major general in the U.S. Marine Corps in the early 20th century, who in a 1933 speech said: “I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.”
 
Many people will concede that U.S. military power has sometimes been used to further narrow economic interests rather than universal political principles. But shouldn’t I at least be grateful that people such as McRaven are willing to fight for my freedom?
 
Let me be clear: I am not questioning the courage or commitment of McRaven or any other member of the military — I am criticizing U.S. policy, without apology. In my lifetime, the role of the U.S. military has not been primarily to safeguard anyone’s freedom but to secure an unjust distribution of the world’s resources. I am not arguing that U.S. military forces never do anything positive, but rather that the role of the U.S. military generally is to project power in a fashion that does not serve people in these regions or ordinary people at home.
 
I’m well aware that I’m setting myself up to be ridiculed for criticizing the choices of such an accomplished and admired military officer. How long would I last in Navy SEAL training? About 15 minutes. How many terrorists have I killed? None. Have I ever given a commencement speech that went viral like McRaven’s 2014 UT address? I’ve never been invited to speak at a commencement and likely never will.
 
But the issue isn’t whether I have what it takes to join a special-forces unit, but how we understand the role of a public university. I am doing my job, which is to evaluate evidence, articulate principles, and make arguments. The critique offered here is not disrespectful to McRaven but takes seriously the obligation that comes with academic freedom to pursue ideas, including those that challenge the orthodoxy of the powerful. I write this trusting that my new boss respects the intellectual engagement on which a university is based.
 
Given how little meaningful debate there is about these issues in politics (where Republicans and Democrats, no matter what the superficial differences, tend to agree that the United States should dominate the world) and in news media (where mainstream journalists rarely venture outside the ideological framework set by those politicians), universities are crucial spaces for these conversations. The cascading political, economic, and ecological crises we face today make it more important than ever that publicly supported universities not only tolerate but encourage critiques of concentrated wealth and power.

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