Trump’s recent spate of pardons leaves no doubt as to his permanent placement among the pantheon of history’s amoral leaders. The pardons mock the rule of law and our system of justice. Largely unmentioned among the harms inflicted by the president is that pardoning those convicted of killing Iraqi and Afghan civilians creates a real and present danger to our men and women in uniform.
President Biden now has a difficult challenge to mitigate the danger created by President Trump’s demonstrated antagonism to the rules and laws that have guided and protected our military for generations. But as the father of a decorated Iraqi War veteran, the new president has a unique perspective and obligation to confront this challenge. Our troops deserve it and our national security demands it.
In addition to criminal cronies pardoned by Trump were Blackwater contractors who were convicted of killing 17 innocent Iraqis, including Ali Kinani — a 9-year-old boy; as well as military members convicted by court-martial of murder and other crimes against foreign civilians. The price for these pardons will be paid in blood by young soldiers and their fellow service members long after President Trump returns to Mar-a-Lago.
Anytime our enemies can point to the U.S. abusing local nationals, torturing prisoners or rewarding those who do, we give those who hate us ammunition to recruit fighters and suicide bombers to seek vengeance. The father, brother or sister of a 9-year-old murdered by a U.S. contractor is ripe to join the jihadi cause. The president pardoning the killers creates an entire village of motivated recruits.
When the commander in chief makes heroes of war criminals, the Islamic State group, the Taliban, and other radical enemies of the United States take full advantage of the opportunity. For example, ISIS could not have created a better marketing tool than Trump’s repeated telling of the patently false story of Army Gen. John J. Pershing’s murdering 49 Filipino Muslims during the Moro insurgency with bullets dipped in pig blood and allowing one remaining survivor to scare other insurgents.
However, it is not the fact that the story is false that is most odious. This lie, and others like it, along with exonerating war criminals — aid our enemies. By parroting the narrative of the terrorists — that America will randomly destroy, disgrace and defile Muslims, with encouragement and impunity by the U.S. president — Trump validates and amplifies the message jihadis use to recruit fighters and incentivize those who act under the guise of religion to terrorize the local population and kill the men and women who serve our nation.
Now that Trump has shown our enemies by both word and deed that there is no justice when it comes to the killing of foreign nationals, President Biden has an obligation to our troops and allies to once again demonstrate that we are a nation of laws. As commander in chief, President Biden must communicate unequivocally that he expects every military member — soldiers and commanders alike — to adhere to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The era of calling those who desecrate our national heroes is over; there will be no impunity for those who violate the law.
To both our allies and enemies, our new president must deliver the message, and act in accordance, that the United States will honor our obligations to treat civilians and prisoners under the Geneva Conventions and expect those we fight with and against to do likewise.
President Biden is the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to have a child deployed to a combat zone. His late son Beau earned a Bronze Star in Iraq for “meritorious service in a combat zone.” Maj. Beau Biden dedicated his life to the rule of law and upholding the United States as a nation of laws both within and without our borders. His father, our new commander in chief, should honor that legacy by immediately and clearly letting it be known that abiding by UCMJ and upholding our international agreements is a matter of national security. Our soldiers and our country will be safer for it.
Thomas J. Umberg is a retired Army colonel, who served as a war crimes prosecutor, and is currently a California state senator.
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