The history of United States foreign policy is a fascinating and complex subject. It is marked by the disparity between its successes and its failures. American contributions to the international system range from constructive and valuable to destructive and destabilizing, and the nature of the United States political ecosystem ensures a level of discontinuity from year to year. At its best, the United States acts as the ultimate guarantor of enforcement behind international governing bodies like the United Nations or the World Trade Organization. At its worst, it can delegitimize all the above and cause crises of faith in global governance. The one unifying thread between all the disparate manifestations of US foreign policy is its domestic law. Everything the US does abroad must conform with the law of the land. This series will focus on how the law has been both sword and shield for the controversial agendas of presidential administrations in the last 50 years.
In collaboration with my esteemed colleague, David A. Harrison, the actions of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush will take center stage in an analysis of how the law was manipulated to normalize and justify state violence abroad. We have selected these two administrations because their abuses were particularly well-documented and there is plenty of room for discussion, but it should be noted that the techniques used by Reagan and Bush are by no means unique to their presidencies. Future administrations led by Democratic presidents have extensively used the tools given to them by their Republican predecessors, but the legal strategies themselves were pioneered by conservatives.
The Reagan Administration’s Contradictory Foreign Policies
During the 1980s, the United States split its focus between its global fight against the spread of workers movements and communism, and the suppression of drug trafficking. The Reagan administration considered these maxims as the core components of its foreign policy. In Latin America, these two agendas frequently ran into conflict with one another, as the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Central Intelligence Agency had competing interpretations of how to realize Reagan’s vision. The DEA needed to stop the flow of cocaine into North America, but the Central Intelligence Agency had a vested interest in keeping the Narcos afloat because their funds were being used to underwrite legally dubious ‘regime change’ activities throughout the Latin American region. The expansion of executive power and administrative authority during the Cold War gave the intelligence community a significant degree of autonomy that the Reagan cabinet was keen to take advantage of. As a result, Reagan’s foreign policies were disjointed and frequently undermined by the competing interests of his underlings.
Harrison’s first installment in the series will focus on how the intelligence community used its new powers to back politically repressive movements, to the detriment of both Latin and Central American communities and Reagan’s own agenda. This scattered and problematic approach brought attention from Congress, and an attempt was made to make the CIA account for its actions. We will discuss the CIA’s strategy to avoid Congressional oversight and we will pierce through its smokescreen by questioning the validity of the arguments made by the Reagan administration’s legal counsel.
The Bush Administration’s Legal Torture
The last two parts of the series concentrate on a specific set of documents produced by the United States Department of Justice under the Bush Administration colloquially known as the Torture Memos. During the War on Terror, the United States began pursuing a highly controversial campaign of violence against prisoners of war that were alleged to have information about the operations of the terror group known as al-Qaeda. Under both international law and the domestic laws of the United States, torture is illegal. This fact was merely an inconvenient stumbling block for the Bush administration, as emergent legal strategies such as the Unitary Executive theory had already given the President the tools necessary to evade the law.
Harrison’s two-part series on the torture memos explains the legal ramifications of the Torture Memos and how they affected Abu Zubaydah—a Saudi Arabian man imprisoned on the presumption of involvement with terrorism. This case illustrates how a legal strategy can translate directly into state violence, and how important it is to resist the discursive minimization of practices such as water boarding. The Bush Administration argued that its ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques were not capable of causing permanent psychological distress, and repeatedly denied the status of its detainees. Harrison engages the Bush administration’s arguments on a substantive level with evidence from psychiatric medical professionals and explains why these flimsy defenses must be categorically rejected.
My hope in creating this series is to shed light on the interconnected nature of law and state violence, and to show the disconnect between what is legal and what is ethical. The cases included in this series are narrowly focused on how the phenomenon manifests in the United States, but the law has been the primary tool of the state in maintaining its monopoly on force since antiquity, and its importance has only waxed since the enlightenment. Understanding how systems of power remain in place requires a much deeper reading of history, but the content of this series should provide insight into how the United States manages dissidents and keeps its hegemonic status intact.