Images of First Lady Michelle Obama snuggling with George W. Bush at this weekend's opening of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture are being widely shared on various social media. The image is, to be fair, somewhat misleading: the encounter, seen on video, is very brief and not as warm as the still image suggests; it is, however, the still image that has defined the encounter.
Comments on these images praise this convergence of political actors as showing "class" (true, but not in the sense they mean). Even the Reverend Ed Bacon, with whom I worked on the Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace following 9/11 and in resistance to Bush's criminal invasion of Iraq in 2003, called the image "magnanimous."
And Ed isn't wrong. It is highly magnanimous for the First Lady of the United States to embrace George W. Bush, and not place him under arrest so that he can answer to war crimes. This sounds like hyperbole, but it isn't. As President, he authorized a policy that explicitly ignored international laws of war and established torture as policy, and this was on top of the invasion of Iraq itself, a violation of Nuremberg as an aggressive invasion based on falsified evidence, with disastrous international consequences continuing to unfold.
It was inexplicably magnanimous for newly inaugurated President Barack Obama to push the Justice Department to avoid formal investigation or any prosecution for war crimes by the Bush government. The Convention Against Torture requires us to prosecute war crimes committed by our own officials. Obama simply ignored the treaty and hardly anyone protested.
Obama has participated in war crimes himself. Again, this is not hyperbole. Americans are simply accustomed to ignoring our government's war crimes. There is very little public uproar about the drone strike program and the high number of civilians it has killed in a broadly defined "war on terrorism" inherited from the Bush administration. Public opinion was barely phased when the President unilaterally targeted and ordered the assassination of an American living abroad who was involved with al-Qaeda, and there was mostly silence when, two weeks later, Obama ordered the man's 16 year old son killed. Targeting family members like that is a war crime. Under Obama's command, American forces have been involved in the bombing of hospitals, schools, and civilian factories in Afghanistan and Yemen. Despite the evidence that Saudi Arabian forces are involved in war crimes, President Obama has authorized extensive sales of military equipment to the regime. There is no indication the President will ever be called to account for these things - not by the Department of Justice, not by any international body, and not in the mainstream press. My friends who identify as liberal generally express admiration and personal affection for Obama, and regard objection to his human rights record as distasteful.
After eight years of Bush and nearly eight years of Obama, war crimes have been normalized as U.S. policy. We have seen one administration pre-emptively exonerate its predecessor, across party lines. We are not even feinting at compliance with the Convention Against Torture.
But that's not all. Culturally, we have this peculiar affection for war criminals.
Exhibit A, Michelle Obama's public physical affection for the older, avuncular George W. Bush, a man who limits his public appearances and presents himself as a cheerful, retired statesman devoted to painting.
Exhibit B, a marble bust of Vice-President Richard Cheney, architect and staunch defender of Bush-era torture programs, unveiled in the House of Representatives last year to bi-partisan acclaim. Press accounts celebrated the jovial tone of the gathering, the jokes and bipartisan unity. Why intrude matters of international law and human decency on a happy gathering? This was portrayed as classy and magnanimous in the press.
One might say, "Okay, but that's how politicians are. Popular culture and everyday folks don't love war criminals." I give you Exhibit C: comedian Stephen Colbert, a liberal-aligned satirist, yokking it up with triumphant and unrepentant war criminal Henry Kissinger in a 2014 video that invites us to laugh along as Colbert dances around Kissinger's office while the bemused Kissinger himself mugs for the camera.
I don't recall any uproar about that. Colbert came close enough to a man implicated in numerous illegal coups and mass slaughter of non-combatants - and made no attempt to place him under citizen's arrest. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration bestowed upon Kissinger a "Distinguished Public Service" medal, one of many public honors he has received.
And the Bush administration war criminals are invited on to television programs and to speak to universities as if they were honorable public officials, where it is considered distasteful to bring up the apparent war crimes (and admitted war crimes) or suggest they should be questioned about them - much less, tried in a formal proceeding. Sometimes there are student protests, but by and large these figures travel untroubled throughout the country.
What's our deal? Why are we so forgiving of war crimes? For starters, the public does not pay close attention to our wars - they take place far away, are funded without debate, and there is no draft. Popular media doesn't have a narrative about war crimes - it likes to rehabilitate and humanize controversial figures, but it is rather indifferent to the idea that some actions are not okay even in wartime, that you don't target civilians or pillage, you don't rape and/or torture prisoners, you don't send children into battle, you don't inflict unnecessary suffering. These are peculiar distinctions to make if one thinks war itself is a crime, but in a world where warfare is accepted as normal, we have at least some international conventions drawing some limits to what states may do to human beings.
The United States does not consider itself bound to any of these limits.
There is little evidence suggesting this bothers the American people.
So yes, the photo of Michelle Obama hugging George W. Bush is making the rounds, and it is consistent with our national character that we smile, applaud, and speak of such moments as hallmarks of reconciliation - rather than a tacit agreement to cover up our leaders' crimes.