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Standing On Principle

by michael o'donnell '04

Law graphic The Bush administration talks the good talk when it comes to values, but it's quick to compromise them in the name of foreign policy.

President Bush recently wrote in The New York Times that in the post-9/11 world America is "determined to stand for the values that gave our nation its birth." These words embody the most important aspect of America's role in the world today-our principles. Yet one of our most cherished principles, commitment to the rule of law, is under assault by the chief executive's recent handling of two diplomatically sensitive lawsuits.

The first was brought on behalf of a group of Indonesian nationals who have accused the ExxonMobil Corporation of turning a blind eye to the rape, torture, and summary executions committed by its plant's security guards in Aceh, Indonesia. Upon Exxon's request, the State Department submitted an amicus brief arguing that the case should be dismissed. The brief expressed concern that the lawsuit could embarrass the Indonesian government, moving it to relax its efforts to prevent al Qaeda from setting up shop in what many believe is its ideal regrouping spot: the scattered islands of the Indonesian archipelago. The brief also mentioned worries that Indonesia might cut off ties with American businesses in its country, choosing instead to offer government contracts to corporations from nearby China.

The second is the much-publicized class-action suit by 9/11 victims' families against members of the Saudi royal family for their alleged role in the terrorist attacks. The plaintiffs argue that the royal family helped bankroll al Qaeda; the royals are alarmed enough to have considered liquidating their American assets. The administration has not yet intervened, but news sources report that it is keeping close tabs on the case. And for good reason: diplomats warn that the case could imperil US-Saudi relations on the eve of a possible war with Iraq.

These cases raise a critical question for America as it embarks on a new era of internationalism: What matters most in a democracy? The truth of the courtroom, even when it can be uncomfortable? Or a muscular foreign policy, no matter what must be sacrificed to achieve it?

The importance of the cases is not their verdicts. Even if Exxon and the Saudi royal family don't make particularly appealing defendants, it is not a foregone conclusion they will be found guilty. The Indonesia case falls under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which judges tend to view with skepticism. And a fantastic trillion-dollar damages claim has made the 9/11 case more notable for its sensationalism than for its merits, which some say are dubious. But the principle at stake is that, regardless of the verdict, plaintiffs in America can come before a court and seek redress without fear of interference by the state. Unless, that is, there's a very good reason.

And the reason in these two cases is shaky foreign policy.

In the Indonesia case, the State Department does not even attempt to hide that it is as concerned with losing business contracts as it is with losing an ally in the war on terror, claiming, outrageously in light of the circumstances, that American companies are more sensitive to human rights than Chinese companies would be. And its contention that the war on terror is the only thing keeping Indonesia in the fight against al Qaeda is farcical. Indonesia has long struggled with terrorists, and now has its own bone to pick with them after the recent bombing of a Bali nightclub.

In the 9/11 case, denying victims' families their day in court in order to maintain an already tenuous alliance for war seems obscene, and would be so unpopular that it is unlikely to happen. But what does it say about the US-Saudi alliance-and the Iraqi war effort-that it requires us to sacrifice the very fundamentals for which we purport to fight?

Principles matter. They give Americans the moral authority to claim that democracy and freedom are noble and full of hope while terrorism and totalitarianism are ugly and full of hate. They keep us from turning into terrorists and dictators ourselves.

The worst thing the United States can do in this hour of international turmoil is to abandon its principles the moment they interfere with its ability to get what it wants. The best thing it can do is to be the shining example that many of us still believe it can be, by allowing its legal system to do its work.

Illustration by Pep Montserrat