Ramsey Clark, Friend of Dictators

Last week saw the death of Ramsey Clark. He was 93 and a former attorney general of the United States. By the end of his life, Clark was a reasonably obscure figure, which is possibly the reason why those who wrote his obituary felt both willing and able to gloss over so much of what gave his life its shape and animation.

Clark spent the five decades after his stint as former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s attorney general engaged in what his obituarists have euphemistically termed ‘anti-war’ activism. He was a ‘critic of U.S. foreign policy,’ said Democracy Now. A ‘legal activist,’ claimed CNN. A ‘human rights activist,’ suggested Reuters.

This might give a false impression, only partially corrected by other notices. It took the Guardian to include one of Clark’s dubious acts of ‘legal activism’ in the headline. Its obituary noted that he was the ‘attorney general who represented Saddam Hussein.’ Indeed he was.

Clark did defend some tricky clients: Nazis and the like, including a concentration camp guard in Jakob Reimer and the commandant of another camp in Karl Linnas and participants in mass murder such as Charles Taylor of Liberia and Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, a clergyman later convicted of precipitating acts of genocide in Rwanda. The sort of people who might otherwise struggle for representation.

To hear Clark in his pomp, he was a man who simply believed strongly in the presumption of innocence. Clark seemed to know, without question, that everyone he defended did not do the things they were accused of doing. When asked in an interview if he really believed Saddam innocent of everything, Clark responded, ‘Of course I do.’ This was either an incredible trick of the mind or, more likely, the product of a corrupted and diseased view of the world.

When Clark offered to become Saddam Hussein’s defense lawyer, there was a minor scandal. Not because Hussein did not require representation — he certainly did, and he got it — but because Clark tried to defend massacres Hussein had committed by saying that they were deserved.

Because in truth, Clark was not a campaigning lawyer or a defending advocate appearing where he was needed like a soldier of fortune. He was instead a dogged supporter of all of America’s enemies, whether they were on trial or not.

When the victims of Slobodan Milosevic were strewn across the former Yugoslavia, but before Milosevic left power and found himself on trial, Clark stopped in Belgrade in 1999 to pick up an honorary degree. ‘It will be a great struggle,’ Clark said of the upcoming tussle with NATO, ‘but a glorious victory. You can be victorious.’

At Milosevic’s funeral, after his death in The Hague in the course of a trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity, Clark did not just lament the Serbian dictator’s death. In his speech, Clark said that ‘history will prove that Slobodan Milosevic was right.’

Clark’s anti-war activism was not the product of principled pacifism. His legal assistance to dictators was not offered out of high-minded nobility.

Not a word of it. For Clark, anti-war activism meant becoming an advocate for and a personal friend of every dictator whom America opposed. There was little else to it. In this aim, he was consistent.

Other lawyers, interviewed in the late ’90s and early 2000s, noted their surprise at Clark’s lack of experience with international law. He wasn’t there because he was the only man for the job; he just desperately wanted to pitch in to help his favorite dictators and to deprecate the very notion of international tribunals designed to charge people who happened to be opposed by America.

While some outlets decided to elide Clark’s personal sympathies in order to produce tidier obituaries, in a sense, there is an upside. Clark died in obscurity, those he defended either dead themselves or in prison. But that Clark was still praised by some as a lifelong fighter for justice shows blind spots even in those who survive him. They couldn’t see the pathology and violence at the heart of his ‘activism’ — unsurprising when it’s so common in fringe, isolationist thought.

This piece was originally published at the Washington Examiner.

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