Spencer Ackerman has a fascinating piece out at the Washington Independent exploring the creation of a new Office for the Rule of Law and International Humanitarian Policy inside the Pentagon. This is the kind of thing that I think I ought to be cynical about since fundamentally international humanitarian law is about constraining what the Pentagon can do, and offices inside the Pentagon are about expanding what the Pentagon can do. But I’m having a bit of trouble staying appropriately cynical, since the office is apparently set to be headed by Rosa Brooks whose work I used to read very regularly before she joined the Obama administration and who I think is basically great.
I suppose it’ll probably only make trouble for her to bring up some of her better recent columns, but February 5 2009 on Afghanistan was good. In January of that year she had a trenchant piece on Gaza. I thought this was a fair take on the merits of prosecuting Bush administration policymakers. Basically, I’m a fan.
But what’s the office going to do? Ackerman reports:
Many of the office’s emerging responsibilities will center on entrenching respect for the rule of law and human rights as a core focus within the Defense Department. Previously, Pentagon officials who worked on those issues were spread throughout the policy directorate, in bureaus as disparate as Counternarcotics and Detainee Affairs, a reflection of the secondary — Brooks called it “ad hoc” — treatment the department has traditionally provided to humanitarian concerns. Karen Greenberg, the director of New York University’s Center on Law and Security, said the office needs to “restore the notion that the rule of law is there on the table no matter what.” Matthew Waxman, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs at the end of the Bush administration, added that “sometimes important strategic issues can fall into bureaucratic seams, and redrawing parts of the organizational map can help address that.”
As I said at the top, I think there’s ample reason for skepticism that this is really a big deal, but at a minimum it’s a move in the right direction.