Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 February 2003
Issue No. 624
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Ramsey Clark:

A former attorney-general attempts to impeach President George W Bush

A voice of reason

Profile by Gamal Nkrumah
Ramsey Clark


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"On 6 August 1990, on the 45th anniversary of the US atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, the US crafted economic sanctions against Iraq, with the approval of the UN Security Council. Those sanctions, still in place, have resulted in the death of 1.5 million Iraqis. Depleted uranium has made millions more sick."
For former United States Attorney-General Ramsey Clark politics is not a career, it is about how the world might best be run. He is a political activist, an octogenarian participant at peace conferences and in anti-war demonstrations, and he does not mince his words. He gives cynicism, in all its guises, a wide berth. And he is vehemently opposed to "killing innocent people because we don't like their leaders".

At an 18 January gathering of 500,000 people in Washington DC organised by the Act Now and Stop War and Racism (ANSWER) Coalition Clark called for the impeachment of US President George W Bush. The anti-war protest coincided with the commemoration of the 74th birthday anniversary of the late Dr Martin Luther King, assassinated after leading a Poor People's Campaign in April 1968 when Clark was attorney-general. It was the first year in US history that there were no executions, a record of which Clark is proud.

He supervised the drafting and passage of the voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, radical new laws that changed the face of the American legal system and went some way to improve the legal standing of African Americans.

Born in 1927 in Dallas, Texas, to a wealthy family of legal practitioners, he graduated from the prestigious University of Chicago Law School. After a stint with the US Marines during World War II he entered the legal profession. His big break came when US President John F Kennedy appointed him assistant attorney-general in 1961. He spent the next four years at the Department of Justice. Between 1964-65 he was national president of the Federal Bar Association. As the son of Tom C Clark, US attorney-general in the 1940s, he was all too familiar with the American political establishment he later learned to despise, a child of the very system he would later in life denounce.

Clark is strongly critical of certain aspects of American culture. "We glorify violence. The most admired people are those that have accumulated the most wealth," he points out.

Clark dismisses American democracy as a sham. "Democracy is just a word. You have to give it meaning. The US is not a democracy. Most Americans do not vote. We haven't had a real choice for a long, long time now. Wealth rules. Corporations rule. The US is a plutocracy -- government by wealthy people. Certain people control multinational corporations. You couldn't get elected in the US without lots of money."

By his early 20s Clark had mapped out an ambitious life plan. He met his wife Georgia at the University of Texas. They have a son, Tom, and a daughter, Ronda, and three grandchildren. "We married at age 20," he remembers.

The young family then moved to Chicago where Clark completed his legal studies, after which he practiced for nine years. Georgia was the homemaker, and remains a strong support in his life, helping him with his work. "She manages the office and counts the money," he smiles knowingly.

From the word go Clark was more interested in America's poor and disadvantaged than in its moneyed elites. Following his graduation he became deeply involved in civil rights. "That was in part why I was selected by Robert F Kennedy as a young assistant," he explains. They were times of major changes in the US political establishment. Robert F Kennedy was something of a political mentor in those early days.

Clark's work with civil rights groups was an eye-opener. He witnessed first hand "the enormous violence latent in our society towards unpopular people". In sharp contrast to many of his colleagues, who saw civil rights activists subversive, Clark realised such activism was a product of institutionalised racism.

He fought against the death penalty and the notoriously racist prison system of the US and in 1970 abandoned government altogether to concentrate on defending victims of US oppression such as longtime Native American rights activist on death row Leonard Peltier who has been in prison for the past 26 years for allegedly killing an FBI agent.

Beyond America's borders Clark championed the cause of such controversial figures as the former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

"I met Milosevic a few days ago. His health has deteriorated," he tells me in Cairo. "He had the strength to hold the people of his country together in a very difficult situation."

Among Clark's most controversial clients have been Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind Egyptian sheikh accused of masterminding a plot to bring down the World Trade Centre. Clark has no qualms about assisting those with whom he might be at ideological odds: "There are no demons. There are people who do evil deeds and there are people who are demonised because of the political ends and big-business interests of the US military-industrial complex."

As far as Clark is concerned Iraq has been caught up in a wider plot. The real intention behind the US strike against Iraq is to subdue the people of the oil-rich Middle East so as to more effectively exploit the resources of the region. Clark abhors America's use of "technology against life" and routinely denounces US government officials as "international outlaws".

How, he asks, can the US commit almost any crime against humanity and no heads roll. Yet the US pursues and punishes with impunity those it deems detrimental to its global interests. Clark is against the "law of the jungle" instituted in the international stage by Pax- Americana and is currently working on the creation of an Internet Web site centred around his campaign to impeach President Bush.

Clark served under US President Lyndon Johnson between 1967-69, a time when the country was experiencing a profound crisis of confidence, not least in its political institutions. People were questioning the way in which the American political establishment conducted its political activities, both on the domestic and international fronts. The Cold War was at a peak and the Vietnam War was beginning to make an indelible mark on the national psyche. The Civil Rights Movement rocked America, and the 1960s were in full swing. It was a time of introspection and soul- searching, a period that continues to influence Clark's worldview.

By the mid- 1960s Clark was at the zenith of his political career yet his main concern, even then, was the welfare of the vulnerable and downtrodden. The testimony of Alaskan Native Emil Notti bears witness to the character of the man who has become to many a symbol of goodwill and magnanimity. Unemployment, under- achievement, poor education and poor housing were among the issues with which Notti's people were grappling. In those days life expectancy among Native Alaskans was 34 years. Infant mortality was three times the national average. Native Alaskans were systematically dispossessed of their ancestral lands.

"I testified for about four years before the House and Senate Committees and we were handled roughly at times," Notti says, recalling the first time he sat on the Scoop Jackson Committee. "On one side of me was Supreme Justice Arthur Goldberg, on the other Attorney- General Ramsey Clark, and they treated our cause with some respect. There was an issue that came to a point of law, and Ramsey Clark gave an extemporaneous answer and he ended by saying to Scoop Jackson, 'Senator, if you'd like I'll brief the problem for you'. And Scoop Jackson said, 'General, if that's your recollection of the law, I'll accept it.' It was a great help to have people of national standing with us."

Clark's only motivation seems to be a deep sense of social justice, and it is only admiration for him that I feel as we chat in the lobby of the Conrad Hotel, Cairo. The opulent venue appears an odd setting for a meeting with such an unassuming and down-to-earth man who, characteristically, is in town to participate in an anti-war against Iraq conference.

Clark is a fierce critic of US foreign policy and domestic human rights abuses and his determination to fight for justice has earned him many enemies.

"I've been threatened by two attorney- generals," he tells me. "First by Richard Kleindienst after I went on a peace mission to North Vietnam." (Clark, incidentally, relinquished office because under the Johnson administration the war in Vietnam had escalated and in protest against the FBI's ruthless clampdown on civil rights activists under the Counter Intelligence Programme, the dreaded so-called COINTELPRO.)

The second time, was after Clark visited Iran in June 1980 at the time of the Iranian hostage crisis. "They threatened to prosecute me," Clark recounts. "They never got round to it."

Democracy is being used crudely, and cruelly, to force a regime change in Baghdad, Clark warns. "If, as promised so many times, the US does launch a full-scale attack on Iraq to overthrow its government it will be the most arrogant violation of the Charter of the United Nation, the Nuremburg Charter and international law yet experienced, or likely hereafter."

He launches into a heartfelt tirade. "We bomb and embargo millions because we hate their leader and want to control their oil."

Clark has devoted the best part of his life to fighting injustice. Today it is the imminent US strike on Iraq that engages his attention. "Only absolute power, unrestrained by any rule of law or standards of human decency, openly taunts an intended victim as President George W Bush has taunted Iraq."

Yesterday it was Yugoslavia. Milosevic was struggling to preserve Yugoslavia, Clark says. "If there was any independent state in central and eastern Europe it was Yugoslavia. They were playing off the Soviet Union and the US to maintain their independence and relative prosperity." That was during the socialist and non- aligned regime of the country's founder, Joseph Broz Tito. In Tito's day, Yugoslavs were happily united -- a rare occurrence in the Balkans.

"In 1991 there were six [constituent] republics with lots of different peoples in Yugoslavia. And Belgrade had held all these formerly warring groups together in peace. In 1991 Time reported that by far the most progressive, and truly the most successful country in Eastern Europe, was Yugoslavia. And almost immediately you see foreign powers trying to dismantle it. First they dismantled Slovenia, then Croatia. Germany comes in after its deplorable historical record in the Balkans and encourages Croatian independence. Then Bosnia and Macedonia."

"We deliberately broke it up. It was US policy to break it up for economic exploitation and to show other Eastern European nations not to dare dream of being independent. If you want to have any economic or political independence you'll be crushed. That was the brutal message signalled to Yugoslavia's neighbours."

A public example had to be made of Milosevic's Yugoslavia: "Within two years of the break up of the Soviet Union Ukraine became the third largest recipient of US aid. First Israel and second Egypt and third Ukraine. Can you imagine the old enemy? And what was the aid for? It was to identify public facilities for privatisation. And most went to American companies, and we identified 6,000 properties. We destroyed their economies and they were obliged to buy our goods. And you pay our price. And we'll advertise and make you want to buy our goods just like we make you want McDonald's and blue jeans. And now what have the people got? They lost their education system, they've lost their health care system and they've lost their jobs. [Western investors] came in with big plans for privatisation and nationalisation. What they did is unbelievable -- a despicable act of greed," Clark says. And the same fate awaits a defeated Iraq, he warns.

Clark decries the death, disease and devastation created by 10 years of sanctions against Iraq.

"The living conditions of the people of Iraq were among the best in the region from the 1970s till 1990. About $3,000 per capita income and free medicine. The sanctions are a weapon of mass destruction. They are genocide."

Iraq, he claims, is the victim of a crime against humanity. "On 6 August 1990, on the 45th anniversary of the US atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, the US crafted economic sanctions against Iraq, with the approval of the UN Security Council. Those sanctions, still in place, have resulted in the death of 1.5 million Iraqis. Depleted uranium has made millions more sick."

"We didn't want them to feed themselves for a long time," Clark explains. "The hypocrisy of the UN is beyond comprehension."

Sanctions, he points out, violate the 1948 UN Convention on Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Sanctions are worse than war. The 1975-95 sanctions against Vietnam cost the Vietnamese people as much as the actual US aggression, if not more. The country lay in economic shambles and the Vietnamese Boat People became a byword for desperation.

"Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger systematically set Muslim people to fight each other. 'Let them do the fighting themselves. Let them finish themselves off,' he said about the Iraq-Iran war. He wanted them to fight to the finish. From 1972-76, the late Shah of Iran bought $21 billion worth of weapons from the US. He was our surrogate to control the oil-rich Gulf region militarily."

Current US Secretary of State Colin Powell is no better. "'Frankly, that's a number that doesn't interest me very much,' Powell said when asked by a reporter about Iraqi casualty figures. But let it not be said that people in the US did nothing when their government declared a war without limit and instituted stark new measures of repression."

There is no nation on earth more dangerous than the US, Clark who founded and now heads the New York-based International Action Centre, maintains. Clark calls on the people of the US to resist the policies and political direction that have emerged since 11 September, 2001. He decries the secret detention of thousands of people in the name of combating terror: "Now we are entering a new repressive phase, ominously reminiscent of the McCarthyist era."

So is there any vestige of hope left for America, and for the world?

"I am an optimist by nature, I guess it is in the genes. I get it from my mom."

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