Pardoning turkeys and abusing pardon power to degrade national security

Pardoning turkeys and abusing pardon power to degrade national security
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The White House tradition of pardoning a pair of turkeys during the Thanksgiving holiday is a form of nationally accepted dark humor. Legend has it that despite the grand show of mercy for two randomly selected beauties, the president’s table nonetheless is furnished with a cooked cousin. The dark joke is that despite the “pardon,” at least one presidential turkey meets a grim demise every Thanksgiving. What is not so humorous is when the president abuses the pardon power to send a political message that goes against America’s own values and harms national security.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rails against impeachment in speech to Texas farmers Trump administration planning to crack down on 'birth tourism': report George Conway on Trump adding Dershowitz, Starr to legal team: 'Hard to see how either could help' MORE’s recent action in issuing full pardons to two soldiers accused of war crimes and reversing Navy discipline issued to a Seal commander — despite loud objections from military leadership —  constitutes a clear and present danger to American soldiers. Not only do the pardons damage morale by explicitly endorsing prohibited conduct, and thereby degrading military discipline, they put troops in the war theater at risk of further harm.

Clemency is a power that should be used in cases where there is a clear injustice, or where mercy is otherwise earned through good acts on behalf of the convicted. It should not be used to advance a dangerous political idea — that is, that the U.S. military should not hold American accused soldiers accountable for war crimes. Violations of international conventions against war crimes, to which the U.S. is a signatory, and of internal ethical rules governing U.S. soldiers’ conduct create a moral hazard, and also a physical hazard.


Case in point: Abu Ghraib. The infamous Iraqi prison never was what one might consider a haven for human rights. In fact, under Saddam Hussein it was a notorious torture chamber that consumed thousands of people. But under U.S. command, in the aftermath of Operation Enduring Freedom, it was supposed to become a modern facility that complied with America’s obligations under the Geneva Conventions on human rights.

Unfortunately, Abu Ghraib instead became one of the most enduring symbols of cruelty ever displayed in post-World War II military history. Between October and December 2003, American soldiers inflicted systematic torture of prisoners that was described by the Army’s internal investigators as “sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses.” The abuses included “breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees, pouring cold water on naked detainees, beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair, … using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack” and more.

The widely publicized photos of American soldiers smiling over the piled, naked bodies of chained Iraqi prisoners unleashed outrage and political fallout that resonates to this day. The Abu Ghraib abuses started a chain reaction of allegedly “retaliatory” cruelty against U.S. soldiers (and civilians) in the region, including rapes, kidnappings, public beheadings and lynchings. The moral justification for America’s involvement in what was supposed to be a war to protect ourselves and the Middle East against a rising terror threat became tarnished, and support for America’s presence in Iraq plummeted among the Iraqi population — who initially welcomed the American military as a savior from Saddam’s clearly despotic and psychotic regime.

Even more damningly, the U.S. abuses at Abu Ghraib were the result of not bored or poorly trained soldiers going rogue but a culture of leadership from the highest levels of command that either implicitly endorsed or failed to explicitly forbid this type of behavior. At least six members of leadership, including the Army brigadier general in charge of the prison, ultimately were relieved of command and punished.

This was a painful lesson, to say the least. And in the intervening years, the U.S. put in place and enforced strict rules of engagement designed to both preserve the lives of U.S. soldiers and adhere to America’s obligations under international war conventions. We gradually reestablished some degree of moral high ground and once again became trusted partners in the region. But Trump’s recent pardons threaten all of that and place Americans at moral and physical peril. By signaling that illegal actions could be permitted under his administration, Trump not only circumvents the military chain of command but also sets up American troops to be killed and tortured abroad. 

The pardon power is the exclusive prerogative of the president and it usually is used to promote mercy and justice, but it can be abused and weaponized in support of a political ideology that is harmful to America. Pardoning turkeys is a presidential tradition rife with dark humor. Pardoning those accused of war crimes or human rights abuses is also dark, but it is not a laughing matter. 

Armstrong Williams (@ARightSide) is the owner and manager of Howard Stirk Holdings I & II Broadcast Television Stations and the 2016 Multicultural Media Broadcast Owner of the Year. He is the author of “Reawakening Virtues.”