111 510 510 libonline@riphah.edu.pk Contact

Impeachment and the American system

The specter of impeachment is haunting President Donald Trump, who has been accused by his critics of abusing his powers, obstructing justice and lying to the nation. According to expert,s the American constitution empowers the Congress to impeach a president for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Treason and bribery are well understood, but the constitution does not define ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’. Many democracy-loving people are fascinated by this congressional power which is considered the ultimate check on the chief executive. No president has ever been forced from the White House that way; Richard Nixon resigned rather than having to face the near certainty that he would be removed from office. The Congress derives the authority from the constitution.

The term ‘impeachment’ is commonly used to mean removing someone from office, but it actually refers only to the filing of formal charges. If the House impeaches, the Senate then holds a trial on those charges to decide whether the officer – a president or any other federal official – should be removed and barred from holding federal office in the future. The US Congress has identified three types of conduct that constitute grounds for impeachment, including misusing an office for financial gain. But the misdeeds need not be crimes.

A president can be impeached for abusing the powers of the office or for acting in a manner considered incompatible with the office. The axe of impeachment has fallen on civil servants severeal times. At least 19 people, mostly federal judges, have been impeached so far in the US. Two presidents, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, were impeached, but the Senate voted not to convict either of them. Nixon resigned after the Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment but before the full House voted on them.

Many heap eulogies for these congressional powers, believing that this would deter the chief executive from overstepping his authority. In internal matters, it has worked and normally the incumbents in the Oval Office have been reluctant to invite the ire of the Congress but in foreign matters, especially those of wars, military interventions, toppling of elected governments in developing countries and lying to the people for the sake of corporate and commercial interests no significant action has been taken to deter the president from abusing his powers. It is because of this that American presidents, who are considered elected kings because of the immense powers that they wield while in office, have been using wars, military interventions and the threats of sanctions to force governments across the world to toe the American line. Given this, the most powerful men on earth feel free to hurl threats at developing countries or rival states that do not want to accept dictation issued by these modern elected monarchs. Those who dare challenge such dictation suffer death or destruction or outright humiliation.

It is good to impeach a public office-holder for treason, bribery or high crimes. The US constitution has not defined ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’. Many pacifists believe that these two words should be defined keeping international affairs in view. A high crime should not only be confined to cheating the American people or lying to them. It should rather also be concerned with the actions of US presidents that spell disasters for the world. For instance, why should an incumbent of Oval Office not be impeached for ordering nuclear detonations on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Why should the ruthless bombardment of Tokyo before the nuclear targeting of the two cities not be accounted for? Why should the annihilation and killings of various German cities go unpunished?

This new definition should be humanistic in nature. Since 1777, the US military intervened (directly or indirectly) more than 223 times. It has been accused of triggering the Korean War that killed around three million people. It imposed death and destruction on Vietnam, decimating around five to six million people. The American chief executive pushed the world towards a nuclear holocaust during the Cuban Crisis.

The story does not end there. George Bush senior ordered the indiscriminate bombing of Iraq in the early 1990s during the Operation Desert Storm besides helping impose inhuman sanctions on the Arab state that led to the deaths of over 500,000 Iraqi children while his son George W Bush waged an illegal war against Baghdad that has claimed over 2.5 mllion lives. The invasion of Iraq under Bush Junior also rendered millions of people homeless besides helping the rise of the IS, which caused the decimation of over half a million Syrians and displacement of around 11 million hapless souls.

The unlimited powers of American presidents also allowed them to export democracy under the bombing of B52 that played havoc with the lives of millions across the world. Even today, Donald Trump is bragging about the military might of Washington and threatening to wipe out North Korea or mow down millions in Afghanistan. He has also pushed Iran towards economic destruction through illegal sanctions while hurling the same threats towards Ankara. Critics believe that the word ‘high crimes’ should be defined in American constitution in a way that it could prevent the modern potentates from hurling war threats or the use of force and sanctions.

America being the bastion of democracy and human rights should also be seen protecting democracy and fundamental rights through peaceful means. Several American presidents have been accused of authorising the CIA to carry out coups and sabotage across the world. One wonders if the toppling of the elected government of Mossedegh in Iran in 1953, Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, Sukarno in the 1960s in Indonesia and Allende in Chile in 1973 would also fall under the definition of high crimes. If democracy is a system of protecting human rights, coups against such governments should be considered a flagrant violation of such rights. Therefore, they should not go unpunished. Similarly all the American chief executives who hobnob with autocrats and brutal dictators should also be accounted for. Those who throw blanket support behind brutal regimes should be prosecuted by the Congress.

It is time the Americans got rid of this narrow definition of impeachment because they are the only nation whose leaders’ decisions do not affect them only but people across the world. From the jungles of Vietnam to the hills of Afghanistan, the decisions and policies of American presidents affect millions of people across the world. Therefore, while it is important that American presidents be impeached for harming the interests of their people, they should also be punished for actions that have consequences beyond the borders of the most powerful state in the world.

One wonders if the list of alleged crimes leading to the possible impeachment of Trump would ever include his assertion that the US could wipe out North Korea or kill millions of Afghans within no time. The threat of war or the threat of use of force would never fall within the definition of American system of impeachment. America, a state that is not tired of talking about rule of law, should uphold this crux of international law to prevent future wars and conflicts.

Abdul Sattar, "Impeachment and the American system," The news. 2019-11-06.
Keywords: Law and humanity , Judicial committee , Corporate interest , Corporate governance , Commercial interest , Economic destruction , Human rights , Public interest , International law