"Obama Will Respect International Law More Than Bush Did."
No. George W. Bush did not brush aside international law as casually as his critics claimed, and President Barack Obama's approach is likely to be surprisingly similar. The United States -- under the leadership of both the Republican and Democratic parties -- has taken a fairly consistent approach to international law over the decades, one that involves building legal regimes that serve U.S. interests and tearing down those that do not.
The bill of particulars against Bush seems long. He withdrew the Unites States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with Russia; "unsigned" the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court (ICC); invaded Iraq in violation of the U.N. Charter; authorized war-on-terror tactics in tension with human rights treaties and the Geneva Conventions; dragged his feet on a climate treaty; imposed a tariff on steel in violation of international trade law; stood by while a genocide took place in Sudan; and refused to sign a host of new and old treaties aimed at promoting human rights and limiting violence in war.
But there is less here than meets the eye. Bush acted within the law by withdrawing from the ABM treaty (which permitted withdrawal upon six months notice, a requirement he observed), and he had no obligation to maintain the U.S. signature on the Rome Statute (which lacked support from both political parties in the United States). Nonetheless, Bush provided valuable support to the ICC by agreeing to allow it to investigate crimes in Sudan. The invasion of Iraq did violate the U.N. Charter, but it also removed one of the world's worst international lawbreakers and vindicated the U.N. sanctions regime that Iraq had disregarded.
There was little political support for a climate treaty until the end of the Bush administration. When that support finally materialized, Bush signaled that he would go forward with such a treaty. In similar ways, Bush's war-on-terror tactics moderated over time, as the threat diminished. Bush had no obligation to intervene in Sudan -- indeed, an intervention without Security Council authorization, which would certainly have been blocked by China, would have been unlawful. Nor did he have an obligation to sign other human rights and law-of-war treaties that he disapproved of.
During his presidential campaign, Obama expressed support for the International Criminal Court and humanitarian intervention. In office, he has done nothing for the ICC and has stood by while the killing continues in Sudan. He has promised to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay; the problem, however, was not that the facility itself violated international law but that the detention methods practiced there (arguably) did so. These very same detention practices have continued in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Obama has sought to give immunity to Bush-era interrogators -- another possible violation of international law, and certainly in tension with it. Bush's unlawful tariffs on steel are matched by the "buy American" provision in the stimulus bill signed by Obama and the tariffs that he has slapped on Chinese tires. Obama has provided some symbolic support for international law in a few ways, but where it counts -- obtaining Senate ratification of the Law of the Sea treaty (which Bush also supported) and numerous international human rights treaties -- he has expended no political capital. Don't expect this to change.