the legality of invading Iraq

I am open to the possibility that the US invasion of Iraq will ultimately turn out to be a noble and successful battle against tyranny. Thus I am not eager to complain that the war was illegal. But the relevant documents suggest to me, unfortunately, that the US violated agreements to which we had subscribed. …

The UN Charter is one of the few reasonably clear and binding elements of international law. Article 2 states: “All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered. All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

Thus invading another country is illegal. The Bush Administration claimed, however, that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD’s) in violation of specific UN resolutions and in ways that threatened our own national security. The US thus appointed itself as prosecutor, judge, and executioner in the case against Iraq. Unfortunately, the specific charges appear to have been false. It is no excuse to say that Saddam was guilty on other counts, such as tyranny against his own people. The rule of law demands that one is only punished if guilty as charged. Besides, the Bush Administration does not want to establish a precedent of overthrowing foreign governments for practicing tyranny, since that would commit us to action in 20-30 nations, several of them our allies.

The President and his defenders cite Saddam’s failure to cooperate with UN inspections as grounds for war. (In effect, they explain the 2003 invasion as a resumption of the first Gulf War, justified because Saddam failed to comply with the terms of the original cease fire.) Now the relevant document becomes UN Resolution 1441, introduced by the US and allies in 2002, and approved by the Security Council.

I invite you to make your own judgment of this long resolution. To me, it seems a very thin thread on which to hang a war. At most, one could say that Iraq violated this passage and a few others: “false statements or omissions in the declarations submitted by Iraq pursuant to this resolution and failure by Iraq at any time to comply with, and cooperate fully in the implementation of, this resolution shall constitute a further material breach of Iraq?s obligations and will be reported to the Council for assessment in accordance with paragraphs 11 and 12 below.”

Presumably, Iraq made false statements and refused to cooperate fully with inspectors. This was bad behavior, because it (a) disrespected the UN and international law and (b) suggested that Iraq actually possessed WMDs. Such bluffing undermines world peace. Note, however, that the resolution does not threaten war as a consequence of lying and stonewalling. It simply requires a report back to the Security Council.

I suspect that the President did not know he was speaking falsely when he claimed that Saddam had WMDs. Whether he and other top officials had deliberately distorted the intelligence is interesting, but not overly important. To me, the important point is that false statements justified a war. Two conclusions follow:

1. If the President leaves his own false statements on the public record and does not repudiate them, then they turn from errors into lies. One cannot state an extraordinarily consequential untruth and then leave it uncorrected. The President is not a liar, in my book–but he becomes one as soon as he fails to retract statements that he learns are untrue. If he is uncertain, then he is morally obliged to conduct a full and independent investigation that gets to the truth. Since David Kay’s testimony, the clock is ticking; every day that the President fails to address the Kay’s charges, his integrity looks worse.

2. The whole doctrine of preventive war is now in shambles, because its first application was the very thing that the UN Charter aims to prevent: an invasion without a legitimate casus belli. We named ourselves the world’s police, but our case was false.

1 thought on “the legality of invading Iraq

  1. Taran

    Minor correction: ‘We named ourselves the world’s police’.

    Truth is that the United States has been the major police force in the world since World War II. However, the Judge and Jury, until the Iraqi invasion/liberation/whatever, was the United Nations.

    Picture cops arbitrarily taking people to jail without due process, and locking them away until *they* are satisfied.

    The United States has become a ‘bad cop’.

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