Worldview Commentary No. 283 on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM WBEZ

Author: Susan Good

“Iraq: Does International Law Matter After All?”

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Five years after we toppled Saddam Hussein, our invasion of Iraq stands out as one of the worst foreign policy blunders in American history.

The Administration’s war plan was delusional. We would find weapons of mass destruction. We would be welcomed as liberators by Iraqis bearing bouquets. We would need few troops, who need not stay long, to manage the hand-over to grateful Iraqis. We would plant a democratic flower in the Middle East, the first seedling in a garden of freedom that would spread throughout the region. We would flex our superpower muscle to the world and to the terrorists. We would prove once and for all that no one should dare offend the mightiest nation in history.

Five years later, these illusions are shattered. So are the lives and families of four thousand dead American troops. Several times as many soldiers are crippled for life.

The liberation has been even worse for Iraqis. A credible web site, Iraq Body Count, documents somewhere between 82,000 and 90,000 Iraqi civilians killed by “military or paramilitary action and the breakdown in civil security following the invasion.” The count rises daily. And it does not include Iraqi civilians who have been seriously wounded, or Iraqi children who have died for lack of nutrition and medical care in the wreck of a once prosperous society.

Economically the war has run up a bill that our faltering economy can ill afford. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz estimates the total tab to date at $3 trillion. That staggering sum would pay for an awful lot of health insurance or college tuition for Americans. Instead, the families who need financial help to pay for health and education, and their children, must now repay this debt for years — probably decades —to come.

Even the tolls in deaths, debt and destruction do not tell the full costs. Our military is stretched to the breaking point. A generation of young officers and senior non-comms has shed the uniform. We are militarily and politically incapable of deploying significant military force in other places, like Darfur, where it is more needed and justified. The credibility of our military deterrent is seriously eroded.

Diplomatically the war is a debacle. Global public opinion polls show anti-American attitudes at record highs. When our diplomats recently proposed a resolution against torture at a United Nations meeting, the room broke out in laughter.

Much of this was foreseen and decried by those who opposed this war before it started. Before the war, some of us also pointed out that invading Iraq would violate international law.

International law allows the use of force in self-defense, including self-defense against an imminent threat – but not against a distant or speculative threat. Not even the Bush Administration seriously claimed that Iraq posed an imminent threat to the United States.

International law also allows the use of force when authorized in the interests of international peace and security by the United Nations Security Council. But in March 2003, the Bush Administration did not even ask the Security Council to vote on the war. Not only was France, at least, prepared to veto the invasion, Washington could not round up a majority of the 15-member Council. Even our friends on the Council, like Mexico and Chile, made clear they would vote against the war.

At the time, the international law arguments did not impress many Americans. Why worry about legal technicalities when the Commander in Chief told us that our security was at stake? Why pay attention to international law anyway? What court could order us not to invade Iraq?

Looking back, we would do well to consider the reasons behind the international law rules. The rules came, not from the pointy heads of ivory tower intellectuals, but from the real world experience of hard-headed statesmen and women. In 1945 the US led in creating the UN Security Council to manage the international use of force. The community of nations has long recognized the limits on self-defense. At Nuremberg we prosecuted Nazi war criminals for breaking them.

As important as the rules are the reasons behind them. Self-defense is allowed only against actual or imminent threats, for good reason. If we allow nations to go to war to forestall distant or speculative threats, we open the door to the kind of needless bloodshed the world has now witnessed in Iraq.

In the absence of a need for self-defense, it makes sense to require Security Council approval for the use of military force. As illustrated by the Bush Administration’s dogmatically driven rationales for invading Iraq, a single government can be seriously misguided. Security Council approval, while no panacea, at least takes time and demands the collective judgment of a group of nations. Unless the need to act is urgent, bypassing that procedural brake is not smart.

International law is not the main argument against the Iraq war. But it reflects global experience with wars. Next time a commander in chief calls on us to attack another nation, we could do worse than to heed the wisdom of history, summed up in the rules of international law.

Doug Cassel’s commentaries are generally broadcast Wednesdays during the noon hour of the Worldview program on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM, and rebroadcast at 9 PM in the evening. Views expressed are personal views of the author and not necessarily those of Notre Dame Law School, the Center for Civil and Human Rights or Chicago Public Radio.