The battlefield outcome of the Iraq War has produced another military victory for United States forces, reinforcing the outcomes of the Gulf War (1991), the Kosovo War (1999), and the Afghanistan War (2001). But the military outcome in this Iraq War was never in doubt, and any triumphalism seems wildly premature for several reasons. Even in Iraq it is not at all clear at this point whether the sequel to warfare will be a smooth transition to a peaceful and democratic Iraq, a descent into civil war, or an episodic underground resistance consisting of violence against American forces regarded as “occupiers,” not “liberators.” It is too early to tell whether there will be wider adverse regional effects, which could include a spread of war to Syria and possibly Iran, and growing instability in such critical countries as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.

It is likely that the Palestinians will be even further victimized by the impact of the Iraq War, shifting world attention away from the oppressive tactics that are daily employed by the Israelis, and likely giving Tel Aviv a mandate to continue to refuse a peace process that is fair to both sides. More remotely, yet still well within the horizon of plausibility, is some destabilizing change in the fragile Indo-Pakistan encounter that could easily spiral out of control, producing yet another war between these two antagonists, which would be the first hot war fought between two nuclear weapons states. Already, the evidence of deepening anti-Americanism around the world is reinforcing anxieties about a renewed surge of extremist violence directed at Americans and US interests.

These risks, while substantial, are conjectural, and may be averted to some extent. What is a virtual certainty at this point is the damage done to international law, the United Nations, and to world order more generally. This damage is particularly serious as it relates to the most significant of all international undertakings, the struggle to regulate recourse to war by a combination of international norms, procedures, and institutional responsibility. What the Bush administration did was to defy this undertaking, setting a precedent for others, and beating a unilateralist path for itself that is intended to free the US Government from these constraints in the future. Such neoconservative hawks as Richard Perle, John Bolton, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld, who dominate policymaking in the Bush administration, have never made a secret of their contempt for international law and the United Nations.

Turn Toward International Lawlessness

This turn toward international lawlessness in US foreign policy is particularly destructive of world order because the United States, as the world’s most powerful state, sets the rules of the game followed by other states. It is hardly surprising, yet revealing, that the Indian Foreign Minister, Yashwant Sinha, has pointed out that India has “a much better case to go for preemptive action against Pakistan than the United States has in Iraq.” Washington would lack all credibility if it objected to recourse to preemptive war by India against Pakistan. In this sense, the diplomatic costs of unilateralism could turn out to be immense.
But beyond this, there is at risk the whole American tradition of leading the struggle for the rule of law in world politics that goes back to the world order idealism of Woodrow Wilson in the aftermath of World War I. It was the United States, despite some ebb and flow of national sentiments, that has until recently maintained its role as the most consistent champion of a framework of legal constraints to the use of force in international affairs. It was the US Government that took the initiative, along with France, to produce the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 that outlawed recourse to war except in instances of self-defense and established the legal foundation for treating aggressive war as a crime against peace. It was on this basis that German and Japanese leaders were punished after World War II at the Nuremberg and Tokyo War Crimes Trials. And it was the United States that was the architect of the UN Charter that prohibited all uses of international force that could not be justified as instances of self-defense against a prior armed attack. True, it was also the US, and especially Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that insisted on the veto being given to the leading countries in 1945, ensuring that the UN could not pretend to control the vagaries of geopolitics. In this sense, we must not overstate the ambition of the UN, nor overlook the long record of leading countries pursuing their strategic interests outside the Organization. Both the US and the Soviet Union during the four decades of the Cold War consistently used force without bothering to uphold the constraints of the UN Charter or prevailing views of international law.

Some commentators were hopeful that the end of the Cold War would reestablish the sort of consensus among leading states that existed during the anti-fascist struggle in World War II. These observers interpreted the support for the Gulf War as grounds for optimism, showing that the permanent members of the Security Council could agree, and that the international community could act collectively to reverse the effects of aggression, in that instance restoring the sovereignty of Kuwait. The Kosovo War, undertaken without UN authorization, set the stage for the Bush Doctrine of Preemption, although it did have the regional backing of NATO and did seem necessary to prevent a repetition of the ordeal of ethnic cleansing that had occurred just four years earlier in Bosnia. In a sense, this level of agreement within the UN was generally supportive of the initial American response to the September 11 attacks, acquiescing in the initiation of the Afghanistan War.

Iraq War a Breaking Point

Recourse to war against Iraq was a breaking point, with neither a supposed humanitarian emergency (Kosovo) nor an alleged defensive necessity (Afghanistan) being present. In retrospect, this loosening of UN restraints on the use of force in both of these contested instances undoubtedly paved the way for a frontal assault on the UN approach to warmaking during the Iraq debate. Even so, the US Government, despite using all of its diplomatic muscle, could not persuade a majority of the Security Council, much less France, China, and Russia, that recourse to war against Iraq was justified. At the same time, given that war has ensued, the emancipation of the Iraqi people from an oppressive regime seems like a positive step provided that a new form of dictatorship does not ensue and that Iraq recovers its political independence without enduring civil war or a prolonged, and obviously already resented, American military occupation. But granting this benefit is not meant to suggest that the Iraq War was justified, or that its effect is after all good for the UN, the region, and the world.

Some respected commentators, most notably the Dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, Anne-Marie Slaughter, have tried to turn an illegal war into an argument for UN reform. Slaughter proposes a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing force if three conditions are met: (1) weapons of mass destruction are present or imminent; (2) the target country has a deplorable human rights record; (3) the target country has displayed an aggressive intent. In effect, this would retroactively convert the Bush Doctrine into UN Law, and would provide a spurious legal foundation for wars against such sundry countries as Syria, Iran, China, Israel, Pakistan, the United States, and many others!

We disagree with Slaughter’s proposal. Our review of the effects of the Iraq War suggests to us an opposite priority. Instead of attempting to reformulate the definition of illegal war under the UN Charter, the international community needs to reiterate its confidence in UN authority in matters of peace and security and in the Charter framework of legal constraint. It is our responsibility as citizens of a democracy to insist that our own government adheres to international law in its foreign policy. Only the rejection of the Bush Doctrine of Preemption as dangerous and arrogant, as well as illegal and damaging to the UN and world order, can bring hope that the peoples of the world can avoid the terrifying and obscene prospect of a condition of perpetual war. This prospect now casts a dark and ominous cloud over our human future.