When it was first announced by President Clinton that the United States would launch a military strike against Iraq, I wondered about the legality of this attack under international law. I carefully read President Clinton’s speech announcing the attack, and found a reference to a UN Security Council resolution that condemned Iraq’s defiance of the UN inspection team by a vote of 15 to zero. Upon review of the resolution, however, I found that it contained no authorization for the use of force against Iraq. Nor did any previous Security Council resolution, except for the 1991 resolution authorizing the removal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, an issue clearly not relevant to the current situation.

President Clinton announced that the purpose of the military action was “to attack Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and its military capacity to threaten its neighbors.” Clinton and his security advisors, who he announced were unanimous in their recommendation to attack, were responding to a report filed by Richard Butler, the head of the UN inspection team in Iraq.

But this is what the Washington Post wrote about Butler’s report, “Butler’s conclusions were welcome in Washington, which helped orchestrate the terms of the Australian diplomat’s report. Sources in New York and Washington said Clinton officials played a direct role in shaping Butler’s text during multiple conversations with him Monday at secure facilities in the U.S. mission to the United Nations.”

The article in the Washington Post also pointed out that a “companion report” by the International Atomic Energy Agency expressed “broad satisfaction with Iraq’s cooperation.”

What this suggests is that there were reasonable differences of opinion about Iraq’s cooperation with the UN, and that there was improper collusion between Richard Butler, the head of the UN inspection team who is supposed to act in a neutral manner, and U.S. officials. If this is true, Butler was clearly acting in an improper manner and bears some of the responsibility for the military action against Iraq. If it is true, Kofi Annan should act immediately to fire Butler.

President Clinton justified the attack as being necessary “to protect the national interest of the United States, and indeed the interests of people throughout the Middle East and around the world.” This justification raises many questions. What was the “national interest” that was being protected? How was it determined? Should any country have the right to attack another country in the name of national interest without proper authority under international law?

The behavior of President Clinton and his “security team” sends the wrong message to the international community. It is a similar message to the one they sent when they attacked a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, which they unconvincingly claimed was a chemical weapons factory.

The message we are sending to the world is that we are the big boys on the block, and we are willing to throw our weight around regardless of the law. The Russian Duma referred to our attack in a nearly unanimous vote as “international terrorism.” This does not bode well for our future relations with the Russians.

The Pakistani Parliament unanimously characterized the military action against Iraq as “an attaack on humanity and the Islamic world.” This does not bode well for our relations with other Islamic nations.

Of the many consequences of our attack against Iraq, I believe the most serious is our undermining of the rule of law. For any use of force against Iraq, we should have had express authority from the UN Security Council, which in all of its resolutions on this matter indicated clearly that it would “remain actively seized of the matter.” By choosing not to do so, we once again demonstrated our willingness to defy international law for vague reasons of national interest.

The bottom line is that our attack against Iraq was bullyism, and undermines international law. It did not serve the interests of the United States, nor of the world. Kofi Annan had it right when he said, “This is a sad day for the United Nations and for the world.”