America’s Failing War Effort (Part 11 of 12): International Law and Diplomacy

by | Nov 30, 2003 | POLITICS, Terrorism

We have so far discussed the aims of the war and the weapons used to fight it. Aside from pointing to the proper moral principles that ought to guide the selection of either, we have not said much about the formal process by which foreign policy decisions are to be made. Questions of proper legal […]

We have so far discussed the aims of the war and the weapons used to fight it. Aside from pointing to the proper moral principles that ought to guide the selection of either, we have not said much about the formal process by which foreign policy decisions are to be made. Questions of proper legal procedure are, once again, best left to experts in the field of political science. But a citizens group can say something about how these decisions should not be made: questions of national security should not be decided by organizations professing to represent an international authority. Because the Bush administration has made illegitimate deference to these alleged authorities, however, we assign it a grade of D+ for this final, crucial category.

The story of the Bush administration’s push for war with Iraq was simultaneously the story of its push for approval from various Western allies and from the United Nations. And yet critics of the Bush administration complained of its aggressive, “cowboy” unilateralism. Although Bush and his staff did at times make passing statements about how the United States would be willing to “go it alone” without UN approval, and although the war eventually did proceed without final, official UN approval, it remained clear that the Bush State Department would at the same time go to extraordinary lengths to secure international approval. What else could explain the early acceptance of the UN inspections teams, the September speech before the UN asking for its condemnation of Iraq, Colin Powell’s presentation of American intelligence data before the Security Council, the countless proposals for UN resolutions authorizing the use of force? And even when the Security Council failed to agree on a resolution authorizing the use of force, Bush refused to submit his proposed resolution to that body, fearing a rejection. Instead his State Department argued that an earlier, more ambiguous resolution (1441) had actually granted authorization in advance.

And the American penchant for multilateralism has not stopped with Iraq. With regard to almost every major threat facing the United States, the United States has attempted to defer important decision making to international bodies. The weapons inspections charade is already being repeated in Iran, where IAEA inspectors, again led by Mohamed El Baradei, are supplicating before the mullahs to negotiate the conditions of “unconditional” inspections–even though in Iran, the stakes are much higher.[61] Time and again, the United States has also submitted the matter of North Korea to the Security Council, and when that has failed, it has stressed the importance of “multilateral pressure” (from China, Russia, and Japan) in ensuring North Korean cooperation.

Like his father in the Persian Gulf War, George W. Bush feels the need to justify American acts of self-defense to the international “community.” And yet this practice proceeds as if moral authority derives not from the obligations of the American government to its citizens, but from a consensus of the majority of the world’s leaders, no matter how uninterested in American security they may be.

From the lack of success in convincing the UN to authorize force in Iraq, it appears that international bureaucrats were not interested in protecting American security, and yet the Bush administration continued to seek their approval. Most interestingly, it was not from the Russians or the Chinese that the most vociferous objections to the American war came, but from putative American allies: the Germans and the French. Curiously, one of the leading objections of our allies was not that Iraq was not threatening enough to warrant an invasion, but that Americans were pushing for a unilateral war, one without allied approval. This, of course, was a self-fulfilling prophecy, since these allies were themselves in the position to grant or revoke that approval.

Beyond their objections, conventional wisdom insisted–and the Bush administration reiterated–that even if Iraq was a threat, the United States could not succeed in confronting it without the assistance and approval of its allies. But clearly German and French assistance was not required: the American military was effective enough to oppose threats unilaterally (especially when used properly, avoiding the pitfalls described in the previous section). The real stress of this objection, therefore, was on the need for allied approval. And yet it is unclear what the value of allies’ approval would be if it were to come at the expense of allies being allied against anything: allies are only useful for opposing a common threat; in refusing to recognize that threat, they certainly cannot help to oppose it.

Even if the United Nations were interested in defending American interests, however, the events leading up to the war with Iraq demonstrated that it had no capability of doing so. Since the end of the Gulf War, the UN Security Council issued no less than seventeen resolutions condemning and proscribing Iraqi activities, but did little to enforce these edicts but to dispatch inspectors.[62] The Bush administration appealed to this fact, warning that the UN was in danger of becoming “irrelevant.” But in cooperating with the UN inspections program, the US encouraged further irrelevancy. Bush knew that throughout the 1990s, whenever it appeared that inspectors were closing in on incriminating evidence, Saddam Hussein would impede them–leading to their effective expulsion from the country in 1998. And even after the inspectors returned in 2002, little improvement was noted. By that time, there was actually evidence of UN inspectors tipping of the Iraqis about “surprise” inspections.[63] And still the Bush administration permitted the inspections to continue, delaying the war by months. Only when the threat of American invasion became imminent did the Iraqis begin to show a modicum of compliance, destroying some benign missiles in front of the global media. In the end, no amount of bureaucratic expertise could match the deceptive and coercive powers of the well-armed Iraqi state–only the unilateral force of the American military could.

The difficulties with the UN inspections process in Iraq help to illustrate the difficulties with the very idea of “international law” that the UN is supposed to represent. Critics of American unilateralism allege–and the Bush administration declined to deny–that preemptive war fought without the approval of relevant international bodies is “illegal,” i.e., in violation of international law. And yet it is reasonable to ask in what sense these proscriptions could possibly amount to international law, when there is no body to enforce them. The UN, certainly incapable of enforcing its resolutions, depends upon member states to do so, when they feel the urge. But this demonstrates that a UN resolution does not have the force of anything like an international law, but merely the force of treaty entered into voluntarily by different parties. Like a treaty, it has no ultimate source of enforcement–since there is no world government to act as a neutral enforcer–and may therefore be withdrawn from at the whim of member nations. This consideration casts doubt on the very idea of international law. The only laws relevant to the government of a free nation are those demanding that it protect its own citizens, laws that it is capable of and justified in enforcing.

Another allegation that the Bush administration neglected to refute was the idea that a preemptive war, fought without international approval, would violate Iraqi “sovereignty.” But not every nation has “sovereignty” in this way, because not every government has the legitimacy required to serve as its citizens’ protectors. This was certainly true of Saddam Hussein’s regime, whose brutality had been documented for all the world to see. No dictator has the right to govern, because no one has the right to violate the rights of others. Any government of any free nation has the right to remove such a regime from power–and has the obligation to do so, if that regime threatens its citizens. And yet by seeking authority from the UN for the invasion of Iraq, the United States implicitly conceded the sovereignty idea. It made that concession not only with Iraq, but more ominously with Iran, when Secretary Powell deemed the conflict there a “family fight,” suggesting that American intervention in Iranian private affairs would not be legitimate.

But perhaps the greatest failure of the United States in relation to the UN is American membership in the UN to begin with. The sympathy within the UN for the “sovereignty” of Iraq is symptomatic of the deeper problem that cuts to the essence of the organization. Many allegations have been made about the loss of legitimate national sovereignty that comes with UN membership, and this problem is worthy of consideration. But the leading problem with the UN is not the behavior it imposes on its members, but the behavior it fails to impose. Membership in the UN is open to virtually any government, from the freest and most legitimate one, to the most brutal and dictatorial. There has been no end to stories about the appointment of rights-violating nations like Libya and Cuba to bodies like the UN Human Rights Commission, and this is no ironic accident.[64] The UN was founded on the idea of the equality of all nations, free or otherwise: no fewer than two major communist dictatorships served on the UN Security Council. But not all nations are equally “sovereign”: dictatorships are international criminals and do not deserve equal recognition. But the UN, by including dictatorships and free republics alike, resembles, in philosopher Ayn Rand’s words, “a crime-fighting committee whose board of directors include[s] the leading gangsters of the community.” This comparison is apt, and the United States has no business dignifying such an organization with its membership. Any legitimate diplomatic functions currently served by the UN could easily be undertaken on a bilateral basis between the US and any other worthy diplomatic partners.

Before the rest of the world could take an American withdrawal from the UN seriously, however, the US would need first to redefine what it regards as legitimate bilateral diplomatic functions. Currently the United States maintains diplomatic relations with any number of undeserving dictatorships. Even when countries like Iran and North Korea are so blatantly immoral that the United States has suspended official diplomatic relations, our State Department still manages to justify ad hoc negotiations with them. Why is the United States willing to treat such oppressive dictatorships with the civility and dignity of friendly relations? And why does it expect that any agreements resulting from such negotiations will be honored by governments known for their deception? Only a belief in the efficacy of appeasement can explain it. Our State Department believes that by giving our enemies what they want, they will be pacified and refrain from threatening us in the future.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Anyone who knows the antics of a schoolyard bully knows that evil men only grow more audacious when their original demands are met. The same is true, only doubly so, in the case of evil governments. The collapse of the 1994 agreement with North Korea, guaranteeing it with economic assistance in exchange for scrapping its nuclear program, is the proof of this principle: once the time was right, the North Koreans dropped their end of the bargain and demanded more. Iran has been observing the North Korea situation keenly, and is now demanding nuclear assistance itself in exchange for inspections. The North Korean mistake should not be repeated–either with Iran, or with North Korea (again).

The danger of appeasement and compromise is not simply that enemy nations will end up demanding more foreign aid. The catastrophe of September 11th was itself the result of years of appeasement towards terrorists and terrorist-sponsoring governments. For decades dictators in the Middle East acted with impunity from American retaliation–whether by nationalizing oil industries or taking American hostages. Then starting in the 1980s, a series of vicious terrorist attacks against Americans ensued, again eliciting little American response. Even after serious evidence of Iranian complicity in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar towers, the Clinton administration worked feverishly to suppress this information, and instead attempted a rapprochement with the Iranians. If this did not convinced terrorists like Osama bin Laden that America was a “paper tiger,” nothing ever could have.

Is the United States a unilateral “cowboy”? The evidence suggests that it is not. The Bush administration has sought constant approval from the UN on every important foreign policy issue, from Iraq to Iran and North Korea. It has done this even when it has known that its “allies” in the UN had no concern for American security, and no capability of enforcing it. It has made concessions to the idea of “international law” and the “sovereignty” of dictators, and delayed a war of self-defense to avoid violating them. It maintains membership in an organization dedicated to the idea of the sovereignty of dictators, and appeases these same dictators bilaterally, on the side.

The United States is not unilateral, but it should be. This stems, again, from the same moral principle we have urged throughout this report: the moral obligation of a government to defend its own citizens. By submitting its foreign policy decisions to a multilateral body unwilling and incapable of representing the interests of its citizens, the United States government undermines its primary obligation. We give Bush a D+, rather than an F, only because in the end, he cast aside the shackles of international authority and proceeded with the war in Iraq. Unfortunately, however, he has not done the same for conflicts with Iran and North Korea, where the stakes are even higher.


[61] “Uncertainty over whether Iran will sign nuclear protocol.” Agence France-Presse report. August 31, 2003 .

[62] “State department details Saddam’s defiance of UN resolutions” State department press release. March 20, 2003. .

[63] “UN admits tipping off Iraq for arms inspections.” Straits Times. December 1, 2002.

[64]“Anger at UN role for rights violators.” Guardian. April 21, 2003 <,3604,940279,00.html>.

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