There is little doubt that the White House seems resolved to wage war against Iraq, however weak its legal case, and despite the dramatic erosion of support even at home. It is probably late in the day to stop this militarist juggernaut, but it is not too late to try. There are several constructive steps that could still be taken. The UN General Assembly, relying on its residual authority to uphold world peace, could by resolution convene an emergency session to oppose recourse to war against Iraq, as well as to reaffirm the Charter rules governing the use of force. It would also be significant if members of Congress opposed to the war could persuade their colleagues to take up their proposals to reconsider Congress’s premature authorization of the use of force by the President, thereby finally fulfilling their constitutional responsibilities.
Beyond backing such institutional steps, the expanding peace movement should continue to hold demonstrations in which speakers develop the argument against war, including its international law elements. It would also be helpful to convene a panel of moral authority figures and jurists to issue a report or white paper on the relevance of international law and the just-war doctrine to the realities of the twenty-first century. As citizens, we have the opportunity and responsibility to act as if it is our duty to challenge this illegal and dangerous war fever that grips the leadership of this country. International law remains the best guide we have for drawing a line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior in world politics, especially in the war/peace setting. The rest of the world, as well as the American people, deserve a US government that respects this dividing line. It is regrettable but true that such respect will be forthcoming only if the grassroots pressure from here and abroad grows strong enough. Our government shows no signs of being guided in its foreign policy by any authority other than its own imperial dreams.
Among the more serious losses resulting from the September 11 attacks has been the subversion of international law as a source of guidance and limitation in the foreign policy of leading sovereign states, and especially the United States. Of course, this process of erosion preceded the attacks, and even started well before George W. Bush’s arrival in Washington. The Gulf War was fought with only a pro forma mandate from the UN Security Council, with operational control of the ends and means of the war being run from the White House and Pentagon. The Clinton Administration, prior to the 1999 NATO war over Kosovo, rejected peaceful settlement options and bypassed the UN on its way to war. But the presidency of George W. Bush has greatly accelerated this process. Its arrogant repudiation of such vital international agreements as the ABM Treaty and the Kyoto Protocol are indicative of this repudiation.
What September 11 did was to extend this dangerous form of American lawlessness to the most sensitive area of all–warmaking, the use of force in disregard of sovereign rights and intervention in the internal affairs of foreign countries. Such a pattern of irresponsible and, in the end, self-destructive behavior by the US government is especially unfortunate, because the unprecedented Al Qaeda challenge did require adjustments in the way in which the international rules governing the use of force are applied. International law has evolved throughout modern times to meet the common goals of sovereign states seeking to protect their vital interests in the face of changing circumstances. World War II ended with the historic understanding that recourse to war between states could no longer be treated as a matter of national discretion, but must be regulated to the extent possible through rules administered by international institutions. The basic legal framework was embodied in the UN Charter, a multilateral treaty largely crafted by American diplomats and legal advisers. Its essential feature was to entrust the Security Council with administering a prohibition of recourse to international force (Article 2, Section 4) by states except in circumstances of self-defense, which itself was restricted to responses to a prior “armed attack” (Article 51), and only then until the Security Council had the chance to review the claim.