How to legalize a war on Iraq.

How to legalize a war on Iraq.

How to legalize a war on Iraq.

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Feb. 7 2002 11:44 AM

Legalizing War Against Iraq

Last week I vowed  to keep up my Slatedialogue with Robert Kaplan even after it drew to its official close. I wanted to 1) elaborate on my claim that the United States can deal with Iraq aggressively yet through the United Nations; 2) elaborate on my long-term plan for fighting terrorism; and 3) engage in miscellaneous sniping at Kaplan, secure in the knowledge that he probably won't get around to replying (though he can do so in this space if he wants). Here goes.


One fact you probably won't hear President Bush mention is that Iraq is in violation of international law. After all, that would require him to utter the phrase "international law." But it's true: In 1998 Iraq kicked out duly authorized U.N. inspectors who were seeking—and finding—evidence of a biological and nuclear weapons program. According to international-law expert Barry Kellman of DePaul Law School, this gives the U.N. Security Council a plausible premise for handing Iraq an ultimatum. Here's one possible ultimatum:

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

You must allow U.N. inspectors into your country and give them immediate access to any facility and any data they specify. If you refuse, or if you subsequently impede the work of any inspector at any time, then Iraq will automatically—without further Security Council action—be deemed to constitute a threat to "international peace and security."

I put this phrase in quotes because under the U.N. Charter (Chapter VII), it justifies military intervention. Though President Bush probably wouldn't be able to get all five Security Council members who have veto power to OK an explicit threat of military action, he might well get them to sign on to this more abstract but still pointed language—especially if they saw such an ultimatum as the only thing that could stop America from launching a unilateral war.

Since the United States is known for broadly interpreting U.N. mandates, the message to Iraq would be clear: Either welcome the international police and give them the run of the place, or the American bombs start falling and the troops come in next. And this time we don't stop short of Baghdad.

Would Iraq comply? Even if it didn't there would be virtue in going through these motions, as subsequent military action would then have more legal and moral authority, having been at least arguably authorized by the United Nations. I don't claim enough geopolitical foresight to know whether invading Iraq would prove wise, given opposition to it in much of the Arab world, but it seems safe to say that the less unilateral any such invasion looks, the better.

Anyway, Iraq might well cave in to the United Nations' demands, for two reasons. First, Iraq would face something it didn't face when it kicked out the inspectors in the first place—the credible threat of invasion. Second, letting the inspectors back in would mean getting sanctions against Iraq lifted. Technically, they should be lifted only after 120 days of cooperation, but personally I'd be willing to offer Saddam a special one-time, if-you-act-now offer: the immediate lifting of sanctions. This would be a face-saver for him, a way to claim he'd gotten a concession from the United Nations.

This sort of language annoys the Iraq hawks. "We don't want to save his face! We want to riddle it with bullets!" Yes, there would be a certain visceral satisfaction in that. But how long would the thrill last? Even assuming you succeed in installing a new, "legitimate" regime to your liking, it's hard to justify maintaining an inspection program, since the regime hasn't done anything wrong. Yet what guarantee is there that a bioweapons or nuclear program won't be revived, sooner or later? A straitjacketed Saddam Hussein might be tamer than a sovereign successor.

The new round of Iraq inspections should be more robust and intrusive than the original round, even though the original round was effective enough for Saddam to find it intolerable. It's important, post-9/11, to push the envelope on this front and show the world—including President Bush—that an international inspection regime can be effective.

It's also important not to repeat the mistake America made last time around and secretly use the U.N. inspectorate for American intelligence gathering. The discovery of this corruption of the United Nations not only made an honest man out of Saddam Hussein, who had been claiming such corruption all along; it also eroded the legitimacy of the very policing mechanisms whose legitimacy America needs to nourish, unless Americans want to spend the rest of the millennium invading suspicious countries.