In the UK last week, a "bombshell" 600-page analysis of the 2003 Iraq War, called the Chilcot Report, found the war's justification deeply flawed. The report suggests the intelligence for Iraq leader Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programme was incorrect, leading to an ultimately disastrous decision by Whitehall.
The report is highly political, as was the US torture report last year, so it will struggle to get the traction its writers desire. A lot of "humanitarian" and "progressive" people want to use the report to deliver former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair as a criminal to the International Criminal Court for his role in the invasion. That's a nice sentiment, but those people don't know the score.
Mr Blair was working from intelligence showing not only that Saddam had used WMD against his own citizens in the past, but was also collecting chemical and biological components for future use of such weapons. All major nation's intelligence services with sources in Iraq agreed with this assessment – every single one – including the Europeans and Russia. They were entirely wrong on the latter point. This doesn’t prove intelligence is useless, only that exact intelligence is impossible.
A full 13 years later, most people forget there were twelve reasons submitted for legitimate military intervention in Iraq, based on the United Nation’s own rules. They were displayed in the October 2002 US Congress Iraq War Resolution document, reproduced here:
- Iraq's noncompliance with the conditions of the 1991 ceasefire agreement, including interference with UN weapons inspectors.
- Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, and programmes to develop such weapons, posed a “threat to the national security of the United States and international peace and security in the Persian Gulf region.”
- Iraq's “brutal repression of its civilian population.”
- Iraq's “capability and willingness to use weapons of mass destruction against other nations and its own people.”
- Iraq's hostility towards the US as demonstrated by the 1993 assassination attempt on former President George H. W. Bush and firing on coalition aircraft enforcing the no-fly zones following the 1991 Gulf War.
- Members of al-qaeda, an organisation bearing responsibility for attacks on the US, its citizens, and interests, including the attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, are known to be in Iraq.
- Iraq's “continuing to aid and harbour other international terrorist organisations,” including anti-US terrorist organisations.
- Iraq paid bounty to families of suicide bombers.
- The efforts by the Congress and the President to fight terrorists, including the September 11, 2001 terrorists and those who aided or harboured them.
- The authorisation by the Constitution and the Congress for the President to fight anti-US terrorism.
- The governments in Turkey, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia feared Saddam and wanted him removed from power.
- Citing the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, the resolution reiterated it should be the policy of the US to remove the Saddam Hussein regime and promote a democratic replacement.
In the above, and many other instances not included, the Baathist Iraq regime violated every rule the international body for allowing a country to keep its sovereignty under international stipulations. Unfortunately, the US and UK government chose to emphasise WMD infractions to stir popular support for military intervention, even though Saddam had declared war on his neighbours and committed genocide. That bears repeating: modern, humanitarian officials knew that not even genocide would compel modern, humanitarian voters to act. This, in the age of light...
The result, if not the purpose, of the Iraq War was as the creation of a 'ring-fence' around sections of the Middle East – only a few years after al qaeda struck a body blow to the US – to contain a spreading feeling of superiority among many Sunni Muslims. The war also set up a 'honey-pot' for jihadists who worshipped 9/11 and wanted to fight the "crusaders.”
That al qaeda failed to enact a follow up attack to 9/11 was largely due to the dismantlement of its core in Afghanistan, but also the success of the Iraq 'honey pot'. Simply put, US forces killed would-be jihadists in Iraq for years at a ratio of almost 50 to 1, which meant fewer skilled and not-so-skilled terrorists were available to conduct attacks outside of Iraq. That alone makes Iraq both a tactical and a strategic victory.
However, the report also emphasises the illegality of the war, rejected as it was by the UN. I submit this is a non-starter and obfuscates the issue. Either the US and its allies should not have gone to war in Iraq, or they should have gone with greater force. But to think a war is “illegal” based on Articles 39, 42, 46, and 51 of the United Nations Charter is to misunderstand the UN as an institution.
The UN was created after the League of Nations failed to prevent World War II. Former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted an international body to function as a type of world congress, whose members were representatives of states. The right to wage war would be given to Security Council (UNSC) members who would act together. The only exception would be if a country was attacked. That country would have a right to defend itself pending action by the UN.
Yet at the very beginning veto powers were allotted to all five permanent members of the UNSC. This rule immediately destroyed any hope of the UN acting as a coherent entity because none of those members shared or share a common vision for the world or national interests.
This is not a bug in the system, it is a feature. So to say the UN declared the Iraq war illegal is like saying the sea is wet. The UN is not an independent body, as the Chilcot Report would like people to think. The UN is the sum total of the international community’s thoughts and goals – in other words, incoherent and broken.
Repeat after me - there is no international law. There are no international statutes and no international enforcement agencies other than the UN, which enforces nothing unless the US military says it can. The UN cannot make law. International law has norms, and to the extent two sovereign nations in a dispute agree to appear before an international court and have their dispute resolved does not imply they are obligated to do so, or that failure to do so would be illegal.
It can't be illegal because there isn't any international law that would make it so. Just because the UN passes a resolution, does not mean it has the force of any national law, and governments are free to ignore it. It isn't illegal to ignore it, because things can only be illegal if a law prohibits them, and there is no international body in existence with the power to make law.
Focusing on the lack of resolutions for the Iraq War as some immutable legal authority is a red herring. The highest legal authority in the United States is the Constitution. Treaties with any other entity are not only subordinate to the Constitution, but also to the federal government enacting legislation to put them into force.
UN resolutions aren't worth the paper they are printed on, including nuclear arms control treaties signed with the Soviets, human rights treaties and climate change decisions. They are all worth nothing. Consider how the US, by upgrading its nuclear capabilities and missile forces, is actively creaking its arms control treaty with Russia, a country with the ability to destroy all human life in North America. Do people really think the US government cares about some dumb UN resolution? Do we think any nation does?
Nations care about their own laws. A government is concerned about human rights treaties to the extent some subsection of its own code describes how its soldiers can and cannot treat enemy combatants. But it only cares about this because it's part of the code. If the government doesn't act in accordance with the code, they are breaking domestic law, and will have to go to court to defend themselves. Individuals who break that law can go to prison if they are convicted. But they wouldn't be convicted of violating the Geneva Convention, only of violating their domestic laws.
The only, repeat, only reason Washington abides by an international treaty or resolution is when it becomes part of US law through enacting legislation. The moment the enacting legislation is repealed, the treaty is broken, and there is no international recourse.
I would go one step further. The UN is best understood as a tool of the US State Department. Its goal is to ensure and uphold the status quo of democratic world peace based from American liberal values. It was created in a post-WWII reality when the only two forms of democracy remaining were US liberal parliamentarianism and Soviet communism. And eventually there was only the former.
The UN is the glue for the “international community,” otherwise known as the nation states which are nominally or convinced democracies. Every member of the international community wants the same thing: what Washington wants. In other words, to transform all nations to blessed liberal democracy. If the State Department (Foggy Bottom) can’t convince a country to convert, then its rival – the Pentagon (Arlington) – will organise a compelling argument at the tip of a JDAM. This is the story of the 20th century, and, so far, the 21st as well.
Both banks of the Potomac compete for control over the swampy Washington apparatus using other nations and people groups to further the overarching cause American liberal democracy. A fine example is the Israel-Palestine conflict. Israel and Palestine are fighting over the same thing – real estate. But they do not fight alone. Washington's factions are tied like pretzels to the conflict. Arlington supports Israel with its strong, but weakening, Zionist lobby, while Foggy Bottom’s hordes of humanitarian progressives raucously support the Palestine cause.
As far as most of us are concerned, Washington’s support for Israel is simply a fact. Other facts in the category include water, which flows downhill; Elvis, who is dead; and Mentos, which is the freshmaker. The US government delivers billions of dollars in military hardware and goods to both sides every year. If that’s not support, what is?
Without this support, Palestinians and Israelis would have to settle their dispute bilaterally. Israel possesses its own arms industries, while Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank do not. So in such a clash, the stronger of the belligerents will be the victor. However, over the past 30 years or so disputes in the Middle East usually end with Israeli concessions along the well-known “Land for Peace” structure. This is curious. The strong generally are not overridden by the weak unless something fishy is going on.
And a piscine odour certainly fills the room. On the one hand Washington appears to support Israel, but clearly Israel's military would be stronger if the US disappeared. So by this logic Washington opposes Israel at the same time. But then why does it continue sending Israel billions of dollars in aid? The explanation is that Washington's opposition is more subtle.
Consider how under classical Westphalian international law, Israel as a sovereign nation state actually has full rights to defend itself however it sees fit – for instance, by destroying every rocket launcher in Palestine and rounding up recalcitrant Palestinians who refuse to stop fighting. With the military hardware available to Jerusalem and the stone-age tactics of the Palestinians, it could do this in a matter of months. But we do not live in a Westphalian world anymore, therefore Israel is constrained artificially.
The US constrains Israel, being as it is the controller of the UN and other international institutions, by forceably removing the rights of that sovereign nation to conduct respectable warfare. It has transferred those rights onto itself, its UN tool and the "international community" - by which I mean only to Washington, which acts as judge, arbitrator, enforcer and governor in one neat package.
This is the backbone of modern international law since 1945 - considered much more civilised and humanitarian - and is responsible for 60 years of tortuous war in the Middle East Conflict. Washington's factions facilitate or constrain the combat of Palestinians and Israelis, depending on the battle being fought inside the Beltway. Support, according to the stalwart US foreign policy of Woodrow Wilson, must be given to “men anywhere fighting for their rights.” This is how you fight fire with petroleum.
To show this unfortunate reality, the following is a quote from Mr Wilson made on July 4, 1914, outlining precisely what is going on. Everywhere fires curiously still rage, decades after the original tinder has been consumed:
“My dream is that as the years go on and the world knows more and more of America it will also drink at these fountains of youth and renewal; that it also will turn to America for those moral inspirations which lie at the basis of all freedom; that the world will never fear America unless it feels that it is engaged in some enterprise which is inconsistent with the rights of humanity; and that America will come into the full light of the day when all shall know that she puts human rights above all other rights and that her flag is the flag not only of America but of humanity.
“What other great people has devoted itself to this exalted ideal? To what other nation in the world can all eyes look for an instant sympathy that thrills the whole body politic when men anywhere are fighting for their rights?”Consider again these are the words of the former president of the United States expounding his namesake policy of spreading American democracy to all corners. Note the particularly charming phrase "unless it feels that it is engaged in..." Messrs Bush and Obama would adore this entire passage, being, as they are, only the most recent acolytes of Wilsonian foreign policy. What is meant here is that no government will ever fear the US unless the US feels that government is engaged in some enterprise which violates the rights of humanity. In other words, the US will judge the world, which is the same as dominating it.
Since Washington is always honest (being democratic, of course) it and any other honest government will always agree on whether the latter is "violating the rights of humanity." And if they don't, it is. Therefore Washington is always right. So when Israel wishes to recover some land, it is violating the rights of humanity, whereas when Palestinians do the same they are defending them. The former fears Washington, and rightly so. The latter is helping it support democracy. Only the muddy waters of the Potomac separate them.
Palestinian belligerency is simply irredentism – a special case of revanchism. This is a particularly wicked action, and no one speaks of the conflict along those lines, but it is true nonetheless. It is not merely that US petroleum hoses keep the Palestine-Israel conflict burning, Washington’s sponsorship of Palestinian irridentism informs them that fighting – as opposed to either accommodating to the newfound diversity of Jewish immigration, or leaving the region – is the correct option, and may actually succeed.
Elie Kedourie’s The Chatham House Version explains this in excellent detail. The Palestine-Israel conflict is best seen as a profession, providing employment for thousands of Americans - and the entire population of Gaza and the West Bank. "Employment" here is parading daily with green Hamas flags and AK-47s for in exchange for bags of UN wheat. Wilsonian foreign policy, superseding every pre-WWII classical international norm, is considered more humanitarian than letting Israel and Palestine govern their own affairs. Has this policy been good for Palestinians? It's hard to see how.
How does this framework connect with Iraq? Well, Iraq was a recalcitrant regime in the eyes of Washington and most certainly not a democratic country. Saddam did maintain the concept of the nation state, something dear to the American heart which is probably what kept him alive for so long, but it was only a matter of time before Washington using its international institutions (or military), would remove the dictator and replace him with democracy.
Saddam’s attack on Kuwait was also revanchist, not expansionist. In a similar way to Russia’s actions in Crimea, or the Palestinian's useful nationalism. Yet for 40 years Washington's main enemy in the region has been Iran – an actual expansionist, usurper regime. Saddam played an important proxy role in keeping Iran from expanding into the Euphrates river valley. And one degree of separation away, Saddam also kept the Soviets from expanding into the Middle East.
That the US chose to emphasise Iraq’s WMD as its casus belli for war, when the intelligence was ultimately incomplete, is a serious stain on Washington's history. But Saddam would have been ousted sooner or later. Only very ignorant people underestimate the power not only of the federal US government, but also of the its non-governmental entities (aka, the extended civil service) as enforcers bending the world to its ideological progressive will.
It doesn’t matter if one thinks Wilson's, FDR's or Obama's goal (they are all iterations of the same thing) for world democracy is a bad thing or a good thing - it is true either way. We live today in a world where there are only two types of nation states: full democracies or countries on their way to becoming democracies. The 2003 Iraq War must be seen as a natural extension of this centuries' old structure dating back the British before the Americans, or it will not be understood at all.
What is now also clear about the Iraq war is how illusory the border lines in the Middle East actually are. Iraq's landmass was held together by a strongman, as was the case in Libya and Syria. Its people groups never considered themselves primarily Iraqi, they were described as tribes/religions/sects/families first. Yet once the strongmen were removed, the people began to sort out how new lines should be drawn to create a different equilibrium.
The frightening thing for Washington is there is no guarantee new lines will be drawn at all – consider the Islamic State’s ideology of a single global caliphate without borders – but the US and its international institutions will corral the squabbling groups towards organising nation states. The "international community" would have it no other way. If Iraq, Syria and Libya dissolve, then the freedom to grow their own governments is fine – but they do need to be democratic and Westphalian. In other words, they are free to choose anything they want, so long as they choose the right answer,
The liberation also freed the Iraq people on a metaphysical level, which everyone agrees is a good thing. But when one is given power over one's choices, tragedy is equally as possible as joy, if not more so. Iraq's freedom has certainly proven dangerous and deadly, but at least they now have choices - constrained as they are. That is a positive legacy of the 2003 war.
Say what you will about the American democratic project, and the blood spilled to attain that goal, but it rests on the assumption that liberal parliamentarian democracies do not go to war with each other. Since 1945, this prediction has proven somewhat accurate, so adding the last few countries to the pile can't be a terrible policy. If everyone thinks identically, then no one will rise up. Peace will be achieved under this glorious regime, but at what cost?
Finally, the ripples of the Iraq War led to the collapse of a good chunk of autocratic Middle East regimes living well past their used-by date. Washington needed them during the Cold War, when their strength and stability helped defend against Communism. But the US now stands alone, its project without competition. Autocratic regimes are an unsightly blemish on an otherwise beautifully democratic world. They had to go.
US foreign policy during the Arab Spring was to callously pull the safety net from under its dependant strongmen and they were thrown from office, killed or imprisoned. Washington painted its long strokes over the uprisings, calling the protesters "democrats" (lower-case ‘d’) and lauding them on Twitter. Perhaps the ones speaking English really did desire democracy, but they also wanted to keep the concept of the nation state and promised to eventually hold elections. Those magic words was all the State Department needs to hear before it sends support.
The junta in Egypt is now under pressure to set conditions for new elections, Libya is still sorting out where its border lines will be, as is Iraq and Syria. The end goal for these countries, from Washington’s perspective, is either full or partially "independent" parliamentary democracy.
The Iraq War pushed the 21st century along the same direction as the last. Since the 1890s, the world has been slowly transformed into Washington's own image in the pursuit of world peace. Was it worth the blood? Will it be worth more blood to maintain? History will be the judge.