The United States, Iraq, and International Relations; Part Two: A Pyrrhic Victory?

Article excerpt

LAST month's article sought to explore the historical context in which the Iraq crisis of 2002-3 developed and to consider the legality of the subsequent US-British military operation. The immediate consequences of that operation for Iraq itself are now very familiar and do not require further discussion here. However, military operations that take place outside the confines of the United Nations (UN) Charter will always carry a political price and 'Operation Iraqi Freedom' is likely to be no different. This article does not seek to provide an exhaustive survey of the geo-political fall-out from the Iraq war but confines itself to a discussion of the conflict's potential impact in three broad but crucial areas of contemporary international relations.

Lowering the Threshold for War

One of the more disturbing aspects of the resort to war in Iraq without proper legal authority was that it signalled a further lowering of the international threshold for armed action. A point made by several commentators in January-February 2003 bears repetition here: pre-emptive action, if it is to be launched at all, must be subject to the most rigorous tests and must meet very exacting criteria if it is to be considered acceptable. Diplomatic avenues should have been tried, exhausted, and found wanting and any military threat should be of a direct and immediate nature. As was suggested in the first article, that was manifestly not the case with Iraq. A declaration by the US that it reserved the right to attack Iraq pre-emptively, irrespective of the position of international institutions, global opinion and international law, did not amount to the construction of a formidable political case. Nor is it credible to suggest that the US fully explored the UN option. Washington appears to have viewed the UN pr ocess as little more than window dressing, an elaborate diplomatic choreography -- partly an indulgence of Prime Minister Blair, who urgently required a second Security Council resolution, and partly a device to allow most American forces time to deploy in the Gulf -- rather than a meaningful diplomatic exercise. A US commitment to attack Iraq in all conceivable circumstances, ideally with UN approval but if necessary without it, does not provide compelling evidence of Washington's acceptance of the UN Charter or of its willingness to work within the UN framework. Indeed, it looked more like an attempt to steamroller the Security Council into supporting the US on the assumption that other Security Council members, realising Washington was determined to proceed whatever their opinions, would reluctantly support a resolution authorising war, partly to help preserve the illusion of their own (and the UN's) continuing influence. This US bluff was called in early March when a clear majority on the Council (and thi s stance had the support of an overwhelming majority of the wider membership) refused to allow the UN to be reduced to the status of a rubber stamp for decisions which had effectively already been taken by the Bush Administration. The view, articulated by Prime Minister Blair and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, that the passage of a second resolution authorising military action had been made impossible by French intransigence was a convenient fiction and an early attempt to rewrite the diplomatic history of this entire episode. Washington and London, it should be recalled, also failed in their bid to enlist the support of two other permanent members of the Security Council, Russia, and China, as well as eight non-permanent members -- Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Germany, Guinea, Mexico, Pakistan, and Syria -- thus the humiliating withdrawal of the resolution, something which would certainly not have occurred had France found itself isolated on the issue. The subsequent rather patronising rhetoric from British and A merican officials that the UN had 'failed' this test and had been unable to demonstrate its 'relevance' or the 'will' to resolve the situation is revealing in that it implies that the only way in which the Security Council could have demonstrated its 'relevance', 'effectiveness' and 'will' was by adhering to the precise position taken by Washington and London. …