The President of the United Nations recently opined that the U.S. invasion of Iraq had been illegal under international law. So far as I can tell, the story didn’t get much play in these parts, perhaps because Koffee Annan’s remarks were actually delivered in a rather offhand manner as a passing acknowledgement of an obvious fact. To the extent that they bothered to form an opinion on the matter, I expect that much of the right and much of the public discounted the charge of illegality because, at worst, all we did was violate a dictate of a despised organization, dominated by foreigners. If so, allow me to raise a niggling little problem with this not very apologetic bit of apologetics.
International law was not invented in 1945 and its legitimacy is not dependent upon the U.N. Charter or any other single document or agreement. The principle that nations are not entitled to initiate preventative wars grew up over a long period of diplomatic history from the grim experience of a great many pointless wars. The validity of the doctrine, however, rests on more than precedent. If a group of intelligent agents had gotten together the day after the Creation of the World, they would certainly come to the same conclusion about preventative war. For that matter, if you were suddenly elected ruler of the universe, you’d legislate against preventative war. (Wouldn’t you?) The mere suspicion that some other nation might be a threat in some unspecified way at some unspecified future date simply isn’t a legitimate excuse for aggression.
As it happens, we did sign the U.N. Charter, which inconveniently and unambiguously outlaws what we did in Iraq. Indeed, in large measure, we wrote the Charter. As its unilateral abrogation of many treatises shows, the Bush administration does not feel bound to obligations contracted by Democratic administrations or even earlier Republican administrations. Obviously, our word is not our bond, and the only principle in operation is that everything we can get away with is legitimate. As in the German jurisprudence of the 30’s, it’s enough for a policy to have the form of law to be legal even if the content of the law is the replacement of legality with mere force.
The mad emperor Cambyses fell in love with his sister and asked the wise men of his court whether it was legal to marry her. The sages replied, “We haven’t found a law that says that the king of Persia can marry his sister, but there is a law that says he can do whatever he wants.”
Note: after writing these paragraphs, I Googled Koffee Annan’s name and discovered an immense body of right wing hatred directed at the man. ABC and CNN may not have made much about Koffee’s remarks, but they sure riled up the radicals. Typical rant, Annan: Useless Douche Bag or Incompetent Fuckwit.