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Perle's confession


According to Oliver Burkeman and Julian Borger, writers for the Guardian, neocon guru Richard Perle has now admitted that the invasion of Iraq was illegal according to the tenets of international law, acknowledging that "international law ... would have required us to leave Saddam Hussein alone." But Perle insists that "international law stood in the way of doing the right thing."

Obviously, Perle contradicts the convoluted arguments of the Bush administration and its supporters that the war was legal in terms of international law — that it was a war of defense (against the non-existent WMD threat), in line with UN Security Council resolution 1441 (though the UN has never allowed countries to enforce such resolutions on their own without UN sanction).

One antiwar commentator credits Perle for his "honesty." I don't believe honesty is a prominent characteristic of Perle's when he is dealing with crucial matters of international policy. What Perle wants to do is pre-emptively justify American actions violating international law that might be necessary (from the neocon standpoint) in the future.

This is not to say that neocon apologists will abandon the effort to place any action they advocate within the confines of international law. They will continue their obfuscation and mystification in that regard. However, they will always be able to rely on the ultimate fall-back position that international law must take the back seat to what is "right" — that what is good for America (as interpreted by the neocons) justifies any military action.

The argument that "American," that is, U.S., interests trump international law will probably go over with the American people. Americans vaguely believe that the United States can do whatever it wants because it acts for the good of the world. However, the rest of the world sees the prohibition on aggressive war as the keystone of the international order of sovereign states.

As a consequence of the famous Nuremberg trial in 1946, a number of German military leaders were hanged for engaging in aggressive war. In his opening address for the United States at the Nuremberg Tribunal, Chief Prosecutor Robert Jackson declared "that to plan, prepare, initiate or wage a war of aggression ... is a crime." Jackson identified several actions as aggression, and therefore crimes against peace, including invasion of the territory of another state and attack by armed forces on the territory of another state. It is noteworthy that Jackson added:

It is the plot and the act of aggression which we charge to be crimes. Our position is that whatever grievances a nation may have, however objectionable it finds the status quo, aggressive warfare is an illegal means for settling those grievances or for altering those conditions.

Jackson was, of course, an American. And Americans traditionally have looked upon Nuremberg as being sacrosanct. The International Law Commission of the United Nations adopted the Principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal as constituting basic principles of international law. Foremost among the crimes defined as punishable under international law are crimes against peace, which include "planning, preparation, initiation or waging a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements, or assurances."

But most Americans today know little about the Nuremberg Trial. They think that it dealt only with the Holocaust, which is about the sum and total of what most Americans know about World War II. (It's quite understandable, considering the intensive public promotion of "Holocaust awareness.") Therefore, Americans can't understand why anyone would be upset over the United States attacking an evil country. They don't consider what would happen if all countries acted in a similar manner — that it would create a world of continual and ubiquitous war. Foreigners understand that; Americans are left in a fog.

However, Washington still preaches probity and restraint to other countries regarding the use of force; for example, the United States works to prevent war between India and Pakistan. International peace and stability have long been seen to be a fundamental American interest — and the United States has historically been a strong backer of international law. Hence, the United States's launching of a pre-emptive attack on a country in violation of international law has undoubtedly weakened its ability to restrain other countries from acting likewise. Those countries, too, may now recognize the need, and the right, to attack a neighbor to protect their national security, as they see it.

That the United States launched its attack on Iraq on the false rationale of the WMD danger sets an even worse precedent. The world becomes a global Hobbesian war of all against all, where only force prevails. The illegal war on Iraq involved the United States in a Middle East quagmire, created an immense financial burden, and exacerbated terrorism directed at the United States and its allies. But an even more fundamental reason the war was harmful to American interests is that it undercut established international standards for maintaining a peaceful world.

Mr. Perle's confession is incomplete.

November 22, 2003

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