Is the war on Iraq morally justified? Former president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jimmy Carter thinks not. "We do not have international authority," Carter wrote in The New York Times on March 8. Russian President Vladimir Putin agrees, since, in his words, war against Saddam Hussein "(allows) international law to be replaced by the law of the fist." Erwin Chemerinsky, law professor at the University of Southern California, penned an article in the Los Angeles Times on March 25 condemning the Bush administration. "Nothing in international law authorizes a pre-emptive war to overthrow a government and disarm it," he wrote.
Among intellectuals and policy-makers, international law has become the substitute for moral decision-making. Even the Bush administration has fallen into this trap, at least in its rhetoric, excusing its own actions and condemning those of others in the name of international law. Apparently, no action can be moral unless it is legal under vaguely defined international law. Conversely, any action taken without the consent of the international community is considered a breach of morality.
Nothing could be further from the truth. It is immoral to believe that international law is automatically moral. It is not. International law is merely a club that nations occasionally wield against one another.
Sometimes, international law is indeed virtuous, e.g. the first Geneva Convention detailing treatment of POWs. But when international law happens to be virtuous, it is ineffectual. Saddam Hussein routinely ignored international law for 12 years and continues to do so today, stationing military personnel in civilian areas, arming his soldiers with chemical weapons, and executing American and British prisoners of war, among other violations. Ironically, international law is enforced only when the United States and the coalition of the willing decide to bend it by attacking the Iraqi regime.
More often, international law consists of nice-sounding sentiments, which, when carried out, contradict basic moral sense.
International law might mean more deaths in Iraq than otherwise would have occurred. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has come under fire lately from battlefield commanders, who accuse him of fighting this war on the cheap by using precision weapons instead of putting troops on the ground. Rumsfeld justifies his strategy of flowing troops to the region by stating that the idea was to prepare for war without rupturing the diplomatic channels President Bush was pursuing in accordance with international law.
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