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.
While the Rumsfeld/Franks battle plan is undoubtedly brilliant, if the United States had ignored the diplomatic channels required by international law and had instead attacked with full ground force, would fewer lives on both sides have been lost? If so, a full-scale pre-emptive strike without the approval of the United Nations would have been morally superior to the strategy we did pursue.
Whether it happens to be moral or immoral, international law is completely arbitrary, created by the self-interested political manipulations of states. The United Nations, the main body of international law, is comprised of 191 member states.
The Organization of Islamic Conferences, a voting bloc in the United Nations, contains 56 Islamic states; the goal of the OIC is "to promote Islamic solidarity among Member States." The OIC wields considerable influence among non-OIC states as well. Clearly, the OIC votes in its self-interest, not based on the guidelines of what would be best for the world.
The United Nations Security Council contains permanent members China and Russia, both habitual violators of human rights. Libya, led by international terrorist Muammar Qaddafi, now chairs the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Iraq was elected in January to lead the May U.N. Conference on Disarmament. Yet politicians and intellectuals continue to hold up the United Nations as a sort of morally infallible organization.
Those who hold up international law as a standard of morality do so because they lack an objective moral framework. The Judeo-Christian value system sets down clear rules: the Ten Commandments. The Judeo-Christian ethic imposes the moral obligation to protect victims from murderers, to give charity and the like. But international law has no clear values. Entering into military conflict to prevent mass murder is not sanctioned by international law unless France, China, Russia, the United States and Britain can all agree.
"International law," Leon Uris writes in his best-selling book Exodus [buy book], "is that thing which the evil ignore and the righteous refuse to enforce." Saddam Hussein has little regard for international law unless he can use it for propaganda purposes against the United States. And the United States has the obligation to disregard international law when it contradicts basic morality.