A ‘legal war’ would have been even worse

Five years on, the non-stop nitpicking over the legality of Iraq exposes the moral turpitude of the anti-war cynics.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

‘My objection is not political – it’s legal.’ So said Juliet Stevenson on BBC2 last night, in her best-yet Concerned Of Islington acting role, complete with a liberal head-tilt every time she spoke and a tortured look on her face as she contemplated her own moral indefatigability in a warped world. She was playing Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the UK Foreign Office lawyer who resigned over the illegality of the Iraq war, in 10 Days to War, a new series of eight 10-minute films dramatising the legalistic discussions amongst New Labour officials in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Remarkably, Wilmshurst’s legalistic rather than political objection to bombing Iraq is supposed to make her the hero of 10 Days to War. Apparently it shows that she was a level-headed, clear-eyed, pen-pushing defender of legal norms in contrast to Tony Blair the Moral Bombardier. For me, Wilmshurst/Stevenson’s self-satisfied, hang-dog complaint that invading Iraq was a bad idea because, you know, it wasn’t legally above board sums up everything that is wrong – more than that, everything that is morally depraved – about today’s late and lame dinner-party opposition to the devastation of Iraq.

‘My objection is not political, it’s legal’ – that could be the slogan of today’s cynical anti-war spasm (it would be pushing it to describe it as an anti-war movement). Every night this week, BBC2 will show a 10-minute snippet of 10 Days to War (probably because 10 minutes is all the audience can take of legalised discussions about Iraq before seeking legal advice about assisted suicide), and follow it up with a ‘heated’ Newsnight debate about the issues raised. Last night Jeremy Paxman barked at his viewers, ‘WAS the invasion of Iraq LEGAL? DID IT meet the requirements of a justifiable war? If not, does it MATTER?’ – a salvo of questions that only raised another one in this viewer’s mind: ‘WHERE is the remote control?’

There are three irritating things about the legalistic opposition to the attack on Iraq, or what we must now refer to as the legalistic-not-political opposition to the attack on Iraq. First, it is delusional. It is based on the massive self-deception that international law and its brave defenders and practitioners – lawyers – kept the world in tip-top shape until that cowboy George W Bush and his heel-snapping poodle Tony Blair came along and ruined everything.

Philippe Sands, one of the key ‘legal critics’ of the bombing of Iraq, is a QC and author of Lawless World: Making and Breaking Global Rules; he was a guest on last night’s Newsnight debate about 10 Days to War. He argues: ‘In August 1941, at a meeting off the coast of Newfoundland, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed they were going to put in place a new world order, a world order based on rules [the UN Charter]…. Fast forward 60 years, and the [Bush] administration that now holds office sees these rules, which for several administrations were seen as promoting American opportunities, promoting American values, as imposing constraints.’ (1)

The historical illiteracy in that statement is mind-blowing. By ‘fast forwarding’ 60 years, from the founding of the UN Charter to the Bush-led bombing of Iraq, Sands overlooks the fact that during the Cold War era of 1945 to 1989, Western powers launched numerous wars of aggression against their supposed legal equals, including Aden, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada and Panama. And after the Cold War, in the era of ‘humanitarian intervention’, Western forces invaded or bombed Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. There was never a time in postwar history when Sands and Co.’s precious ‘global rules’ kept barbarism at bay and the world in order. The lunatic leap from the UN Charter to the invasion of Iraq is an attempt to create a neat historical morality tale, in which high-minded lawyers can pose as the heirs of the Charter and the brave defenders of international stability against Bush’s uniquely cowboyish disregard for legal procedures.

The second irritating thing about the legalistic opposition to the war in Iraq is that it is deeply dishonest, duplicitous even. Many of those who moan about the illegality of Iraq were fervent supporters of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. Yet that futile and fatal intervention also did not win the support of the UN Security Council, and thus was ‘illegal’. A Guardian writer penned the 10 Days to War drama, and the Guardian has been busily promoting the ‘brave’ TV show over the past week. This is the same Guardian which in 1999 slated those who said Bill Clinton and Tony Blair should wait for UN backing before bombing Yugoslavia. The UN is not ‘the only legitimate law-giver’, the Guardian insisted. Indeed, the UN constitution is a ‘recipe for inaction’, it said, and ‘its imprimatur cannot be the sole trigger for international action to right an obvious wrong’ (2).

During last night’s Newsnight debate, Jeremy Paxman described the Kosovo war as a ‘great intervention’ (impartiality be damned!), and yet, he said, looking confused and possibly even a little bit perturbed, that intervention wasn’t really legal, either. His legally-minded Bush-bashing guest Philippe Sands shook his head in disagreement, and said that actually that ‘great intervention’ (600 dead Yugoslavians, including 18 media workers, and massive destruction in Belgrade) was semi-legal since it was an attempt to avert a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’. They just make it up as they go along. Campaigners and commentators twist 60 years of history to suit their preening moral posturing over Iraq, and pick’n’choose from international law in order to dress up illegal wars that they approve of as being somehow ‘legal’. It’s true what they say: you never know where you stand with a lawyer.

The third and most irritating thing is that the legalistic-not-political critique of war (well, of certain wars) is inhumane. Judgements about military interventions are made, not from the basis of what is good for humanity, or from any analysis of what terrible consequences the war might have for those on the receiving end and for international peace more broadly, but rather from the lawyerly approach of making sure that all the boxes are ticked and all the right procedures were followed. Legal niceties are elevated over people’s lives, over questions of democracy, sovereignty, stability, equality.

Indeed, if Iraq could have suffered a worse fate than Bush and Blair’s ‘illegal war’, it would have been at the hands of Wilmshurst’s, Sands’, Paxman’s and Co.’s desired ‘legal war’. Last night’s 10 Days to War showed Wilmshurst trying to make the invasion of Iraq legal by pushing for new UN resolutions and attempting to shore up the support of the French and others. For the 2003 invasion of Iraq to have been legal, it would have required even more intense international condemnation of Iraq, even more states lined up against the collapsing Ba’athist regime and the beleaguered Iraqi people, even more of a consensus that Iraq needed a short, sharp shock of bombs followed by a military occupation. A legal war would have been even more devastating than the ‘illegal war’ has been.

The legalistic-not-political opposition to the attack on Iraq is based on the repudiation of politics. At a time when expertise is trumping political debate, when lone legally- or scientifically-minded know-it-alls are elevated over grubby politicians and the madding crowd as ‘voices of reason’, it seems even opposition to war has become the preserve of sensible, latte-drinking lawyerly types. In 10 Days to War, the contrast between apparently dirty politics and superhuman, dignified legalism was captured in the scenes showing Tony Blair sweating in front of the TV cameras as he justified his intervention as the ‘right thing to do’ (politics – booo!) and scenes showing Wilmshurst wandering around her backroom office and poring over legal tomes as she came to the reasoned decision that the war was wrong (a lone whistleblower – hurrah!).

In place of a deep, profound, thoroughgoing political debate about the rights and wrongs of Iraq, we get the blind idolisation of behind-the-scenes individuals who tried to use the law to derail the politicians. There is something deeply undemocratic, even tyrannical, in this worship of brave lawyers. I mean, what if Elizabeth Wilmshurst, in her apparently infinite wisdom, had decided that the attack on Iraq was legal? Would that have made it okay? The flipside of endowing government lawyers with the right to pronounce that wars are illegal is handing them the authority to say when they are legal, too.

My objection to the war in Iraq is political not legal. Questions of legality should not even come into it. The invasion of Iraq was immoral, inhumane and destructive – which means that even if, in legal terms, it had been right, it would still have been wrong.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) Lawless World: Bush Considered Flying US Spy Planes Painted With UN Colors Over Iraq In 2003 to Provoke War, Democracy Now, 7 march 2006

(2) Why Kosovo matters, Guardian, 26 March 1999

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Topics Politics


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