The Bush doctrine makes nonsense of the UN charter : In a chilling u-turn, the US claims the right to strike pre-emptively (Jonathan Steele, June 7, 2002, The Guardian)

The cluster of Israeli F-16s took off in desert sunshine on one of the most daring missions of modern times. Flying low through Jordanian, Saudi and Iraqi airspace they reached Baghdad little more than an hour later. The gleaming dome of Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak was easy to spot. The Israeli pilots released their bombs and within 80 seconds the plant was a pile of ruins.

The world was outraged by Israel’s raid on June 7 1981. “Armed attack in such circumstances cannot be justified. It represents a grave breach of international law,” Margaret Thatcher thundered. Jeane Kirkpatrick, the US ambassador to the UN and as stern a lecturer as Britain’s then prime minister, described it as “shocking” and compared it to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. American newspapers were as fulsome. “Israel’s sneak attack… was an act of inexcusable and short-sighted aggression,” said the New York Times. The Los Angeles Times called it “state-sponsored terrorism”.

The greatest anger erupted at the UN. Israel claimed Saddam Hussein was trying to develop nuclear weapons and it was acting in self-defence, which is legal under Article 51 of the UN charter. Other countries did not agree. They saw no evidence that Iraq’s nuclear energy programme, then in its infancy and certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency as peaceful, could be described as military, aggressive or directed against a particular country. In any case, pre-emptive action by one country against another country which offers no imminent threat is illegal.

The UN security council unanimously passed a resolution condemning the Israeli raid. The US usually vetoes UN attempts to censure Israel but this time Washington joined in. The Reagan administration even blocked deliveries of new F-16s to its close ally. There was an element of hypocrisy in the condemnation of Israel, at least in the US. Reagan sent the F-16s a few months later. But policymakers and ordinary people around the world clearly sensed that Israel’s pre-emptive strike took us all to the top of a slippery slope. If pre-emption was accepted as legal, the fragile structure of international peace would be undermined. Any state could attack any other under the pretext that it detected a threat, however distant.

Since then we have begun to slip down the slope.

It is apparently Mr. Steele’s point that even with what we know in retrospect it was a bad thing for Israel to prevent Iraq from developing nuclear weapons–that in fact it is always a bad thing for nations to strike preemptively. He goes on to argue that even our actions in Afghanistan this past fall were technically illegal. If this is what international law consists of then the sooner we repudiate it entirely the better.


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