The Irrelevance of International Law: Imperialist Assumptions in Liberal Criticism of the War

One of the most notable features of liberal criticism of the ongoing occupation of Iraq is the virtual absence of considerations based on international law—which, we should remember, is also US national law under Article VI of the Constitution. This absence is yet another way in which liberal commentary on the war has tended to re-affirm "imperialist assumptions" while criticizing the handling of policy by the Bush administration.


Mainstream opposition to the occupation of Iraq rarely questions the basic right of the US government to act belligerently in the international sphere. International law, including the most sacrosanct principles of non-aggression affirmed following WWII, rarely figures in liberal commentary on the war. As Howard Friel and Richard Falk point out in their book

The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy (Verso, 2004), Times editorials did not make a single mention of international law or the UN Charter in the lead-up to the invasion. Five years later little has changed. The Times‘ July 2007 editorial calling for withdrawal from Iraq—its first—did not mention international law, and subsequent editorials have not either. More generally, when international law is mentioned, the author is usually either explicitly denying its importance or arguing against breaches of international law not on principle but because they are counter-productive to US interests.


Liberal critics simply abstain from considering how standard definitions of aggression and terrorism might apply to the US government. Some critics even applaud instances of US terrorism in Iraq. In his book Fiasco Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post, while critical of the Bush administration, can barely hide his awed admiration for the US attack on Fallujah in November 2004:


It was a once-and-for-all attack to send a message to the rest of the cities in the Sunni Triangle: You don’t have to like the Americans, but if you tolerate the presence of the insurgents, this will be your fate. [1]


This implicit threat to the civilian population—"help us kill the insurgents, or you’ll pay"—clearly falls within the definition of terrorism accepted by most of the world, including the US. The US Code of Federal Regulations includes under its own definition acts which are intended "to intimidate or coerce a civilian population." Ricks thus appears to endorse what constitutes a clear example of terrorism, doing so for the very reason that it sent a strong "message" to the rest of the Iraqi population. In the recent debate over Iran, the fact that threatening a population with the use of military force constitutes terrorism likewise goes unmentioned. Both Democratic contenders have implicitly done so on multiple occasions, but no one except a few marginal dissidents and peace activists seems willing to point out the implications under international law.


Another indication of critics’ contempt for international law involves the issue of WMDs. It is implicitly accepted by most critics that if the US had found WMDs then the invasion and occupation would have been justified. While UN Security Council resolutions had barred Saddam Hussein from developing WMDs, his mere possession of those weapons would by no means have legitimated an unprovoked, unilateral military invasion by the US. This form of intervention would still have been illegal under various international law statutes and precedents like the UN Charter, Geneva Conventions, and the Nuremberg Principles of 1950 [2]. But for most commentators, the mere presence of a few nuclear weapons would still have justified the invasion. The following facts are irrelevant:

  • The UN resolutions prohibiting Saddam from developing WMDs did not authorize such an attack
  • Thousands of innocent Iraqis would inevitably be slaughtered in a US attack
  • The US has itself tolerated and even given chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons to governments just as brutal and dangerous as Saddam Hussein’s (and, of course, to Saddam himself throughout the 1980s)
  • The presence of a rash and avaricious military superpower forces weak nations to seek nuclear capabilities as a means of self-defense
  • The US is the only nation ever to have unleashed a nuclear weapon on another country 

Such counter-arguments are all but absent from liberal commentary, which generally makes the same assumption about Iran: if the Iranian government is trying to acquire nuclear weapons then we are fully justified in bombing the Iranian population to oblivion.  


The use of terminology by many war critics also functions to obscure the reality of US aggression in Iraq. The conflict is always a "war," not a US invasion and occupation; the occupying forces are a "coalition," not the US, UK, and a few allies; the coalition "secures" regions and cities in Iraq, it does not capture them [3]. And "foreign fighters" is a term reserved for antagonists of the US in Iraq; it does not apply to over 300,000 Western military and security personnel currently in Iraq. Such linguistic usages are by no means limited to Bush administration rhetoric, but are in fact common throughout most mainstream criticism of the war.


The assumptions and omissions of liberal criticism underscore the most basic belief implicit throughout mainstream commentary: in Noam Chomsky’s words, that "we own the world" and are justified in doing whatever we wish regardless of moral or legal norms. Within this framework there is "vigorous debate between the hawks and the doves" on the specifics of US policy, but all discussion is predicated upon "the unexpressed assumption that we own the world" [4]. Beyond ending the current occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, a major task of those who favor peace must be to deconstruct the imperialist assumptions pervading much liberal commentary on US foreign policy.





[1] Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 398.


[2] Friel and Falk, The Record of the Paper, 18-20, 147.


[3] See the incisive analysis of Robert Fisk, "The Twisted Language of War That Is Used To Justify the Unjustifiable," Independent, 7 Apr. 2003, quoted in Friel and Falk, The Record of the Paper, 134.


[4] Noam Chomsky, "We Own the World" (June 2007 Z Media Institute speech). Available in revised form at http://www.zcomm.org/zmag/viewArticle/16101.

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