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The End Of International Law

by Jim Lobe

The Lamps Are Going Out
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Regardless of how quickly U.S. troops roll into Baghdad, the second Gulf War could be a historic political defeat for the United States.

While there is no doubt that Washington's awesome military machine -- the product of a defense budget greater this year than those of the world's 15 next largest military establishments combined -- will prevail, the long-term strategic costs of an Iraq invasion could be much greater.

Start with the cost in U.S. alliances and the gaping split between Washington and Britain on the one hand and France and Germany on the other.

"This war will produce a poison in the United States' closest alliances," the former director of the National Security Agency (NSA) and retired Army general William Odom told the 'Washington Post.' "It comes close to risking exchanging Europe for Iraq."

Even in the best-case scenario -- a quick and relatively bloodless campaign in which U.S. and British troops are greeted as liberators with flowers, much as they were in France in 1944-45 -- the consequences of going to war unilaterally and without the sanction of the United Nations Security Council could weigh heavily against the United States for years, if not decades.

"We are witnessing the dissolution of an international system," according to New York University professor Tony Judt, who wrote in the 'New York Review of Books' this week that, as the globe's most powerful nation, the United States has enjoyed enormous leverage in using that system to promote its own interests and values.

But instead of acting like a status quo power by preserving and strengthening that system to its benefit, President George W. Bush has decided that it has become simply too constraining.

Like Gulliver in the famous Jonathan Swift tale often cited by the neo-conservative and right-wing ideologues behind Bush's foreign policy, Washington cannot permit itself to be tied down by "Lilliputian" nations, like France or Germany or Russia, let alone Guinea, or Chile, or Mexico.

It must instead create a "unipolar" world order in which Washington, as opposed to a larger community of nations, formal alliances, or even international law, acts as the ultimate arbiter of what is permissible and what is not, even to the extent that it arrogates to itself the right to act pre-emptively against presumed dangers, a clear violation of the UN Charter.

"This may be the week that the old world ends," wrote R. C. Longworth, senior correspondent of the 'Chicago Tribune.' "That old world, the only world most Americans have ever known, was a world of alliances, of power wrapped in law and of an American leadership of like-minded nations that accepted this leadership because Washington treated them as allies, not as subjects."

Bush's decision to pursue war with Iraq in the absence of a Security Council authorization and in spite of a deep split within the ranks of NATO marks a decisive repudiation of this view and signals a decisive new drive to establish that "unipolar world."

But is that really a feasible objective?

The rightwing coalition behind Bush -- the neo-conservative pro-Likudites, the Christian Right, and the traditional Republican right-wingers like Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld -- clearly believes that it is.

Max Boot, one of their spokesmen based at the Rockefeller-backed Council on Foreign Relations in New York, recently likened Washington's military power in the world today to its assuming military dominance of the Caribbean Basin a century ago, suggesting that "America's destiny is to police the world."

But most analysts -- indeed most of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment -- believe this is a fantasy, a very dangerous one that is likely to lead sooner rather than later to a new world disorder.

For one thing, Washington's self-proclaimed right to pre-empt threats long before they actually materialize could very easily be claimed by other countries, such as nuclear-armed India vis-a-vis Pakistan, or China vis-a-vis Taiwan, or Russia vis-a-vis Georgia. "This is a recipe for chaos that we can't control," said one State Department dissident.

Second, there is no evidence that the U.S. public and Treasury -- which is currently forecasting a deficit this year of at least $300 billion -- is either willing or able to sustain the kind of imperial mission on which the Iraqi adventure is predicated.

"We are stronger than anyone else," Zbigniew Brzezinski, former president Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, told the Post this week, "but we are not capable of simply dictating to the world."

Indeed, 25 years of polling have shown that the public rejects by an overwhelming margin precisely the role that Boot and the other hawks are assigning to Washington. "If America acts virtually on its own," warned 'The New York Times', it is hard to imagine either the Bush administration or the American people having the staying power to make things right."

Washington has already signalled that it wants help in reconstruction and possibly in peacekeeping in Iraq, as it did in Afghanistan. But, unlike in Afghanistan, the unilateral decision to go to war has provoked some allies, such as the European Union (EU) to suggest that they may not be very enthusiastic about the idea.

"The degree to which we act alone correlates with the price we will have to pay in lives, dollars and influence around the world," warned Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden last week.

Washington may thus find itself with a stark choice of paying billions of dollars more in occupation and reconstruction costs or simply giving up and going home, much as it did in Afghanistan, where stability is still a mirage more than one year after the Taliban's ouster.

"Look at Vietnam. Look at Somalia. Look at Afghanistan," noted Quentin Peel in the 'Financial Times' this week. "It needs an effective UN to do the dirty work for it. And yet this administration seems hell-bent on undermining the institution it most needs."

Even among the hawks in control, there are serious differences that will surface the morning after the troops reach Baghdad.

Republican right-wingers, like Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, have signalled their eagerness to get out as soon as possible, a la Afghanistan, while the neo-conservatives, such as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, say Washington has to be committed for the long haul.

Even now, with U.S. troops about to move across the border from Kuwait, there is no consensus within the administration. But just as when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, the crossing of U.S. troops into Iraq without a Security Council or NATO mandate will mark the point of no return.

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Albion Monitor March 20, 2003 (

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