Global Policy Forum

No More Lawless Interventions


By John Kampfner*

July 6, 2004

What prospects a sixth war for Tony Blair? It has been axiomatic that the mistakes made on the road to war in Iraq and during the occupation would deter future military interventions. Blair and Bush had their fingers burned, so they would be wary of getting involved again. Or would they?

Consider this: a president and prime minister, rejuvenated after re-election, identify another dictator who requires being dislodged by force. The case they make has to be more convincing than the last, but they argue that this time the world really is imperilled. They cite a link between the rogue state, weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism. The UN security council is called in to approve an attack. A case of back to 2002 - and the folly of a rushed intervention.

Or this: a TV team uncovers the slaughter of civilians in circumstances not dissimilar to Rwanda. The Americans, British and French are reluctant to intervene, sending negotiators instead. The clamour for intervention on the grounds of human rights grows, but troops are sent in only months later. A case of back to 1994 and the folly of delayed intervention.

The dilemmas that have beset the international community since the collapse of communism and the onset of unipolar American power have not been resolved. They have been made more urgent by the events of 9/11 and the war in Iraq, but they have yet to be properly addressed.

Blair, to give him his due, has done more thinking on this than most world leaders, with his two speeches, in Chicago in April 1999 during the height of the Kosovo war, and in Sedgefield this March. He has put himself in a particularly exposed position, marking the convergence of US neo-conservatism with the centre-left school of humanitarian intervention.

Blair's five criteria which he set out in Chicago were: Are we sure of the case? Have we exhausted all diplomatic options? Can military options be sensibly and prudently undertaken? Are we prepared for the long haul? And is national interest involved?

With the possible exception of number three, the Iraq war met none of those tests. The fundamental flaw in that case was his claim to be acting to save the dignity of the UN, while most of the UN's member states opposed his very action.

To help avoid a repeat of Iraq, I would suggest further questions to tighten up Blair's valid but incomplete criteria: Are we sure of the war aims? In cases of a perceived threat, are we sure of the intelligence? What exactly is the reconstruction strategy? When leaders talk of "democratisation" and of spreading "our values", whose values and whose version of democracy are they talking about? Is the international community predominantly, through the UN, behind us? Finally, the most important question: Is the action that is being prepared consistent with the stance taken towards other countries in comparable circumstances?

The failure of diplomacy was, in the long term, the most damaging of the mistakes of Iraq. The inability of Blair and Bush to settle on a single convincing casus belli makes it all the more imperative for the international community to adopt and then defend a universally acceptable humanitarian doctrine.

But this is only one side of the equation. Tighter international scrutiny of the case for war can also be misused as a means of prevarication. The French and Germans have found their stand on the war vindicated, but perhaps more by accident than design. It is not just the composition of the UN security council that should be looked at, but also its procedures, such as the veto powers and the unseemly scramble for votes among non-permanent members. It is time the likes of Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schrí¶der and Vladimir Putin addressed the principles of intervention in a way that at least Blair has tried, rather than hiding behind a post-1945 UN settlement that is long out of date.

Rarely has the UN had a better opportunity to assert its authority and legitimacy. Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, has repeatedly urged the organisation to apply itself more urgently to the post-9/11 problems of WMD, terrorism and rogue states - in a way that it failed to deal with the pre-9/11 dilemma of sovereignty versus the right to wage war to protect human rights. The report by Iciss, an international commission set up by the Canadian government, setting out three specific responsibilities - the responsibility to prevent, to react and to rebuild - still provides the most compelling textbook for when, how and whether to intervene. Yet it has still formally to be adopted by the UN.

Building transparency and trust into the process would go some way to providing moral legitimacy to any future military action, although one should not be so naive as to assume it would have stopped the neo-cons at the height of their hubris over Iraq. There may well be a legitimate case for military action elsewhere in coming years. The paradox of the current situation, with both Blair and Bush temporarily chastened, is that rarely has there been a better time for a dictator to act with impunity.

About the Author: John Kampfner is political editor of the New Statesman and author of Blair's Wars, just republished in updated paperback.

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