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No War Against Iraq

by Richard Falk And David Krieger

The Bush administration’s apparent resolve to wage war against Iraq, tempered for the moment by conservative critics, violates the spirit and letter of the US Constitution, as well as disregards the prohibitions on the use of force that are set forth in the UN Charter and accepted as binding rules of international law. Article 2(4) of the UN Charter states: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

Nothing in Iraq’s current behavior would justify a preemptive attack against Iraq based upon self-defense as set forth in Article 51 of the Charter. Even Henry Kissinger has stated, “The notion of justified pre-emption runs counter to modern international law, which sanctions the use of force in self-defense only against actual not potential threats.”

The proposed war would also have dangerous, destabilizing and unpredictable consequences for the region and the world, and would likely bring turmoil to the world oil and financial markets. While certainly not endorsing the current repressive governments in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, a war against Iraq could likely produce militantly anti-American governments in these countries that would intensify the existing dangers of global terrorism.

We oppose on principle and for reasons of prudence, the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, by any country, including, of course, Iraq. Our position is one of support for the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a temporary expedient, while a good faith effort is being made to achieve the overall abolition of nuclear weapons through a disarmament treaty with reliable safeguards against cheating. At the 2000 Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the nuclear weapons states made an “unequivocal undertaking…to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.” Unfortunately, they have not taken this or other promises for nuclear disarmament seriously and, at present, no effort to achieve nuclear disarmament is being made. US policy under the Bush administration has been particularly egregious in obstructing movement toward eliminating nuclear arsenals.

At the same time, the acquisition of nuclear weaponry, prohibited to Iraq by Security Council resolution, is not itself an occasion for justifiable war. After all, the United States, along with at least seven other countries, possesses and continues to develop such weaponry. There are good reasons for supposing that Iraq can be deterred from ever using such weapons, or from transferring them to al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. The government of Iraq, notwithstanding its record of brutality and regional aggression, has shown a consistent willingness to back down in the face of overwhelming force, as it did in the Gulf War and during the subsequent decade. As well, Iraq has had a general posture of antagonism toward political Islam, and as a radical secular state is a target of al Qaeda rather than an ally. The alleged prospect of a transfer of weapons of mass destruction by Baghdad to those engaged in global terrorism is either an embarrassing display of ignorance about the politics of the Islamic world or it represents an attempt to arouse the fears of Americans to win support for war.

It is necessary to take seriously the possibility that al Qaeda operatives could gain access to weaponry of mass destruction, and would have little hesitation about using it against American targets. Unlike Iraq, al Qaeda cannot be deterred by threats of retaliatory force. Its absence of a territorial base, visionary worldview, and suicidal foot soldiers disclose a political disposition that would seek by any means to inflict maximum harm. The US government should be devoting far more attention and resources to reducing these risks, especially with respect to the rather loose control of nuclear materials in Russia. Going to war against Iraq is likely to accentuate, rather than reduce, these dire risks. It would produce the one set of conditions in which Saddam Hussein, faced with the certain death and the destruction of his country, would have the greatest incentive to strike back with any means at his disposal, including the arming of al Qaeda.

The recent hearings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did not provide an occasion for public debate, as the witnesses called accepted as legitimate the goal of a regime change for Iraq, disagreeing only with respect to the costs and feasibility of a war strategy. No principled criticism of the strategy itself was voiced, and thus the hearings are better understood as building a consensus in favor of war than of exploring doubts about the war option. As well, it is regrettable that the hearings paid no attention to the widely criticized punitive sanctions that have had such harsh consequences on Iraqi civilians for more than a decade. The hearings also failed even to raise the critical Constitutional issue of authority to wage war, which vests in the Congress and not with the President, and requires a casus belli as defined by international law.

Granting the concerns of the US government that Saddam Hussein possesses or may obtain weapons of mass destruction, there are available alternatives to war that are consistent with international law and are strongly preferred by America’s most trusted allies. These include the resumption of weapons inspections under United Nations auspices combined with multilateral diplomacy and a continued reliance on non-nuclear deterrence. This kind of approach has proved effective over the years in addressing comparable concerns about North Korea’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability.

We are encouraged by the reported practical objections to the proposed war by important US establishment figures and most US allies. Personally, and on behalf of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, we urge the American people to exercise their responsibilities as citizens to join in raising their voices in opposition to waging war against Iraq, not only because of its high risks of failure and blowback, but on principled grounds that this country upholds international law and respects the constraints of its own Constitution, and is respectful of world public opinion and of the United Nations framework dedicated to the prevention of war.

Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law and Policy at Princeton University, is Chair of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. He can be contacted at


Richard Falk is an American professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University. He just completed a six-year term as United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. Falk is an associate at the Transnational Foundation for Future Research, where this essay originally appeared. 

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