In Retrospect

In the inaugural issue of the brand new Guardian American Allen Gerson, a former aid to the late UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, tells the heretofore unknown story of how the United States sought to justify the Iraq war before the now defunct UN Commission on Human Rights(UNCHR).

Few can challenge the neo-conservative credentials of Kirkpatrick, so it is surprising that Gerson reveals Kirkpatrick’s deep discomfort with the administration’s attempt to jettison the UN Charter and justify the invasion of Iraq as a pre-emptive war.

Here’s the story: On the eve of war, the State Department sent Kirkpatrick to UNCHR headquarters in Geneva to try and block a resolution condemning the imminent US invasion. Foggy Bottom told Kirkpatrick to make her case by “defending the merits of the US action as justifiable on the grounds that Iraq was engaged in producing and hiding weapons of mass destruction and were ready to export them to terrorist groups like al-Qaida.”

Kirkpatrick, though, was not prepared to advance this position. In fact, in her time at the UN she consistently argued that the right of self-defense (as defined in article 51 of the UN Charter) did not include the right to launch pre-emptive wars. Rather, Kirkpatrick sought to appeal to the rule-of-law to stave off the opposing resolution. To that end, Kirkpatrick argued that the US-led invasion could be justified because Saddam was in material breach of the ceasefire resolution ending the 1991 Gulf War. In other words, military action against Iraq could be seen as a police action to enforce the UN Charter. Incidentally, Kirkpatrick’s argument won the day in Geneva and ended up undermining the a resolution condemning the United States.

The administration, obviously, chose to ignore this position and instead sold the war to the American public and allies as a war of self defense and pre-emption. Had the administration chosen to endorse Kirkpatrick’s position — that the war could be justified as an act intended to defend the UN charter — Gerson suggests that we might have seen a different outcome than we have today.

So what is the takeaway from all this? I think Gerson nails it here:

In the changing American political climate, where a Democratic presidential victory in 2008 seems highly likely, both of the leading Democratic contenders, Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, have spoken, in varying degrees, of championing the rule of law. The rule of law in international affairs requires nothing less than a recommitment to America’s past, as a champion of the UN Charter.

But his advice is not limited to the democrats. Gerson, after all, is a Republican and identifies himself as a conservative.

Conservatism, at its core, is about carefulness, prudence and restraint – a far cry from the banner of those who rushed to war in Iraq, and sought to legitimise it by a rationale that has had far reaching consequences beyond that of the Iraq war

In other words, reclaiming America’s role as the champion of the rule of law in global affairs is not a partisan argument. It is one of principle.