Lessons from the UN on the Iraq War

The ten year anniversary of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq is causing some reflection and soul searching–actually, not enough if you ask me. But still, it is a good moment to look back and reflect on what went wrong. There’s much to talk about. But I will focus on the UN. Specifically, the decision by the USA to violate the UN charter and invade Iraq without the approval of the Security Council.

What lesson does this teach us about the value of the Security Council? If you cannot convince the Security Council about the necessity of a war, then you should probably not start the war.

The Security Council is the sole entity with the legal ability to authorize the non-consensual intervention. In other words, it is the only body that makes war legal when the country that’s being invaded by foreign forces does not want to be invaded by foreign forces.  The Security Council did not approve of the Iraq war. The USA went to war anyway.  That made the war technically illegal. It also made the war much harder to win – the Security Council doesn’t not just confer legality on an intervention, it confers legitimacy, as well. This is an important point. When an intervention has the backing of the Security Council it is more likely to succeed. Under 50 countries joined George W. Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing”, only three countries sent troops for the initial invasion (Poland, Australia and the United Kingdom.) While other countries provided troops over the years, only a handful sent more than 1,000 troops to Iraq. The politics at play and the lack of international consensus around the war created a situation where the US-led intervention was perceived as imperialistic and self-serving, making “winning” the war an all but impossible task. Indeed, in this context, what does “winning” look like? When President Bush appeared in front of the now-infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner a few short weeks after the initial invasion, it would be another eight years before the US formally ended operations in Iraq.

To be sure, the Kosovo intervention was also a violation of the UN charter. But though the action was not approved by the UNSC, circumstances were different than Iraq. At the time, Milosevic was carrying out an aggressive campaign against civilians, and there was a real sense of urgency driving the international community to act. Even Kofi Annan, who was Secretary-General of the UN at the time, said that while he regretted that the UNSC had not been involved in the decision to pursue military action in Kosovo, stated “that it was the rejection of a political settlement by the Yugoslav authorities which made  [NATO bombings] necessary, and that, indeed, there “are times when the use of force may be legitimate in the pursuit of peace“.” In the late 90s, following the Rwandan genocide and with an increasingly paralyzed UNSC, the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine was beginning to emerge, taking aim at sovereignty as a responsibility and not a right, taking aim at the foundational principle of the UN Charter and the source of the UNSC’s legitimacy in war and peace.

While this doctrine was later adopted by the UN (in 2005, after the war in Iraq began), it’s questionable whether it would have applied to the situation in Iraq. While there was never any doubt that Saddam Hussein was a negative force not just in his country but in the region, the rationale that existed for the Kosovo campaign did not exist in Iraq (in fact, the US felt the need to create some intelligence about WMDs in order to justify their intervention and create this much-needed rationale.)

Today, the protection of state sovereignty as an inalienable right of nation states continues to be a preeminent concern of the UNSC. Indeed, the UNSC has not agreed to allow an intervention in Syria, for example, where there is no question that the regime is at war against its own people. Geopolitical interests and pressures, as well as the strong intent of some members of the Security Council to preserve the non-intervention in sovereign affairs modus operandi, have made agreement at the UNSC all but impossible.

Finally, an unfortunate legacy of the war in Iraq is that it undermined the legitimacy and strength of the UNSC in the eyes of the international community. Where the buck was supposed to stop with the UNSC, the US-led invasion and subsequent war in Iraq made the Security Council and the United Nations more generally look weak and irrelevant, unprepared to handle the complex conflicts of the 21st century. The long-awaited reform of the UNSC – in the works for decades – may be able to strengthen it again and reposition the UNSC as the legitimate – and respected – arbiter of world peace.

Penelope Chester contributed to this article.