August 26, 2002



Daimnation points me at a column deserving at least one side comment, Steven Edwards' defending the legality of an invasion of Iraq prior to the existence of a casus belli. The reference in question:

One of the first times anticipatory self-defence was cited was in the defence of Canada in 1837. The British used it to justify the destruction in New York of the American steamboat Caroline, which had been supplying insurgents in Canada.

We have mentioned the Caroline incident before. Edwards' "defence of Canada" reference is a little strange, as the 1837 struggle was one against the entirely homegrown rebels led by Mackenzie, but never mind. Surely, however, it's worth noting that, although the British may have claimed the right to attack "terrorist" (using the word loosely) assets on American soil, the Americans never accepted that the Brits were in the right then or later, and sternly warned against a recurrence. It doesn't make much of a precedent, then, for any pre-casus American action.

One could add that the other examples Edwards comes up with -- Clinton and Reagan's airstrikes on Sudan and Libya, and Israel's strike on the Osirak reactor -- aren't much better. Sudan is pretty much seen now as an attempt to get Monicagate out of the front pages at the right moment (a la Enrongate now?), while Libya and Osirak were precision strikes at specific targets, rather than the military overthrow of an entire government.

The fact is there is no obvious and pleasing precedent in the history of civilized nations for what the Americans are contemplating now. (The Suez crisis is the one that most neatly comes to mind.) Does that mean it should not be done? No, but to accept American unilateral military action aimed at dethroning Saddam, I would maintain one must accept as assumption #1 that the "rules of the game" have changed in the last year, and will never change back again. If you believe the world isn't fundamentally different now than it was then, then rational support is close to impossible.

(Furthermore, even if one accepts, as I do, that the rules of the game must change solely to prevent another Sept. 11, it by no means automatically follows that this is the right direction for them to change in.)

Posted by BruceR at 04:21 PM