The Real Problem with the Iraq War: It was Illegal

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

I won’t disguise my impatience with the of the Chilcot Report on Britain’s involvement in the 2003-2016 Iraq War. Most of it comes as no surprise to me. I chronicled it at the time, and it wasn’t actually hard to find information about shenanigans if you looked hard enough.

The report did not make a determination about whether the war on Iraq was illegal. But that actually in my view is all that matters. There have been noble wars that failed. There have been noble wars that were pyrrhic in character. Those like Tony Blair who continue to defend going to war do so on the grounds of noble war gone wrong.

This was not a noble war.

Our predecessors in the twentieth century experienced the two World Wars, which killed on the order of 75 million people. In 1945, world leaders were determined not to repeat that experience, and they crafted the United Nations charter in order to forestall it. They determined that aggressive warfare would not be permitted. Hitler’s invasion of Poland was sheer aggression. Japan’s conquests in Southeast Asia were pure aggression. Of course, the Japanese just did to what is now Indonesia in a short period of time what the Dutch had done to it over centuries. The Dutch were fully as brutal in Aceh as the Japanese were when they took over.

The post-WW II order, if it was to give up aggressive warfare, also had to give up colonialism, which it gradually for the most part did (the French let Morocco and Tunisia go but tried to hold on in Vietnam and Algeria, with disastrous consequences).

Article 39 of Chapter 7 goes like this:

Article 39

The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security.

In other words, it is the Security Council that decides if an international trouble spot should be responded to by war. The Chilcot Report shows that George W. Bush had no intention of even seeking a UNSC authorization, and Tony Blair was among those (along with then Secretary of State Colin Powell) who convinced Bush that just falling on Iraq with no pretense of an international process would look bad.

But despite threats and secretly proffered bribes, Bush and Blair were not able to browbeat the UNSC into authorizing the war. They blamed France, but it wasn’t just France. If the UN General Assembly had voted, Bush and Blair would have lost very badly. The world couldn’t be convinced that there was a casus belli (legal justification for war) here.

The UN Charter also allows immediate action to defend oneself. But although Iraq had invaded Iran and Kuwait in 1980 and 1990 respectively, in 2002 it was minding its own business and had not attacked either the US or Britain.

Despite the leading US role in crafting it, the US political establishment has for the most part seen the UN Charter as a detraction from US national sovereignty, and after the fall of the Soviet Union, Washington gloried in being the sole superpower. The US is a very nice country, but it has a long history of aggressive warfare, and even today suggesting at a Georgetown cocktail party that the US is in any way constrained by international law is to risk a lot of wry knowing grins.

Some would argue that sometimes in the real world the UNSC gets hung up because of the veto of the 5 permanent members, and you have to go around it. But in this case, Bush couldn’t even get NATO to want to go around it. There was no consensus. Bush met with Blair and the Portuguese and Spanish presidents before launching his war, because apparently those were the only European countries he could find to support him.

So that’s it. You don’t need anything else. The Iraq War was an act of pure aggression, no different in moral or legal standing from Hitler’s invasion of Poland. That is what Bush and Blair made themselves. Small Hitlers, betraying all the hopes of the generation of 1945, which dreamed of forestalling further such atrocities.

Had the war been launched in response to Saddam Hussain’s own attack on Iran in 1980, and had there been a consensus at the UNSC for such a move, it could have been justified. But in 2003 there was no international emergency calling for such a war. The level of Western hypocrisy can be measured, however, by the lack of any move to punish Iraq for invading Iran and starting an 8-year war that killed hundreds of thousands. Worse yet, the Reagan administration actually swung behind Iraq in 1983, allied with Saddam, and shielded him from charges brought by Iran to the UNSC that he used mustard gas and perhaps Sarin on Iranian troops at the front. And then the Reagan administration authorized the sale to Iraq of precursors for anthrax. The joke in 2003 was that Bush was asked how he knew that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons, and he responds, “We still have the receipts.”

There are those, whether pacifists or persons of the left, who believe that all military interventions by Western powers should be opposed. For the leftists, this position seems ahistorical, since even Stalin was glad enough to ally with the American bourgeoisie against Hitler’s murder machine. Stalin was pretty far left. As for pacifism, it faces the moral challenge that St. Ambrose brought up, which is if you let a third party be killed when you could have stopped it, you are as guilty as the murderer.

Those who argue that the Iraq War has been a disaster are correct, but that in and of itself is no reason to have opposed it. The Gulf War of 1991 that pushed Saddam’s forces back out of Kuwait had several downsides. Thousands of Shiites were massacred in the aftermath, and tens of thousands of Kurds were at risk of starvation or genocide. But the Gulf War was a just war. It protected Kuwait, a UN member, from being aggressively absorbed by another state. It garnered strong international support, including a UNSC resolution. The army George H. W. Bush assembled in the Saudi Eastern Province included fiercely independent countries such as Syria and Argentina.

So you can’t argue that Blair did the wrong thing because the outcome has been a disaster.

He did the wrong thing because what he did was illegal in international law. Moreover, his methods were dishonest. He lied to his own cabinet, and he hid from them the possibility broached by his own Attorney General, that they could be prosecuted at the Hague for launching a war of aggression. He also lied to the public, repeatedly saying he hadn’t decided on war when he long since had. He also got pressure from BP the oil company, which was afraid Britain would be cut out of new Iraqi oil deals by the Americans. He has never spoken about this.

The Bush-Blair war of aggression in turn authorized many others, and other countries have sometimes openly cited the Iraq War as justification for their own belligerence, or as proof that the West lacks legitimacy when it criticizes the aggression of others. To the hundreds of thousands dead in Iraq, the millions wounded or displaced, must be added the toll from the “wars of choice” W. unleashed on the world.

Related video:

Euronews: ” Sir John Chilcot outlines key findings of report into Iraq war”

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36 Responses

  1. “The charges in the Indictment that the defendants planned and waged aggressive wars are charges of the utmost gravity. War is essentially an evil thing. Its consequences are not confined to the belligerent states alone, but affect the whole world.

    “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”–Nuremberg Trial Proceedings

    “The Chilcot Report has rightly dug deep into the litany of failures of planning for the occupation, the calamitous decision to stand down the Iraqi army and to dissolve the Iraqi state.

    “But the reality is it was the original decision to follow the US president into an unprovoked war in the most volatile region of the world and impose a colonial-style occupation that led to every other disaster.”– British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn

    The pregnant lessons of Nuremberg were clearly not forgotten by the Bush and Blair governments, but nevertheless having been so scrupulously rejected they predictably, indeed with a reproducibility that eludes almost all other intrinsically chaotic mass undertakings of men, again birthed “the accumulated evil of the whole…not confined to the belligerent states alone, but affect[ing] the whole world.”

  2. Chilcot didn’t make any legal findings because it was an Administrative Inquiry not a Judicial Inquiry.

    Sir John Chilcot is a bureaucrat, he is unqualified to make any findings of criminality. We’ve known that since Gordon Brown established the inquiry.

    Mayvbe the USSC should be charged – after all it was them who appointed Bush as President

    • Yes, the Supreme Court are mostly scoundrels, but of course appointed by the same oligarchy that owns the elections and mass media. All US wars since the midpoint of the Korean War were nothing more than excuses for warmongers, who as Aristotle warned millennia ago, must create foreign wars to gain domestic power and overthrow democracy by posing falsely as protectors and accusing their opponents of disloyalty. That is just what they have done. If they had had any intention of establishing democracy or aiding the peoples there, they would have had a long history of humanitarian aid there, when in fact US humanitarian aid amounts to less than one hamburger a year to the world’s neediest.

      If the US had spent its pointless military expenditures since WWII on humanitarian assistance, it would have lifted half the world’s population from poverty. If it had thereby built the roads, schools, and hospitals of the developing world, it would have no organized enemies, and would have truly achieved an American century. It failed to do so because infantile tyrant warmongers controlled elections and mass media, disgraced the United States forever with idiotic wars and a litany of selfishness, and left the US the most despised and anti-democratic nation in the world’s history.

      But no, control of elections and mass media by money couldn’t possibly be the problem: it can’t even be discussed.

  3. If the main reason for objecting to the Iraq war is illegality, than similar arguments apply to the actions of the US and US-supported allies in Syria and Libya. In Libya, there was a Security Council resolution, but Russia and China both objected strenuously to the manipulation of that resolution in order to topple Gaddafi. In the case of Syria, there is no security council resolution that gives Turkey and Saudi Arabia to arm and financially support extremist groups. Arguments that Saudi Arabia and Turkey have rights to a riposte under the right of self-defense also do not hold sway, because such a riposte could only carried out through the national army of the aggrieved party against the actor (Daesh) committing the crime. It does not give Turkey and Syria the license to fund, train, and arm extremist groups or merceneries. If Syria were to use the exact same methods that Turkey is applying in Syria, we would not hesitate to call Syrian actions illegal. The double standard is apparent. Saudi Arabia is illegally bombing Yemen, and spreading murderous sectarianism throughout the middle east. Yet, we never hear anything about the illegality of Saudi actions.

  4. On opposing the Iraq war: “Those who argue that the Iraq War has been a disaster are correct, but that in and of itself is no reason to have opposed it.” and “So you can’t argue that Blair did the wrong thing because the outcome has been a disaster.”

    Are the US of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere legal? Harold Koh thought so, and the the arguments for illegality are definitely weaker than the Iraq war. Yet, the use of drones remains deeply problematic from a moralistic perspective.

    Even if the Iraq war were perfectly legal, that is if China, Russia, and France, acquiesced, and let the US topple Saddam through a Security Council resolution, the decision to invade would still have been immoral. The enormous loss of Iraqi civilian lives in the initial invasion was clear from the outset. To the Iraqis, it is not illegality of the Iraq war that crushes them, but rather the predictable evisceration of their lives and the entire country. There are numerous examples of completely lawful activities that remain deeply problematic from any moral perspective. One can also object to a war based on illegality, and simultaneously object to the same war based on morality or pragmatic reasons. One factor (legality) in of itself does not restrict or mitigate the application of the other (morality).

  5. Thank you, Juan, for making this key point, which the Chilcot report evades by deferring to the hypothetical future judgment of some “properly constituted and internationally recognized court.” Ironically, in the Nuremberg Tribunal it was the United States and Britain who insisted that the first charge Nazi officials should face was that of committing the “Crime against Peace” — making an illegal, aggressive war. Here in the U.S., citizens must continue to insist that international laws are real laws, and that our country should start obeying them.

  6. You know there is no valid reason for going to war when you have to come up with a bogus scare tactic to rally the American people for a needless war. Bush just couldn’t say…”Saddam tried to kill my daddy” and garner a lot of support for war…outside of Texas.

    The Bush administration formed what was known as the Iraq War Group, a group consisting of Wolfowitz, Madeline Carville and others, in order to concoct an excuse the public and press would buy into in order to gain support for the invasion.

    The scare tactic they agreed on….. Saddam was developing nuclear weapons. To drive this point home Condi Rice ramped up the rhetoric when she made her infamous speech about this country “Waking up to a mushroom cloud” if he was not removed..all part of the con job.

    After no WMDs were found Wolfowitz later admitted…”Maybe we pushed the WMD thing a bit too far.” This after mothers and fathers were weeping over their sacrificed sons as they buried them in national cemeteries.

  7. so it was an illegal war launched by criminals using obvious lies as justification…..we know that.

    so it has been a disaster for iraq….we know that.

    so it has been a disaster for the american taxpayer. we know that.

    the question is why are we still bombing eight years after bush left office?

    the question is when will we stop bombing this country we criminally invaded?

  8. “There are those, whether pacifists or persons of the left, who believe that all military interventions by Western powers should be opposed. For the leftists, this position seems ahistorical, since even Stalin was glad enough to ally with the American bourgeoisie against Hitler’s murder machine. Stalin was pretty far left.”

    I am disappointed that you would characterize the anti-war left in such a way. Arguments about where exactly Stalin stood on the political spectrum are probably a waste of time, but today he is completely reviled by all but the most fringe, paranoid sections of the left – the most difficult question for those who advocate violent revolution being, “what if we end up with an other Stalin?” So there is nothing ahistorical about the left opposing policies embraced by Stalin.

    But beyond that, my understanding is that most of the anti-war left oppose Western millitary action not in principle, but based on deep mistrust in the ability and motivation of imperialist states to wage a just war.

    When there is support for war on the left, for example recently to support the Kurds in their struggle against Da’esh, the anti-war response is not that all war is bad, but that because we cannot trust our governments in matters of war, and have little foreign policy influence anyway, it is better to consistently and generally oppose wars.

  9. For those who would like to know what happened in Iraq after the war was “won” in great detail, this book will help:


    The book is very detailed and is a great source for researchers, analysts, journalists and others.

  10. Committing resources to wars without any national interest and more for satisfying a personal vendetta is something for which the initiators should be removed from the pages of history. But: there is no do-over; there is only ensuring that history does NOT exonerate the idiocies that have been perpetrated.

    link to

  11. To me it seems peculiar that the findings of the UN WMD inspection team are almost never included in the discussion. The team used the best intelligence the CIA had about where the WMD were, and never found anything.

    But instead of considering that their might not be any WMD, Bush, with all the power brokers support, decided to throw the inspectors out and invade. Any pleas to give the inspectors a few more months were summarily dismissed.

    Maybe the thinking was that if the inspectors were given a few more months, the WMD invasion rationale would evaporate. Good for the millions of Iraqis, but not for our neocon leadership (including a sitting lady senator of some note).

    What a different world we would have today if we trusted Hans Blix instead of George W Bush.

    • For all the arrogance of Bush and Cheney, one of the bizarre aspects of their war in Iraq is how often they miscalculated. For example, when Saddam Hussein decided to allow the UN inspectors in, Bush and his inner circle were not only caught by surprise but there was no Plan B. Within a few weeks, they quickly concocted something out of discredited intelligence, including a phony nonexistent uranium deal in Niger.

      Allowing the UN inspectors in was a big clue at the time that something was seriously wrong. In the end, the American press was just as culpable as Bush for their failure to note the inconsistencies. I’m not a pacifist and thus I don’t have a default position. I was disgusted in the fall of 2002 but it took Colin Powell’s speech to realize how much of a fraud the whole thing was (ironically, Powell later became a major source for much of what went wrong; I guess even he had his limits).

  12. I would add that there is still another reason that the invasion of Iraq was so disastrously immoral. The powers-that-be in America started a war and therefore all the hell that followed while not thinking that the war was very important. What could be more dishonorable?

    The clear evidence that the powers-that-be did not think the invasion important? They did not expect themselves, their spouses, their children or grandchildren to enlist to help do the invading. Granted they expected someone else and someone else’s spouses, children and grandchildren to enlist and do the fighting, but that’s not the same thing. They will thank them for their service till the cows come home however – if they can get their faces out of plates of cheese nachos long enough.

  13. Ted Arens

    Think of all the killing and mayhem that Bush, Cheney and Blair caused. Just met Eric Lund in Ludington, he lost his arms, awful.

  14. The Iraq War is a U.S.-driven international conspiracy which deprived ordinary Iraqi citizens of anything like the Constitutional Rights we Americans enjoy. The crimes perpetrated by the dog•••• Bush Administration still saturates our foreign policy with unending war, continuous high levels of wealth gobbling by total •••holes and their befouled attendants embedded in Congress like fat ticks aka Paul Ryan.

    Aside from utterly destabilizing the entire region into war for the unforeseeable future, displacing MILLIONS OF INNOCENT PEOPLE in the process, the non-indicted CRIMINAL Bush Administration LIED to Congress and the good people of our country making every U.S. citizen a fully complicit defacto war criminal thereby ENDANGERING every U.S. citizen for terrorist attacks in clear violation of our Constitution. There is the crime which puts George W. Bush and his evil puppet-master Dick Cheney on the docket.

    • Well put, even without caps. History would see those SOBs as properly disposed at club fed Guantanamo for a few years of “rectal feeding” until received by Iran or Iraq for execution by dragging across the landscape until unrecognizable, and then processing into dog food. Same for about a thousand of their accomplices. And a few million of their supporters should be condemned to drift homeless across central Asia. They well knew the effect of their crimes.

  15. To paraphrase the Scottish bard, “Would some power the giftie gie us to set up a new Nuremberg Trial for George W. Bush, Tony Blair and their accomplices.”

  16. So if powerful people can commit any crime, even the worst crimes and skate, what does that say about us and the future of a “free” society? A ruling class exempt from all constraints?
    We’re already there and indications are that the next President will push the evil precedents even further.

  17. Juan, I pretty much know most of what you have presented here; perhaps not so coherently, or thoughtfully. But there is one think I still don’t get. I just don’t understand “why Iraq?” Several of your commentators mention the notion that it was personal, that it was revenge for Saddam’s presumed attempt at killing Bush pere. But somehow that doesn’t (for me) help understand the persistent, strong, unwavering support the President got from Wolfowitz, Cheney, Rumsfield, and dozens of neocon and other supporters. Why Iraq? (And I don’t understand any explanation that includes both “Create democracy in the middle East” and “No nation building!” in the same argument.) Please help me out here.

    • Everybody had their own reason for wanting to invade Iraq. Bush wanted revenge on behalf of his father. I think his evangelical constituency also wanted to admit Christian missionaries to a major Muslim country. Cheney wanted new oil fields for Halliburton. The Project for a New American Century wanted a colony to rehabilitate the idea of empire. Feith wanted to destroy the only Middle East power that could stand in the way of US/Israeli hegemony. Some of them probably knew that there would be opportunities for loot. Billions disappeared into their bank accounts.

      • I think in all fairness it should also be mentioned that there were some, not many, less sinister reasons.

        Neo-cons who believed the first Bush administration betrayed the Saddam opposition who was encouraged to overthrow the dictator at the end of the first gulf war.

        The rising death toll the continued sanction took on the Iraqi population (an especially idiotic argument in hind sight).

      • All nice, but where does eliminating Iran’s most obvious enemy come into the picture? Lots of folks in the US government warned of this Juan.

        • I lived and worked in DC at the time. What ‘lots of folks’? Turned out the “opposition” in the halls of government were too interested in keeping their jobs and picket fences in northern virginia and proved much easier to snuff out than any opposition and ISIL combined in Iraq.

          State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) tried to raise red flags. However the sheep public kept quiet as civil servants were pushed out of jobs for political reasons – conveniently civil servants who raised that opposition. One employee of INR jumped off the roof at State at the time – was that person part of a purge and through depression ended his life? ALl the chips fell into line at the end of the day, and here we are

  18. There was strong international support for the Gulf War, but the Arab world was deeply divided. The final resolution of the Cairo summit, which condemned Iraq’s invasion of Kuwat, was favored by 10 states and opposed by 9.
    @@When the US invaded Panama and set up a puppet regime, the world objected. But the US vetoed 2 UN resolutions condemning their aggression.
    @@There have been a number of aggressive, unjust wars that the UNSC has ignored.
    @@International Law absolutely should be obeyed. It should be enforced. There should be no illegal wars. But the system needs to be greatly improved so that the decisions of the UN actually reflect morality and justice.

  19. You are too dismissive of the Chilcot report. I watched on the BBC some of the political disgust with Blair that followed its release, along with Blair’s abject apology. Such political willingness to assess and accept responsibility is unthinkable over here, where the main miscreant gets a government pension and a library named after him.

    • Like Blair won’t, the entire report is soft soap….. the masterminds of Iraq invasion need to stand trial for crimes against humanity. They knew and had evidence of WMD destruction…were present…and tho not a crime in itself justified all the BS which has followed. The advocates of this war, at a minimum, should be driven from public life…including HRC.

  20. Excellent piece, thank you Dr. Cole, for putting the words down for the record! This column has been a reliable source of information for me since those dark days of 2002 and 2003.

  21. As for pacifism, it faces the moral challenge that St. Ambrose brought up, which is if you let a third party be killed when you could have stopped it, you are as guilty as the murderer.
    I am not a pacifist, and I agree with this principle set forth by St. Ambrose. However, I have a problem with its application.

    There is no way in hell that the US involvement in the Viet Nam war protected anyone.

    During World War II we were fighting the murderous Hitler regime but we, or our allies, also killed thousands of innocents in places like Dresden and Hamburg, not to mention the firebombing of Tokyo to defeat Hitler’s ally. (Or the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

    And earlier, by sending a million troops to France in 1917 we brought about the humiliating defeat of Germany, which set the stage for the rise of Hitler.

    In an age of total war, it is difficult to apply the Rule of St. Ambrose without in the process killing thousands of those we would save.

  22. If the Chilcott Report had been charged with determining the war was legal or not, it would mean jail terms for certain officials

    At least the UK has had a Chilcott Investigation; in the US, what have we had??

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