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COLLOQUIUM ON THE INVASION OF IRAQ

Note of a Meeting held on Tuesday 23 September 2003

at St Ethelburga’s Centre, 78 Bishopsgate, London EC2N 4AG

 

The meeting was held under the joint auspices of the Council on Christian Approaches to Defence and Disarmament (CCADD) and St Ethelburga’s Centre, with Brian Wicker, Chairman of the British Group of CCADD, in the Chair and more than 30 people present.  The opening speakers were Brian Beedham, Associate Editor emeritus of the Economist newspaper, and Sir Michael Quinlan, formerly Permanent Under Secretary of State in the Ministry of Defence. 

 

Brian Beedham said that he perceived two main and two subsidiary reasons why the military action initiated against Iraq by the United States and the United Kingdom was justified.  The first main reason was the need to limit the spread of weapons of mass destruction, especially among dictatorial and apparently irrational rulers such as Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong-il.  Except in the case of chemical weapons, Saddam had not proceeded beyond planning, or in some instances developing a capability, to produce them.  Nevertheless definitions of “imminence” had been transformed by modern technology; Rolf Ekeus, former United Nations inspector, was clear that Saddam had continued to proceed with his programmes; and he had systematically frustrated UN inspectors, even after the passing of Security Council Resolution no. 1441.

 

The second main reason reflected recent changes in perception of when it is right to intervene for the purpose of “regime change”.  The concept of sovereign immunity of states, currently enshrined in Article 2 (7) of the United Nations Charter, could be traced back to the Peaces of Augsburg (1555) and Westphalia (1648).  In the light of recent developments, however, not least the general approval accorded to intervention in East Timor and Kosovo, there was perhaps a need for a new rule applicable universally and perhaps directed particularly to the fostering of democracy and the preservation of human rights.

 

Subsidiary reasons were the desirability of removing the last Arab government that still refused to recognise Israel, and of increasing the availability of oil at reasonable prices to poorer as well as richer countries. 

 

Sir Michael Quinlan opened with two “ground-clearing” points, on motivation and on consequences.  On motivation, some elements in the US administration had wanted this war since before 9/11 and for reasons which might not score too well in the Just War calculus – oil, the interests of Israel, doctrinaire political transformation of the region.  In Britain, the Prime Minister probably realised that the President was determined upon regime change: his judgement of the primacy for Britain of the Anglo-American relationship then led to his decision to join in the military operation.  None of this necessarily made the war wrong; it is entirely possible to do the right thing for imperfect reasons. 

 

On consequences, the jury was still out on whether Iraq and the region were or would be better off than if the war had not been fought.  But even if they were, this did not necessarily make the war right: the Just War calculus required an assessment of traditional criteria such as lawful authority, just cause, last resort, and proportion.  He wished to focus on “just cause” and on the four candidate causes that had at various times been presented – the character of Saddam’s regime, his defiance of Security Council authority in respect of weapons of mass destruction, the threat that he presented to the region, and the particular threat to the West (above all the United States). 

 

He (Sir Michael) was indeed glad that Saddam’s regime no longer existed; but removing bad regimes by external force was still not an accepted principle of international law or practice, and could not be made so by the simple say-so of a single distant power.  Saddam had indeed obstructed the execution of Security Council resolutions; but it seemed bizarre to purport to uphold the authority of the Council by means which the Council was not itself prepared to support.  No substantial neighbours of Iraq had declared her a threat to the region, and indeed she had appeared much less of a threat since her severe defeat in 1991.

 

The alleged threat to the United States rested on the combination of the propositions that Saddam had a large armoury of biological and chemical weapons; that he was an active supporter of al-Quaida and would give them some of his weapons; and that they would use them against the United States and would kill large numbers of Americans.  None of these propositions could be formally disproved; but they were very little backed by evidence and in aggregate had, at best, a notably low probability.

 

On the other hand the American action was certain to kill large numbers of people and to inflict massive damage.  The comparative balancing of risks and consequences was central to the new American doctrine of pre-emption.  A ruler’s duty to protect his own people does not confer an absolute entitlement to inflict heavy and certain penalties on another country’s citizens in order to remove a highly speculative risk to one’s own.  In short, the war was unjustified and had created a nasty mess.  Nevertheless, irrespective of who was to blame, every member of the international community had a duty to help in clearing it up. 

 

There ensued a lengthy and vigorous discussion in which nearly everyone present took part, and which is reported thematically rather than consecutively.

 

Some current linguistic usages were challenged.  Was it really a “war” against terror, or rather an international police operation against criminals?  If it was a war, why were persons captured in it not treated as prisoners of war under the relevant conventions?  If it was a “police operation” against criminals, who were the criminals?  No links had been established between Iraq and al-Quaida comparable with those which had justified intervention in Afghanistan.  While nuclear weapons were unquestionably “weapons of mass destruction”, how far was the same true of chemical and biological weapons?  Leaving Hiroshima and Nagasaki aside, had not the principal “weapon of mass destruction” been conventional bombing, as in the Second World War or on a lesser scale in the two Iraq wars?  Had not the most striking terrorist action, namely 9/11, involved the hi-jacking of conventional aircraft rather than the use of chemical or biological weapons?

 

The question was raised how far the ideological pursuit of democracy should be regarded as an overriding objective justifying infringement of the sovereignty of other states.  Perhaps the question, does this promote democracy? should be subordinate to the question, does this make the world a better or a safer place?  On the one hand, the fact that democracy suits us very well did not necessarily make it equally suitable for people of different cultures or historical backgrounds.  On the other hand, references to “cultures” or “the civilised world” were liable to seem patronising, and in some contexts even racist.  But it was certainly difficult to see how far the hostility towards America and Britain (and perhaps to some extent towards Christendom/”the West”) generated throughout the Muslim world by the action against Iraq could be said to have made the world a better or a safer place.  This led in turn to the question how far the Just War criteria (which in general terms were as applicable to the “war against terror” as to war between nation-states) should include a calculation of whether the outcome will be for good or for bad.  Or was this question adequately covered by “right intention” and/or “proportion”?  And how heavily should consequential arguments of this kind weigh against the important criteria of “just cause” and “last resort”?

 

It was recognised that the concept of “sovereignty” as set out in Article 2 (7) of the Charter had in practice been modified in recent years by operations in the Balkans and in East Timor.  Some felt that this reflected a moral duty, or moral right, to intervene where human rights were being abused or placed in jeopardy, and that this not only justified the action in Iraq but should equally have been applied to places like Rwanda or Zimbabwe.  Others pointed out that this raised the question, why pick on Iraq?  Disgraceful as Saddam’s regime had been, it was probably not the worst offender.  The action against Iraq had not to any significant extent been sold at the time as humanitarian intervention; the emphasis had been on weapons of mass destruction and the danger of their falling into terrorist hands.

 

While no participant used the term “aggression”, there was some discussion of the legitimacy of pre-emptive action.  Reference was made to the 1930s as illustrating the consequences of not nipping an incipient threat in the bud, and it was suggested that Saddam similarly showed every sign of being an expansionist dictator.  Others felt that, whatever the legitimacy of “getting one’s retaliation in first”, the important question was who would be the judge of when it was permissible?  How far did the salience of this point in recent years reflect the unipolar position of the United States?  Yet in the conflicts of the 1990s the United States had tended to intervene only late and reluctantly.  How far should the United Nations be built up as an arbiter?  And in cases of humanitarian intervention, should non-governmental organisations be given a role in the judgement?

 

Responding briefly to the debate, Brian Beedham felt that we were all embarking upon a re-examination of such questions as the nature of international law and the role of the United Nations.  The case for the war had rested at least as much upon fas (right) as upon lex (law).  Whereas the basis for domestic law was a consensus within a political community upon how lex should be derived from fas, the development of a similar international political community was still embryonic.  Could the United Nations be developed upon these lines?

 

Sir Michael Quinlan accepted that the concept of sovereignty had been somewhat diluted in recent years, but felt that it was still an important factor whose infringement required very careful justification.  He believed that in the case of Iraq insufficient consideration had been given either to the likely consequences or to the application of other means, and that what had been done was wrong.  But what really mattered was to look to the future, both in the reconstruction of Iraq and of the Middle East, and on the wider questions to which Brian Beedham had referred.

 

The Chairman expressed his thanks to all who had participated in the debate, and the meeting warmly endorsed his special tribute to the two opening speakers.