Western Bombing of Iraq violates the International Law

One of the hardest jobs in the world has to be “Pentagon spokesperson,” the fellow who gets stuck explaining that up is down and black is white.

For example, when the United States and Great Britain last week violated international law once again with another bombing raid on Iraqi air defense sites, a Pentagon spokesperson had to explain why U.S. aggression is necessary to keep the peace.

“The main aim of the strike was to protect our aircraft and our pilots,” the spokescolonel said, “and obviously the way you do that is to degrade [Iraq’s] ability to target and hit us.”

The aircraft and pilots in question have for the past decade been patrolling the so-called “no-fly zones” in northern and southern Iraq, in which Iraq is forbidden to launch aircraft. The United States and Britain claim that a 1991 U.N. Security Council resolution authorizes them to bomb at will.

The only problem is that the resolution cited clearly does not set up the  zones or authorize any nation to unilaterally carry out such actions. In short: The U.S. and U.K. are perpetrating acts of aggression that violate international law.

The rest of the world understands this, but no challenge is mounted simply  because the United States is the biggest bully on the block, and in this case the law is what bully says.

So, the hard-working Pentagon spokesperson has to make sure that no one notices the obvious: If the United States truly wanted to protect aircraft and pilots, it would stop flying illegal and provocative military missions over another sovereign nation.

The spokesperson’s problem is all made more difficult, and sordid, by the hypocritical rationale given: The no-fly zones, we are told, are there to protect the Kurds in the north and the Shi’a Muslims in the south from Iraqi repression. That repression is real enough, but I doubt that the Shi’a, who attempted to rise up in 1991 after the war and were slaughtered by Saddam Hussein’s army under the watchful eye of U.S. forces, are reassured to know the United States is now their protector. Nor are the Kurds, who have been used as a political ping-pong ball by Washington for decades, likely to be bolstered by the news.

Admittedly, the spokesperson’s bosses have a difficult job, too. U.S. policy toward Iraq has for a decade been a combination of sadism and ineptitude. The cornerstone of the policy has been the harshest economic embargo in modern history, which U.N. studies indicate are directly responsible for the death of 1 million Iraqi civilians. These deaths are not accidental; recent revelations show that U.S. officials knew that sanctions would disable the Iraqi water system and cause massive civilian death.

Perhaps U.S. officials once thought the sanctions would force Saddam Hussein from power, but after 11 years it is clear the embargo has actually strengthened his regime. So, the United States stumbles around looking for a way out of the corner it has painted itself into. Congress votes money to support ineffectual and exiled Iraqi resistance groups, and national security officials talk tough about military action.

Although Bush administration officials seem even more eager to escalate the level of violence, this illegal U.S. conduct is a bipartisan affair; the attacks went on throughout the Clinton administration as well. Republicans and Democrats alike seem perfectly happy to violate international law and reject the overwhelming international consensus to end the sanctions. On both sides of the aisle, it is agreed that the U.S. upholds the rule of law by violating the law and presses forward with diplomacy by trashing diplomacy.

No matter which party is in power, nary a mention of these unpleasant facts shows up in the mainstream press or on television news. The fault lies not with individual journalists but with the ideological framework for reporting on U.S. policy, which takes as a given that the United States has the power, and hence the right, to impose its will on the world, with extreme violence if necessary.

So, while this sadistic incompetence continues, the rest of the world waits for the global bully to back down. These other nations are well aware that Hussein is a thug in charge of a gangster regime, but they also know that the welfare of Iraqi civilians and the hope of real peace in the region requires bringing Iraq back into the family of nations.

Mr. Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.