Plea answered

Yesterday I asked my friends on the pro-war side of the current debate to answer some questions. David Boyum, whose ability to combine brilliance, deep knowledge of policy analysis and moral philosophy, good sense, and good will with voting Republican sometimes makes me despair for the future of the country, responded first.

As to the questions you posed yesterday:

1. Many war opponents assert that an invasion of Iraq without Security Council authorization would violate the UN Charter, and that such a violation trumps all other considerations. End of discussion. War supporters tend to deny that an unauthorized invasion would violate the UN Charter, arguing that force is permitted in the service of previous Council resolutions or self-defense. End of discussion. Both sides are wrong.

Invading Iraq without the imprimatur of the Security Council would certainly violate the UN Charter, but an invasion is nonetheless justifiable because the violation is minor relative to the benefits (in interests and values).

Why is the violation minor? It’s unarguable that the UN Charter has long been a dead letter, if it was ever anything else. No nation, and few honest individuals, consider the UN anything more than a mechanism for voluntary collective action. Witness that so many who now insist on the Security Council’s blessing ardently supported NATO’s military action against Milosevic without Security Council approval. (Recall that Russia opposed the use of force and immediately suspended relations with NATO when Operation Allied Force began airstrikes. And Kofi Annan, after sitting on his hands for years, stood up to criticize NATO for conducting military operations without Security Council backing.) The world survived that “violation” of the UN Charter; it will survive this one as well.

Question: Have treaties ever been sacrosanct outside the pages of international law journals?

2. The diplomatic incompetence of the Bush administration is astonishing. I never thought I’d long for Jim Baker, but after Eagleburger, Christopher, Albright, and now Powell, I have to admit I’ve been experiencing some Baker nostalgia. Baker would never have been outmaneuvered like this.

Coincidentally, Powell’s son, Mike, was similarly outmaneuvered on the FCC a few weeks ago. Maybe there’s something congenital.

3. I tend to think that the “shock and awe” approach is right. It seems like the best strategy for quick and decisive victory, and I’m not convinced it would increase casualties (and other costs) all things considered. Note that shortening the war by a month or two could easily save tens of thousands of sanctions-related deaths.

4. I’m not completely pessimistic about the post-war nation-building phase. 1) Wolfowitz and the other Straussians in the administration, while deeply committed to the end of liberal self-government in Iraq, understand the challenge of liberal republicanism; and 2) the administration will really have its ass on the line here in a way it doesn’t in Afghanistan. That said, our diplomatic incompetence in starting the war may come back to haunt us.

Sean-Paul at the Agonist adds an additional fillip to the Charter-breaking question. Since treaties have in some sense the status of laws, why isn’t it illegal for an official to take an action that violates a treaty? I know that it isn’t actually illegal, but if I ever understood the legal pilpul behind that result fact I’ve forgotten it.


An actual warblogger (Alex Knapp of Heretical Ideas) rises to the challenge:

To summarize the response: 1. Our invasion won’t violate the Charter, or if it would that provision is a dead letter anyway. 2. No, “Shock and Awe” wouldn’t be ok, but we’re not actually going to do it. We should and will occupy Iraq, and yes they are too ready for democracy since lots of Iraqis are educated and secular. (Knapp also claims the zero-funding claim about Afghanistani reconstruction is false.)

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: