Intervention in Iraq

Ralph Zuljan

International interest in Iraq prior to the US-led intervention in 2003 arose from the exceptional status this country occupied in the decade since the Gulf War 1991. At the conclusion of that conflict, the United Nations (UN) imposed severe limits on Iraqi sovereignty. How best to bring about an end to its exceptionality was a widely discussed topic and the United States, a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), held the opinion that nothing less than a regime change could justify an end to Iraqi exceptionality. The fact that none of the other UNSC members seriously proposed ending Iraq's exceptional status, so long as Saddam Hussein continued to rule, suggests all permanent members agreed to some extent with the American opinion. The Bush administration made a concerted effort to build an international consensus on a forcible regime change in Iraq.

Initial American efforts to build a coalition to support a military intervention in Iraq were based on allegations that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and that the Baathist regime had ties to Al Quida. Neither assertion was widely accepted within the UNSC. However, all the discussion pointed to the fact that while there a great deal of disagreement over the means, there was a general consensus at the UNSC for a change of government in Iraq in order to end Iraq's special status. The disagreement at the UNSC was over the means to bring about a regime change, there was general agreement on a need for a regime change.

Obviously, war or a UN sanctioned military intervention was an option on the table but it did not have even majority support within the Security Council, much less the unanimous consent of the permanent members. But what other options existed? Hope for a revolution in Iraq, still the most widely preferred solution, seemed unrealistic by 2002. The status quo established at the end of the Gulf War had already been in place for a decade. No reasonable observer expected the Baathists to lose control of Iraq, within the limits of Iraqi sovereignty imposed after the Gulf War. However, there seemed to be growing interest in ending the exceptional status of Iraq within the UNSC. The case for war then, spearheaded by the USA but supported by other countries as well, can be seen as the only realistic option available to resolve the exceptional status of Iraq and re-establish unlimited sovereignty.

The failure of the Bush administration to secure broad support for a military intervention was evident in the lack of a new UNSC resolution on Iraq. American determination to press ahead regardless resulted in the ad hoc creation of the "coalition of the willing" and a unilateral decision for intervene in Iraq on the basis of the existing Security Council resolutions. The United States rationalized its military intervention on this basis as a result of its claims that Iraq continued to possess WMDs and had ties to Al Quida terrorist network while also asserting its rights to defend itself from this perceived threat to US security. Within the context of the UN system the unilateral decision by the US was completely legitimate.

For some time, there was a great deal of debate about the legitimacy of the US-led intervention in Iraq. However, the United States carried out its military intervention in accordance with the expectations of the UN Charter and operated within the bounds of international legitimacy. It is worth noting that no UN member state ever formally questioned American actions within the confines of the United Nations. The debate about the legitimacy of the coalition invasion of Iraq was essentially carried out for public consumption and not diplomatically significant. Governments of most member states were probably relieved that the problem of Iraq had been resolved even if they could not formally condone American unilateralism.

A great deal of the Iraq problem arose from inability to agree on a legitimate means to the end of bringing about a regime change in Iraq. Although the UNSC wanted an end to the Baathist dictatorship in order to restore Iraqi sovereignty, it could not find a legitimate means to arriving at this goal. Most UNSC members balked at the evidence provided by the US administration as justification for a military intervention in Iraq. It was fairly transparent, even at the time, that the goal of such action was to affect a regime change in Iraq. Indeed, after the American fait accompli failed to produce any convincing evidence of WMDs or Baathist links to Al Quida, American officials began to publicly emphasize the removal of Saddam as a consequence of the intervention. This would have been indefensible in the UN system as a casus belli.

Originally published in "Articles On War" at on February 1, 2007.

Former links associated with this file include: