In the debate about a U.S. war against Iraq, the question often pops up: Should
the United States be the world's policeman?
This is a case where the answer doesn't matter, because it is the wrong question.
The United States isn't offering to be the world's cop; U.S. officials are acting
as the world's bully.
The role of police is to uphold the law. We all know that police officers
sometimes fail to do so and that those who should hold them accountable sometimes
look the other way. But police don't boast that they will respect only those laws
they decide to respect. When officers are nailed for disregarding the law, they
All this talk about being the world's policeman helps obscure a simple reality:
U.S. policy-makers routinely ignore international law and act as rogues.
Was the United States acting as a police officer in 1989 when President George
H.W. Bush ordered the invasion of Panama to depose Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian
dictator and former CIA asset? The attack was denounced all over the world as
an illegal act of aggression, not because other countries particularly liked Mr.
Noriega but because the U.S. attack was unlawful.
Such contempt for international law is a bipartisan affair. In 1998, after
passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution on weapons inspections in Iraq,
diplomats came out of the meeting and told reporters that the resolution didn't
give any nation the right to move unilaterally against Iraq. Bill Richardson,
then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, simply shrugged and said, "We
think it does." By the end of the year, President Bill Clinton had ordered
an illegal strike on Iraq.
Now, as the Bush administration is lauded for going the extra mile for diplomacy
by ramming through a new U.N. Security Council resolution on Iraq, administration
officials are announcing their intention to ignore the law. The resolution calls
for the Security Council – not any individual member state – to consider
possible responses if Iraq doesn't comply. But the United States simply declares
its intention to ignore the law.
White House chief of staff Andrew Card said, "The U.N. can meet and discuss,
but we don't need their permission."
Secretary of State Colin Powell, the administration's official "dove,"
repeatedly has made it clear that the United States won't be "handcuffed"
by the United Nations.
U.S. officials don't try to hide their contempt for the law – or the
intelligence of others. John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations,
reassured the other nations on the Security Council that the resolution the United
States had drafted included no "hidden triggers" for a U.S. strike.
Yet he also contended the resolution "does not constrain any member state
from acting to defend itself against the threat posed by Iraq or to enforce relevant
U.N. resolutions and protect world peace and security."
That is what President Bush meant in September when he challenged the United
Nations to be "relevant": If you do what we say, we will give you some
minor role in executing our policy. If you don't, we will do what we please.
Administration officials seem to think that simply repeating the phrase "Iraq
is a threat to America" will make it so and somehow justify a war.
But it is clear that the latest Security Council resolution doesn't authorize
a U.S. war on Iraq, nor does the U.N. Charter, the ultimate legal authority.
That means that if Mr. Bush takes the country to war, we won't be the world's
policeman but simply the world's bully with the power to ignore the law.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin
and author of Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas From the Margins to the
Mainstream. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org