There was plenty of outrage south of the border last week over the news that the British newspaper, the Guardian, had organized a letter-writing campaign to influence undecided American voters. "How dare they?" huffed CNN anchor Lou Dobbs.
The denunciations of "outside interference" were so fierce one could have easily been left with the impression that Americans are scrupulous themselves about never interfering in the affairs of other nations.
Of course, we know this isn't the case. So it was hard not to see a double standard at work. Apparently, invading another country is okay, but writing letters to voters in another country is really crossing the line.
Two years ago, America outed itself as a full-fledged military empire, when George W. Bush declared Washington's right to launch pre-emptive wars wherever or whenever it deems necessary.
This declaration of the ultimate right to intervene in the affairs of other countries is perhaps the single most alarming policy of the Bush administration. And it has opened up a deep divide between America and millions of people around the world who find the doctrine offensive.
Yet, astonishingly, the Bush administration's assertion of Washington's right to launch wars is not even being debated in the current presidential election campaign.
If anything, the opposite is happening. Instead of Bush being on the defensive for effectively declaring America an empire, John Kerry has been on the defensive over whether he is sufficiently pro-empire.
Ever since Kerry suggested in the first debate that the U.S. invasion of Iraq didn't "pass the global test," Bush has relished the line, bringing it up repeatedly in an effort to paint Kerry as soft on empire.
My guess is that Kerry, who took a principled stand against the Vietnam War, would behave less aggressively in the world than Bush.
But, in this campaign, Kerry seems keen to present himself as being just as militaristic as the next guy. He's responded to Bush by insisting he'd never allow America's right to wage war to be subject to the approval of other countries, in other words to be bound by the same rules that bind other nations.
Of course, abiding by international law doesn't leave a country unable to defend itself.
The U.N. Charter specifies that every country has the right to act in self-defence if attacked. But any other use of force is illegal, unless the Security Council determines it to be in the collective interest of international peace and security.
When Washington realized it couldn't win Security Council approval for its plan to invade Iraq, it withdrew its request and went to war without U.N. approval. In other words, it went to war illegally — a fact noted last month by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in a BBC interview.
Tellingly, Annan's statement caused barely a ripple in the U.S. presidential race. Although the Iraq war is front and centre in the campaign, the debate is confined to questions like which candidate has a better strategy for winning or whether Americans would be safer if the U.S. had concentrated, instead, on pursuing Osama bin Laden.
These are interesting questions, but they don't address Annan's larger point, one that simply doesn't register in the U.S., that Washington has no right to invade another country. In other words, this isn't just about the safety of Americans. It's about the safety of other people, too.
Michael Mandel, a law professor at York University's Osgoode Hall, notes that the Nuremberg Tribunal following World War II ruled that starting a war of aggression is the supreme international crime, because it's the crime from which all the other war-related crimes flow.
Mandel argues that the invasion of Iraq amounts to the supreme international crime.
The Bush administration has tried to claim the high moral ground, stressing that it puts great effort into avoiding civilian casualties in Iraq.
This is nonsense. If it is engaged in a war of aggression, any casualties it creates — deliberate or accidental — are a violation of international law, not to mention a gross injustice. And countless Iraqis have been killed by U.S. forces in Iraq.
Washington presents its ongoing attacks on insurgents as self-defensive, but Mandel insists that an aggressor has no right to self-defence. "If you break into someone's house and hold them at gunpoint and they try to kill you but you kill them first, they're guilty of nothing and you're guilty of murder."
But the typical American voter would have little sense of any of this — unless, perhaps, he or she received a letter from a newspaper reader in Britain who had the barefaced audacity to try to intervene in the affairs of another country.
© 2004 Toronto Star