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Force in a Single Superpower World

When Is the Use of Military Force Acceptable Internationally?

Mary Kathryn Barbier, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Department of History
Mississippi State University

In the fall of 2002, when the Bush administration began making a case for intervention in Iraq, I was teaching in Canada. Many of my students vocally expressed their disagreement with the, at the time, impending US invasion of Iraq. A colleague down the hall had an enlargement of a newspaper article on his door. The title of the article was “American Aggression is a War Crime.” An anti-war petition was prominently displayed in the department’s office for signatures by sympathetic colleagues, students, and staff. In February 2003 after Colin Powell’s speech before the United Nations Security Council, one of my students belligerently asked what I thought about Canada not participating with the US and Great Britain in the invasion of Iraq. He seemed quite surprised when he didn’t receive the response that he had expected. I replied that Canada had to do what was in the country’s best interest and that Canada had decided that it was not prudent to intervene in the Arab nation. Then, as now, the situation in Iraq sparks debate, and much of that debate is heated.

Much of the debate has revolved around an important issue. When is the use of military force, especially when it is used by the world’s only superpower, acceptable internationally? In many respects, the answer to this question is simple, but the implementation is always complicated. Because of the current world situation, particularly in the Middle East, the concept of asymmetry is presently being applied to non-state actors engaged in organized violence against people and/or states. This mainly applies to terrorist organizations, but it could also apply to rogue states that fail to accept the norms and rules of the international system. Historical precedent identifies four scenarios that generally require the use of force: when a country has been attacked; pre-emption; prevention; and when the international state system itself is attacked. I would like to examine each of these scenarios in greater detail, as well as discuss examples of each.

The most obvious reason for the use of military force by a nation is when that nation has been attacked. An attack generally warrants a response although the nature of the response can vary. On 12 December 1937, Japanese aviators bombed and sank the US gunboat Panay as it sailed the Yangtze River in China. Although the attack was undoubtedly deliberate, the American public seized eagerly on Japanese protestations that the bombing had been an accident and pressured the Roosevelt administration to accept Japan’s apologies and overlook the attack. By December 1941, however, the situation between the US and Japan had deteriorated to the point where the US would not and could not ignore the attack on Pearl Harbor. A US declaration of war resulted.

The world has altered considerably since December 1941. Two superpowers emerged from World War II and soon after a Cold War existed between them and their respective allies. This standoff ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989/1990. The United States, the sole remaining superpower has faced many challenges since the end of the Cold War, none more so than the dramatic changes in the nature of the threats to the United States’ national security. Instead of other nations posing the most serious threats, now they come from terrorist organizations, such as al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda orchestrated their most serious surprise attack against the United States on September 11, 2001, when two hijacked planes rammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. A third plane flew into the Pentagon, and the fourth hijacked passenger plane was crashed in Pennsylvania, forced down by the passengers themselves before it hit its intended target. The events on September 11 constituted an attack against the United States that required a definite response. Consequently, the US acted. Promising to punish both the terrorists and the nations that harbored them, President George W. Bush authorized military operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan and declared a ‘War on Terror.’

As events over the past two years have demonstrated, nations, in this case the United States and a coalition of willing allies, sometimes initiate military action before an openly belligerent enemy can launch an attack first. The catch phrase that describes this type of military action is pre-emption. When someone is on the verge of striking you, sometimes it is prudent to hit them first. Pre-emption was always part of internationally accepted practice, but it was essentially abolished by the 1945 UN Charter. However, it soon became obvious that under the doctrine of legal interpretation of treaties, it would be ‘manifestly absurd’ strictly to adhere to this UN change strictly. A couple of examples nicely illustrate the desirable and legitimate use of pre-emptive military action.

In June1962, U-2 flights over Cuba indicated some unusual activity – the construction of anti-aircraft missile emplacements by the Soviets. By mid-October, US intelligence discovered Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis was underway. Kennedy and his advisors considered a number of options, including doing nothing. The list of active options included increased diplomatic pressures, a secret approach to Castro, invasion to overthrow Castro and the physical elimination of the missiles on the island, air strikes, and a blockade. Although there was some risk, Kennedy chose to order a blockade of Cuba, even though such an action constituted an act of war. Following an extremely tense period and intensive behind the scenes diplomatic negotiations, Kennedy and Khrushchev reached an agreement. The Soviets removed the missiles from Cuba, and Kennedy withdrew the blockade. The situation was defused. Kennedy decided not to wait for the Soviets and Cubans to launch missiles at Atlanta or New Orleans, or some other crucial American city. Instead he initiated pre-emptive military action.1

The recent rise of organized terrorism underlines this approach as a possible solution. The growing threat of weapons of mass destruction/mass effect tend to make pre-emptive strikes the more ethical, as well as decisive, option rather than appeasement, which could inevitably lead to mass murder by terrorist organizations or the leaders of rogue states, such as North Korea. Although some nations tend to favor appeasement, recorded history is littered with examples of failure, the most celebrated perhaps being the failure to appease Hitler’s territorial demands in Europe during the 1930s. There is no evidence to suggest that appeasement would work any better in the twenty-first century. In fact, most if not all contemporary terrorists would categorize appeasement as a sign of weakness, which they would invariably exploit. Concerned about North Korea’s nuclear program, Japan has rejected appeasement as an option and has already given warning that it reserves the right to launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea if it (Japan) feels threatened by a nuclear attack.

President Bush labeled three countries rogue nations – Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. I want to say a brief word about Iraq with regard to pre-emptive attacks. On October 7, 2002, Bush gave a speech in Cincinnati, in which he outlined the threat posed by Iraq and argued why the United States, in conjunction with other nations, should consider taking pre-emptive action against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. A month later, American Roman Catholic bishops met to discuss a number of issues, including the position that they would take with regard to US military intervention in Iraq. The bishops debated whether or not action in Iraq could be considered a “just war.” Although many of the bishops agreed with Bishop Walter F. Sullivan of Richmond, VA, who suggested that they clearly state their opposition to the war in Iraq, one retired archbishop stood up in favor of the proposed US intervention. Former Archbishop Philip M. Hannan of New Orleans cautioned his colleagues about saying that they were “entirely against war.” This was not the first time that Archbishop Hannan had opposed the pacifist positions of the bishops. He said that “based on his experience helping at concentration camps in World War II he could back a pre-emptive attack on a ‘despotic power’ like Saddam Hussein.”2

The third circumstance when military force is appropriate is for prevention. This is becoming in theory a necessary, if extremely rare, doctrine. An example where prevention seems appropriate is with regard to Iran. If all diplomatic, legal, treaty-based, extraordinary extended peaceful efforts do not cause the Iranians to abide by their internationally-accepted obligations, then it may be necessary to launch an attack to disable their facilities. As was the case before going into Iraq, the US should first request that the UN Security Council address the issue, but if, as in the past, collective security does not work, then the US must be willing to act alone to uphold the international system, despite the risk of condemnation by the very system that it is trying to protect.

There is another possibility that may supercede the US’s willingness to act against Iran either alone or with a coalition. Unlike the situation in 1991 during First Gulf War, when Israel acquiesced in US pressure and did not respond to Iraqi attempts at provocation, Israel may feel compelled to bomb the Iranian nuclear facilities if the US and the international community fail to act quickly and decisively enough to remove the threat. An Israeli attack of this sort could be interpreted in a number of ways. First, Israel would be acting in self-defense because the international community failed to deal with the problem. Second, the United States and other major powers, however unwisely, might have left this issue unresolved because they knew that the Israelis would deal with it. In both scenarios, the Iranian nuclear facilities are attacked and destroyed but which one – the US or the Israeli attack – would have served the international community best?

One has to ask certain questions with regard to the US and Iran’s nuclear program. What are the implications of a US military solution to the Iranian nuclear question as opposed to an Israeli one? In the case of Iran, with all other diplomatic and international efforts exhausted, is it not better for the US to have intervened militarily than Israel? What are the alternatives to US intervention? One possibility is appeasement, but, as I have already suggested, appeasement rarely if ever works. If Israel were somehow persuaded not to bomb the Iranian nuclear facilities, a possible long-range outcome is a nuclear war in the Middle East, one between Israel and Iran initially, but one that could expand throughout the entire region and possibly beyond. On a side note, I should mention that currently, Israel probably does not have the long-range capabilities to degrade the Iranians, facilities substantially and that if they could muster such a capability, Iran does not at present possess a nuclear weapon to use in reaction. That being said, by initiating military action, the US could conceivably prevent a nuclear war. It is possible that the US will yet again decide to act without the support of the UN Security Council, and perhaps, as the world’s sole super power, it has an ethical obligation to do so.

This leads us back to a discussion of the US’s decision to form a coalition and intervene in Iraq without the support of the UN Security Council and the fourth instance that could conceivably warrant the use of military force – when the international state system has been attacked. According to George Shultz, former Secretary of State, “the state system has been eroding. Terrorists have exploited this weakness by burrowing into the state system in order to attack it.”3 In a speech to the Library of Congress in February 2004, Shultz argued that the US has a responsibility to shore up the state system through strength and diplomacy. In the 1990s the state system failed in Somalia and in Afghanistan. “All government disappeared,” which in effect meant that the state no longer existed. According to Shultz, radical Islamists, who seized control in Afghanistan considered the idea of “the state” un-Islamic and wanted to revive “traditional forms of pan-Islamic rule with no place for the state. They were fundamentally, and violently, opposed to the way the world works, to the international state system.”4

In the wake of September 11th, the United States “launched a military campaign to eliminate the Taliban and the [terrorist] group al Qaeda’s rule over Afghanistan.” In addition to eliminating the terrorist base in Afghanistan, the goal was to help the country become a viable member of the international state system again. The danger to the region comes, however, when despots who sponsor terrorism, such Saddam Hussein, seize control of state power and use it to their own ends, including the development of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. According to the UN Security Council and US intelligence, in 1999 “Saddam Hussein had biological weapons sufficient to produce over 25,000 liters of anthrax,” “materials sufficient to produce more than 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin,” and the materials to produce as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard, and VX nerve agent.” In addition, he had “upwards of 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents.”5

For years Saddam Hussein violated the “laws and principles of the international system,” while at the same time using the system to prevent intervention into the internal affairs of a supposedly legitimate sovereign state. In making his case for intervention in Iraq, Bush argued that “year after year, Saddam Hussein has gone to elaborate lengths, spent enormous sums, taken great risks to build and keep weapons of mass destruction. But why? The only possible explanation, the only possible use he could have for those weapons, is to dominate, intimidate, or attack.”6 The primary justification of the Bush administration for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 was the presence of weapons of mass destruction. Whether the weapons existed or not, Saddam, by hindering UN inspections, gave the impression that he had not abandoned his biological, chemical, and nuclear programs, which was a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 687, issued on 3 April 1991, which established the UN Special Commission on weapons (Unscom), extended sanctions, and included the “Saddam Hussein clause,” which linked “the continuation of sanctions with the survival of the present Iraqi regime.”

One could argue, however, that the 2003 war against Saddam Hussein was more than a war to uncover his weapons of mass destruction. It was about his flat-out defiance and assault on the international system going back 20 years and especially since the first war against him authorized by the international system in 1991. Between April 1991 and March 2003, the UN Security Council passed at least sixteen resolutions, which became the basis for the 2003 war. The crucial one was Resolution 1441, which was adopted by the Security Council on 8 November 2002. According to the resolution, the Security Council “further recalling that its resolution 687 (1991) imposed obligations on Iraq as a necessary step for achievement of its stated objective of restoring international peace and security in the area, Deploring the fact that Iraq has not provided an accurate, full, final, and complete disclosure, as required by resolution 687 (1991), of all aspects of its programmes to develop weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles with a range greater than one hundred and fifty kilometres, and of all holdings of such weapons, their components and production facilities and locations, as well as all other nuclear programmes, including any which it claims are for purposes not related to nuclear-weapons-usable material, . . .”7 In addition, “the nature of Saddam Hussein’s regime – including a decade of Iraqi noncompliance with international arms inspections and its open support for Palestinian suicide bombers – enabled the hardliners [within the Bush administration] to establish a credible threat in a potential relationship between Saddam Hussein and international terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda.8

Despite the failure of the UN Security Council to pass an additional resolution, which was proposed by Spain, the US, and the UK, on 7 March 2003, the US and its coalition members decided that the situation in Iraq demanded action. It is worth noting, however, that the reasons for taking action to overthrow Saddam were multiple – humanitarian, pre-emptive, and legal. The case made by the previous resolutions was the strongest that had ever been made in this regard. In some respects, the war in Iraq was, and is, not as necessarily as the Bush administration expected. “The United States, in its war with Iraq, has intervened in this civil war in the Middle East in an effort to end the use of Iraq as a cover for despotism and to help the Iraqi people regain their legitimate sovereign statehood.”9 However, the civil war now extends beyond Iraq and threatens the existence of the international system in the region.

“On one side are those who, on the basis of Islamist beliefs, reject the international system of states, international law and organization, international values and principles, and diplomacy as a means to work through problems.”10 They tend to use terrorist methods in an effort to undermine the international system. In his speech before the UN Security Council in February 2003, then Secretary of State Colin Powell argued that “Iraq and terrorism go back decades. Baghdad trains Palestine Liberation Front members in small arms and explosives. Saddam uses the Arab Liberation Front to funnel money to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers in order to prolong the Intifada. And it’s no secret that Saddam’s own intelligence service was involved in dozens of attacks or attempted assassinations in the 1990s.”11

“On the other side of this civil war are those regimes in the Arab-Islamic world that, however much they may have appeased, bought out, or propagandized the terrorists, have recognized that they are members of the international system of states and must find a way to reconcile Islamic beliefs and practices to it.”12 These are the regimes that the US is striving to protect, along with the international state system.

I would argue that, as the world’s only superpower, the United States ethically should, and even must use, force to end terror and asymmetric attacks against the international system rather than appease people, groups, and states, such at Iraq, that have no intention of being good citizens in the international community. The US has both the capability and the intent to act to defend itself and the wider international community.13 Former Secretary of State Colin Powell provided the ethical justification for intervention in Iraq in his speech before the UN Security Council on 5 February 2003. He said, “For more than 20 years, by word and by deed Saddam Hussein has pursued his ambition to dominate Iraq and the broader Middle East using the only means he knows, intimidation, coercion and annihilation of all those who might stand in his way. For Saddam Hussein, possession of the world’s most deadly weapons is the ultimate trump card, the one he must hold to fulfill his ambition. We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction; he’s determined to make more. Given Saddam Hussein’s history of aggression, given what we know of his grandiose plans, given what we know of his terrorist associations and given his determination to exact revenge on those who oppose him, should we take the risk that he will not some day use these weapons at a time and the place and in the manner of his choosing and at a time when the world is in a much weaker position to respond? The United States will not and cannot run that risk to the American people. Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option, not in a post-September 11th world.”14

As indicated by its failure to pass a resolution proposed on 7 March 2003, the UN Security Council demonstrated that collective security does not always work. Therefore, if the UN is unwilling to do what is necessary to protect the international state system or to take preventative or pre-emptive action when it is warranted, the US, as the world’s sole super power, must find the political and ethical merits in using force to uphold the international system and in the necessity of pre-emptive action to deal with terrorists and rogue states despite the international condemnation that may result. The US might equally face condemnation if it fails to live up to its responsibilities to itself and to the international state system and, like the appeasers of the past, does nothing until it is far too late.

End Notes

1. Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Longman, 1999), 111-120.

2. Laurie Goodstein, “Bishops Turn to Writing Antiwar Policy,” New York Times, 12 November 2002.

3. George Shultz, Library of Congress Speech, delivered on 11 February 2004. Copy of speech in author’s possession.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.; George W. Bush, State of the Union Address, delivered on 28 January 2003.

6. Bush, State of the Union Address, delivered on 28 January 2003.

7. UN Security Council Resolution 1441 (2002).

8. Jon Western, Selling Intervention & War: The Presidency, the Media, and the American Public (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 179.

9. Charles Hill, “The Islamist War on the International System,” Yale Israel Journal 2 (Fall 2003): 6.

10. Ibid., 6.

11. Colin Powell, Speech before the United Nations Security Council, 5 February 2003.

12. Hill, 6.

13. Interview with Dr D I Hall, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, United Kingdom, 2 August 2005.

14. Colin Powell, Speech before the United Nations Security Council, 5 February 2003.