Of all the writing about the 5th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, one of the more interesting pieces is by Mary Ellen O’Connell (pictured) of Notre Dame Law School. In Learning from the Iraq War: The Wisdom of International Law, she argues that the most tangible lesson is that the US ignores international law at its peril.
Going into Iraq, we ignored the UN Charter, which prohibits the use of force except in self-defense or with Security Council authorization. Once in Iraq, we ignored the Hague Regulations, requiring us to put a stop to looting and to make only necessary changes to local law and government. We ignored the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit secret detention and abuse of prisoners of the kind we saw at Abu Ghraib.
The talk on Iraq is all about what went wrong, whether the surge is working, and when we can get out. We hear virtually nothing about international law and look set to repeat our mistakes. Violating the law has cost our nation and Iraq dearly. It has denied us the guidance of rules based on long experience and moral consensus. We have lost standing in the world, a literal fortune, and precious lives. Rather than internalizing the lesson of law violation in Iraq, we continue to defy the law in serious and self-destructive ways.
At some point, sooner or later, America needs to understand that international law does indeed apply to everyone — including America. Otherwise any US action against any other nation breaking the law is nothing but hypocrisy. (Hat-tip to Blog Them Out of the Stone Age.)