What's wrong with self-defense?
Beware what you wish for, so the saying goes, you might just get
it. A case in point is the widespread desire to reform the United
Nations. Unless we are careful, the reform movement might blow up
in our faces -- and create more problems next time the United
States wants to deploy its troops abroad.
It is just about a year now since the United States found itself
at loggerheads in the U.N. Security Council with the French, the
Russians, the Germans and others who opposed the military action
against Iraq. From a diplomatic standpoint, the negotiations were
an absolute disaster. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin
double-crossed Secretary of State Colin Powell royally, and, in the
end, much bad publicity and ill feeling was generated.
The fact is that the United States and its allies could go ahead
with the invasion of Iraq, based on Security Council Resolution
1441. The fact is also that we could have gone ahead without asking
for U.N. permission at all.
Now, a lot of people don't like that possibility at all. As a
consequence, the Russian government has now come up with a proposal
to tie down the U.S. military and limit American options. In a
speech two weeks ago at the 40th Munich Conference on Security
Policy, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ivanov, in a comment that
was drowned out by the coverage of Russia's threat to leave the
Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, saw fit to make this
""We all understand that one of the core issues in modern
international affairs is that of admissibility of a unilateral use
of force, undertaken by a State or a group of States without
relevant U.N. Security Council mandate, first of all, to fight
"I am convinced that the Russian-NATO partnership should foster
such an environment in international relations, where the use of
force among other things, for combating terrorism, would
exclusively proceed within the realm of international law. It is
wrong to fight terrorism with illegal techniques, and it is next to
impossible." Illegal techniques? The Russians would know a thing or
two about those.
Now, Mr. Ivanov was part of the sweeping house cleaning by Russian
President Vladimir Putin yesterday when he fired his entire
government. But that is not likely to change the substance of
Russian foreign policy towards the United Nations and the United
States. Mr. Ivanov may in fact well be back before long.
Other countries are also concerned about constraining American
power. Throughout the debate over Iraq last year, the demand for
U.N. approval of American actions was constantly heard from
Europeans. France and Germany took it upon themselves to stop the
United State in the Security Council, an episode that cut so deep
that David Frum and Richard Perle in their new book "An End to
Evil" suggest we stop treating France as an ally, but possibly see
it as an enemy.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, in his speech before the United
National General Assembly last September, was extremely critical of
the American military action. The logic of preemptive or unilateral
action, he said, "represents a fundamental challenge to the
principles on which, however imperfectly, world peace and stability
have rested for the last fifty-eight years."
But international law permits nations to act in self-defense, and
this is what the United States did in Iraq (after trying a decade
of U.N. sanctions and containment). According to Article 51 of the
U.N. Charter, "Nothing in the present charter shall impair the
inherent right of individual or collective self-defense in an armed
attack against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security
Council has taken measures to maintain international peace and
The reality is that in the 21st century terrorists or states that
wish to challenge American power increasingly seek weapons of mass
destruction to achieve their political objectives. Customary
international law allows for this preventive or preemptive action
as "anticipatory self-defense."
If Mr. Ivanov's words about "the admissibility of unilateral
action" and "illegal techniques" can be taken seriously -- and I
believe they should because this idea has wide resonance abroad --
we may see a movement towards reform of the U.N. Charter Article 51
in a direction that would be very detrimental to the security of
the United States. Mr. Annan has recently appointed an Eminent
Person's panel to look into U.N. reform. The U.S. government needs
to draw a line in the sand against any threats to our ability to
fight the war against terrorism.
First appeared in The Washington Times