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"A Better Way To Deal With Iraq"--A Commentary by Prof. Harold Hongju Koh


(This essay originally appeared in the Hartford Courant on October 20, 2002.)

A Better Way To Deal With Iraq
By Harold Hongju Koh, Gerard C. and Bernice Latrobe Smith Professor of International Law

For more than 20 years, I have been a law teacher. For five years, I had the honor of serving my country: in the Justice Department under a Republican administration and in the State Department under a Democratic administration.

I believe that terrorism poses a grave threat to international peace and security. I lost friends on Sept. 11 and have shared in the grief of their families. I believe that Saddam Hussein is an evil and dangerous man who daily abuses his own people and who wishes no good for our country or the world. I fear his weapons of mass destruction and believe they should be eliminated.

Yet I believe just as strongly that it would be a mistake for our country to attack Iraq without explicit United Nations authorization.

First, I do not believe that such an attack would make the world or America safer. Many would die - innocent Iraqis from our strikes, and innocent Americans and our allies in response.

For more than a year, I have waited for clear evidence that Hussein was responsible for Sept. 11 and have been shown none. Although Hussein is dangerous and has been for years, one thing clearly more dangerous would be a Hussein with nothing to lose. If we attack, we could expect him to respond with weapons of mass destruction against Israel and against us if he can reach us. Our perceived aggression would turn most of the Middle East against us and would disable us, perhaps forever, from playing the indispensable role of honest broker in the Mideast peace process.

Second, I believe such an attack would violate international law. True, there are U.N. resolutions that authorized the last Persian Gulf War, but they do not authorize a new war fought for different reasons, launched more than 10 years later. Since World War II, we have fought for a multilateral world under law, one in which no nation alone chooses whether to invade another. We have engaged in many military campaigns, but never have we been universally perceived as the aggressor. Nor have we accepted the idea that any country can unilaterally attack another in the name of pre-emptive self-defense. We recognize that such reasoning could authorize China to attack Taiwan, North Korea to attack South Korea or many countries in the Middle East to attack Israel.

Nor can an Iraq military campaign achieve its long-term objectives if it takes off without the United Nations firmly on board. For we cannot expect to ignore the U.N. in launching our attack, then expect that the U.N. will be there for the many years that it would take us to clean up and build a democratic postwar Iraq.

Third, I believe there are better uses right now for our troops. We have reason to fear al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden are still at large and perhaps reviving. The more military energy we divert to Iraq, the less we have to forestall more direct and immediate threats to our security here at home. A year ago, we attacked Afghanistan, yet our few peacekeepers there currently patrol only a tiny part of the country, while the rest of the country remains in the chaotic grip of drug lords and warlords. Afghanistan's vice president was killed, its president barely avoided assassination, and Afghanistan remains a haven for terrorists, outlaws and gunrunners. We tell our children to make sure old projects are done well before we take on new, more ambitious projects, and we should tell our national leaders that as well.

Fourth, I believe that there are better uses for our money. At home, we should be spending money on our schools, our cities, health care, the environment and on closing the gap between the privileged and underprivileged. Our government should spend less running dragnet operations that scapegoat foreigners and the foreign-born and more keeping alive the constitutional values of liberty and equal respect that have for so many years made us a beacon abroad. Abroad, we should be spending money on fighting the global AIDS epidemic - which will soon kill more people than any war in the last century - and on attacking global warming and promoting development, democracy and self-governance in Africa and the Middle East: the only long-term antidote to a new and more desperate supply of would-be terrorists.

Fifth and finally, I do not believe that unilateral pre-emptive attack is what this country stands for. I love this country with all my heart, not just because of what it has given me and my family, but because of what it stands for in the world: democracy, human rights, fair play, the rule of law. During the Cuban missile crisis, our country was threatened, perhaps even more desperately than now, and our president and attorney general wisely rejected as un-American the option of unilateral attack.

War is not the answer to all our dangers. We can oppose imminent attack without accepting an unsatisfactory status quo in which Hussein builds nuclear weapons and brutalizes his own citizens without sanction. We should support a third way: a strategy of disarmament plus enhanced containment. That strategy dictates that we restore effective U.N. weapons inspections, press for disarmament and destruction of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, cut off the flow of weapons and weapons-related goods into Iraq, press for human rights monitors, seek to bring Hussein to international justice and support the forces of peaceful democratic opposition in Iraq. Such a strategy would require that we work with other global democracies to fight global terrorism, not ignore our global partners who have helped us create the postwar system of international law that was designed to create nonmilitary multilateral options that simply did not exist during World War II.

We face a genuine threat. But that threat is best addressed not by an unauthorized war that will not make the world safer, that will divert our troops and our resources from better purposes, and that will tarnish our global image as a nation of moral principle and commitment. Beating the drums of war will drown out thoughtful voices and make impossible more subtle solutions.

During the Vietnam War, I attended a rally and heard Yale's chaplain, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, say: "All it takes for evil to flourish these days is for a good man with a great deal of power to be a little wrong while the majority of his citizens remain indifferent to the ways in which he is exercising his power."

As citizens who love our country, we cannot remain indifferent to the way that our government chooses to exercise our power in our name. Presidents are human beings, just like us, who can make mistakes by listening to the voices who speak to them most loudly. This is our country; this will be our war; those who fight it will be our children. As citizens and patriots, it is time for us to speak to our public servants and to let them hear our voice.


Harold Hongju Koh is Gerard C. and Bernice Latrobe Smith Professor of International Law at Yale Law School. He was assistant secretary of state for human rights in the Clinton administration and a Justice Department lawyer in the Reagan administration.