Legitimacy of the Conflict

The lead-up to the Iraq War began in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. During President George W. Bush's national address on the night of the attacks, he announced that the US would not distinguish between terrorists and the countries that harbor them. Some Bush administration officials, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, advocated immediate military action against Iraq under the auspices of the new policy. Instead, Bush limited the immediate US military response to Afghanistan in October 2001.

However, the administration began a series of policy escalations in the subsequent months. During his January 2002 State of the Union Speech, Bush referred to Iraq, Iran and North Korea as members of an "axis of evil" — singling out Iraq as a nation that "continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror." In June 2002, Bush emphasized the need for pre-emptive military action during an address at the US Military Academy at West Point. These doctrines were summarized in a September 2002 national security paper, popularly referred to as the Bush Doctrine. JURIST Guest Columnist Anthony D'Amato of Northwestern University School of Law explained that under this doctrine the US would "target terrorists wherever they are found" and "hold accountable any nation that harbors terrorists."

The US advanced two major justifications for military action against Iraq in both the domestic and international arenas. The first were allegations that Iraq had access to stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Although the Bush administration claimed US and UK intelligence reports showed that Iraq had access to nuclear and chemical weapons, head of the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission Hans Blix reported that he found no such evidence during inspections prior to the March 2003 invasion. Further developments following the invasion cast doubt on the legitimacy of the administration claims, including multiple reports by the Iraq Survey Group (ISG). Along with the WMD allegations, the Bush administration claimed that Iraq harbored and actively supported terrorists. These claims were spearheaded by Vice President Dick Cheney, and continued up until the invasion. The Bush administration later faced staunch domestic political opposition calling the justifications for the war into question, most notably from Senator Russ Feingold.

Additional rationales for the Iraq War were laid out in the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002, which passed in October 2002. This important resolution provided congressional authorization for Bush to use US armed forces against Iraq. Reasons for authorizing such military force included the country's non-compliance with the 1991 UN ceasefire agreement, the repression of its civilian population, and its general threat to international security in the Persian Gulf.

The US attempted to legitimize the conflict globally by seeking to re-institute UN monitoring of Iraq's weapons programs. However, the US faced significant pushback from France and Russia, permanent members of the UN Security Council. The UN responded to US concerns in November 2002 with Resolution 1441, which resumed international monitoring and provided Saddam Hussein's government with "a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations." It also provided an international justification for the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the UN General Assembly in February 2003 to argue that Iraq was not in compliance with Resolution 1441. There was considerable debate over what Iraq's failure to comply meant, as the resolution's language simply called for "serious consequences." JURIST Guest Columnist Matthew Heppold of the University of Nottingham School of Law argued that the phrase "serious consequences" was not the proper language to create justification for the use of force, while UK Attorney General Lord Goldsmith argued that the combined effect of UN Security Council Resolution 678, Resolution 687, and Resolution 1441 created the necessary authority. The US endorsed Goldsmith's interpretation of the text, but UN Secretary General Kofi Annan argued that unilateral military action against Iraq would violate the UN Charter.

Despite this controversy and without clear UN authorization, the US and its coalition allies invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003. The legally murky status of the invasion drew condemnation from Annan and other international figures.


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