The 1991 Invasion of Iraq – not International Law

Iraq, America, And International Law

December 1990 was the hundreds anniversary of the military operation of the American Army against an Indian tribe at Wounded Knee. It was the last campaign that the Union found it necessary to prosecute against the native Indians of that continent, which have been reduced to a tiny, demoralised minority, bereft of land and culture. Nowadays, American ambitions are focussed on a larger stage.

The Irish Political Review is pleased to print below the edited transcript of a speech analysing American foreign policy in the context of the Iraq/Kuwait conflict, given by Brendan Clifford to the Cork University Labour Club on November 19th, 1990.

 For the first time in half a century the neutral nations have no role whatsoever in world affairs because of what has happened in the United Nations in these past three or four months. Neutral nations used to have a functional role when the world was divided basically between two major military and political blocs. This division created space for small states that saw themselves as having something independent to contribute to world affairs to make an attempt to do so. They could tack between the two power blocs. But the conflict of power blocs has disappeared during the past year and now the world order is American oligarchy exercised through the medium of the United Nations.

It has been said by many people, including Conor Cruise O’Brien in the first week of the crisis, that the new state of affairs in the world has caused the United Nations to become what it was originally intended to be.

The Soviet Union has suffered internal political collapse, but not the destruction ofits military power. Its military power remains as it was but it doesn’t know what it stands for in the world at this juncture and it is preoccupied with trying to keep itself together. And China seems to be very eager to compensate in American opinion for what it did in Tiananmen Square in the Summer of 1989. And it is of no great consequence to it now what happens in the Middle East, so it will ingratiate itself by not using its Veto.

So, for all practical purposes, the Veto, as it has made the United Nations functional for the past 45 years, no longer exists. And Conor Cruise O’Brien says now that the United Nations is finally becoming what it was intended to be. Now I can see no grounds whatsoever for that statement, because the Veto was an essential component of the United Nations. The United Nations was made by the United States, Britain and Russia, the three great Powers that won the Second World War and decided to share the world between them in the post- War era. France was included among the Veto Powers at Churchill’s insistence. France contributed nothing in particular to the defeat of Germany and its allies in the Second World War, in fact, it made peace with them. But Churchill had decided that France was to be one of the Great Powers in the post-War world. And America saw that China under Chiang Kai-shek was given a Veto. But, basically, it was an arrangement made between Britain, America and Russia to impose what it called “international law” on the world, and to exempt themselves from international law. Exemption of the Powers that made the United Nations from the functioning of the United Nations as a law enforcement body was an essential component of the United Nations. Without it, the United Nations could not have been set up. None of the Great Powers would have agreed to the establishment of an international body that could act against them.

The United Nations over the years was the sort of organisation that attracted idealists to work in it, to staff it, and these people had a very rosy idea of what the United Nations was, or could be. They were on the one hand. And, on the other hand, there were the politicians who sat on the Security Council, who were absolutely cynical about the idealism of the United Nations. They used the ideology of the United Nations, but they discounted it as fast as they used it. It meant nothing to them. The United Nations was a form of power politics. And the fact that the Powers constituting it set up exemptions for themselves from international law: that became an irritant to each of the Great Powers in its relations with the others. Each side obviously considered that it was morally entitled to dominate the post-War world. Britain, after twenty years, got sort of phased out of Great Power politics with the end ofits Empire. So, what it came down to was the Soviet Union and the United States, each of them building up its armies, and each of them using its veto as it considered expedient in the Security Council. And, unless all five were agreed, the Security Council could not do anything, which meant that they could not act against each other, or against each other’s client states, through the United Nations.

Whether another arrangement was possible I don’t know: whether you could have had a United Nations not dominated in law, as well as fact, by a couple of Great Powers. I doubt it very much. But, in any case, this was the arrangement. Law was to be imposed on all the states, except the states that were most likely to commit aggressions. That was clearly understood between them. And most of the aggressions since 1945 have been committed by the United States or by Russia, and the United Nations has had no function with regard to those aggressions, because the United States and Russia were exempt from international law.

There is an institution called the International Court and, if you look up the Charter of the United Nations, you will find that the International Court is called the judicial organ of the United Nations. The International court was never taken seriously until Nicaragua appealed to it in 1984. The International Court was made up according to a formula by Judges from the five or six different divisions of the world. The Nicaraguan case was so open and shut that the International Court found against the United States and in favour of Nicaragua for the bombing of harbour installations, for the mining of its harbours, for the financing of insurgency movements, for the waging of psychological warfare, for training the Contras, for a whole range of things. There were about ten different charges brought by Nicaragua against the United States, and the International Court voted twelve judges to three that the US had broken the law. The three against were, as far as I remember, the United States itself, Britain, and either France or Japan.

Now what happens with a Judgement of the International Court? That is the only major judgement it ever gave that I know of. It said that the United States should immediately stop doing what it was doing, and that it should pay an immense sum to Nicaragua for the damage caused. Now, since there is talk these days of bringing Saddam Hussain before some international tribunal to make him pay for the damage done in Kuwait, it is interesting that this only award made by the Court of the United Nations was simply set aside by the United States in the Security Council when it came up for discussion. The International Court is a Court without any independent means of putting its Judgements into effect and the USA vetoed implementation of the Nicaraguan Judgement.

A system of law that has no means of putting its own judgements into effect is an absurdity, it simply isn’t law. To have law you have to have a body of laws which can be broken, and you have to have some sort of independent judicial tribunal that can make judgements, and you have to have a police force that will implement the judgements. Now the International Court of Justice is a court which made its Judgement, and yet had no way of implementing its Judgement. Only the Security Council could implement its Judgement, and when it came up for implementation by the Security Council, the United States vetoed it. And that was the end of international law as anything independent of the Security Council. So that the Security Council is both the judge and the policeman, in real terms, of what it called international law. And the five permanent members remain exempt from international law.

You cannot credibly have a system of international law from which the major aggressors are exempt. But the thing worked after a fashion so long as the major aggressors were divided into two major blocs. The Vetoes on either side cancelled each other out. Two wrongs made a sort of right.

Now what happened, essentially, in August 1989, was that the United Nations fell into the hands of the three Western Powers of 1945, and became their instrument for remoulding the world.

Everybody has heard about the Soviet Veto over the years, but the American Veto has been used just as effectively, and the French and the Chinese Veto-they have all been used. The Allies who fought the Second World War had a fundamental difference of opinion as to what the post-War world should be. And each of them reconstructed the bit of the world under its influence according to its own ideas, and tried to encroach on the sphere of interest of the other. And that has been basically the politics of the past 45 years.

So what happens when one of the parties to this major dispute in the world disappears? It is not a system of law unobstructed by the Veto that comes into being. It is that one side of the dispute of 1945 considers that the world now belongs to it. And that, it seems to me, is what happened in early August, 1990.

Thatcher was on vacation in the United States; the ending of the Cold War raised the problem of what was going to be done with NATO. The logical thing, if you believed all that had been said for the previous 40 years, was that, since the Warsaw Pact was dissolving, NATO should also dissolve, because NATO was supposed to have the exclusive function of countering the threat of the Warsaw Pact forces to Western Europe. It had very clear terms of reference. But Thatcher made it clear that she did not want NATO dissolved.

Now I think that, in the short term, it would have been reasonable to keep NATO in being to ensure that the Warsaw Pact forces actually were dissolved, because a lot has been said in this past year, but very little has been done, so the actual army, whatever it is called, in the east, remains in being, therefore the army in the west should remain in being.

But that wouldn’t do, because you have popular pressure for winding down military budgets in America and Britain. So Thatcher and Bush raised the possibility of using NA TO for other purposes, using NA TO for “out of area” operations, as they call it. This discussion evolved in May and June, 1990, and a lot of people were discontented at the thought of NATO being used for out of area operations. Now, “out of area” operations means that you have a world police force in the interests of Britain and the United States, and France is somehow going along with it, though it has never been as enthusiastic about these things as Britain or the United States have. So that we have this massive army (assuming the Warsaw Pact is going to disintegrate), this massive Anglo-American army, looking for things to do. And the signs, as I read them, say that they contrived something for themselves to do. They had to have a war. If they were going to keep their armies in being as a flourishing military alliance, they had to have a war, otherwise the armies would have been eroded. And the indications are that they contrived this war in the Middle East.

The strange thing, in this time of instant and universal communications, is that any sense of history in the news has been wiped out. People can’t remember what happened three months ago, never mind what happened over the past forty-five years, with regard to the United Nations. I know that in England you have had total control of the news by the Government-and the fact that the Labour Party has not been a real Opposition for the last ten years has facilitated it. Really the news is Government hand-outs. And Government handouts will not fill in the real background to this crisis.

But, in America, where you have more flourishing newspaper media, the background has been to some extent filled in. And the background is that [American diplomacy set up this conflict between Iraq and Kuwait in order to have a conflict that would justify the continuation of military power. Because another consideration, again, is that everybody was assuming a year ago, that what you were going to have in future was economic competition. But the two great States which were least fitted to profit from a transformation of the Cold War into an era of economic competition, the two states least fitted to flourish in that situation, were Britain and the United States, which were the two major military powers in the West. Britain has undoubtedly been going down economically for a very long time, and in recent years Japan has got a very clear edge over the United States economically. So these were two economic Powers still very, very powerful, but no longer in the ascendant, and in an era of peaceful economic competition, their power would undoubtedly be eroded. The two coming Powers were Japan and Germany, and you have other minor Powers like South Korea. Capitalism is flourishing least in its heartlands these days, and it is taking off in other places. So that Britain and the United States remain far more important in the world if there is the threat of a major military conflict going on than they would be if the military confrontation of the past 45 years was all superseded and a different kind of development occurred. So both of them had vested interests in having a major crisis in the Summer of 1990.

From what has come out, it seems that American diplomacy indicated to Saddam Hussain that if he took direct action to settle his dispute with Kuwait, American would not consider it any of its business.

Now Kuwait is undoubtedly one of the most artificial states on earth. Basically, Kuwait is a landlord sitting over an oil well. The oil sheikhdoms were constituted into a state for western political and economic purposes, for separating the oil of the Arab world from the people of the Arab world. There are a range of minuscule states along the Gulf. They are tiny little states. Ireland is a small state, but all of these together probably would not even add up to the population of Ireland. There are about six families, that own something like two-thirds of the world’s oil, made up into states for Western strategic purposes.

Iraq is a large country, comparatively speaking, in the Middle East, and a comparatively poor country in the Middle East, that has to work for a living. It has some oil. There are other states there without any oil. The contrast in standards of living between Yemen and Kuwait is something fantastic. Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have the highest per capital gross domestic product in the world. That is not because they produce anything. That is because oil is taken up from under their deserts and they are paid fantastic sums of money. It is not that they have any particular use for the oil. The industrialised world needs the oil and the USA and Britain have constituted these tribes into states so that they can keep control of the oil.

What happened between Kuwait and Iraq seems to have been that the oil in one of the major wells has outlets in both Iraq and Kuwait, and Kuwait was not abiding by agreements as to the amount of oil that was to be taken out in any given year. Iraq took the view that Kuwait, by breaking agreements, was taking its property. Now, Kuwait is stinking rich. It didn’t need the money this extra oil brought in. So, presumably, it was doing it because somebody suggested that it would be a welcome act towards the Western world ( a plentiful supply of oil on the world market helped to ensure a low price for oil). But it is a serious matter for a country that has got a limited amount of oil to have this 600,000 people with the highest standard of living in the world breaking an agreement as to how their common pool of oil is to be used.

It also seems that, during the Iran/Iraq War, Kuwait, for no good reason, extended its boundaries and encroached on Iraqi territory.

These states, you see, were all drawn up on the spur of the moment by Sir Percy Cox and Gertrude Bell in 1920. These were the expert Arabists in the British Foreign Office who thought they knew everything. They were there in Baghdad in 1920 deciding what the Middle East was, and they drew their lines on the map to be the states. And, when they found that Kuwait and Qatar and these places had oil on them there was no question but that these would be the states. And, in those days, there was the question of surrounding Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia then was quite a different thing from what it is now. It was a very vigorous body of people, and it was threatening to take over the whole peninsula, so Saudi Arabia had to be bottled up. So, for one reason or another, Western strategic interests determined that all these comic-opera states should be set up and used against the main bodies of the Arab people.

The rulers of Kuwait gained an advantage for themselves during the Iran/Iraq War, in which Iraq was actually defending them against the Iranian revolution. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and all of those states were terrified by what was happening in Iran. There was a real threat to them from the popular Islamic fundamentalism which had won state power in Iran. It wanted to upset their delightful little apple-cart. Resurgent fundamentalism, in the shape of Iran, was threatening to spread out all over the Middle East in the way that the Wahhabi fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia had threatened to do in the 1920s. And Iraq was used to contain Iran. It was urged to make war on Iran. It was financed by the West during the course of the war with Iran.

There is a history of the Iran/Iraq War that was published earlier this Summer by an Arab, and there you have the passing remark that, of course, Iraq’s allies are the oil-rich monarchies of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Now, until this Summer, that was how it was. Iraq had fought a major war on behalf of itself, fair enough (it is a secular Arab state, not a fundamentalist Islamic state), but also was seen as acting in the interests of everything that was not popular fundamentalism in the Arab world, and particularly as the defender of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

The last thing the Kuwaitis needed was more money.

But, instead of facilitating Iraq in every way it could as its defender against the Iranian fundamentalist threat, it broke its agreements with regard to the use of the common pool of oil, and encroached on its territory and to have conspired with the United States to aggravate Iraq this Summer. For it seems that the United States rather than Britain saw that Iraq, as a result of fighting its war in the Middle East for ten years, and incurring something like a million casualties, had made itself into a major state in the region. Because, at the beginning, Iraq was not a major state. Iraq itself was on the verge of disintegration in 1975 as a result of the Shah of Iran funding the Kurdish Rebellion. So Iraq, which was not a powerful state in 1980, as a result of fighting this war, made itself into a powerful state, and it was decided in the United States that something had to be done about this.

Kuwait was encouraged to provoke Iraq, and Iraq was given to understand that direct action against Kuwait would not be considered to infringe on American interests.

It doesn’t seem that in Britain there was any great concern about Iraq until very late. Because, when the news about the ‘super-gun’ came out in May 1990, the British Foreign Office did not want to know about it. It had to be forced on its attention by the newspapers. The British Foreign Office still saw itself as the ally of Iraq, and Iraq as the main supporter of, not so much Western economic interests, as Western political standards in the Middle East, because it was a secular Arab state.

This view changed because of the convergence of a number of different things in July-the state of affairs in the world resulting from Soviet confusion; the problem of what to do with NATO; the imminence of political development in the Common Market-apparently suggested to both Bush and Thatcher (and this is supported by the instantaneous response to the occupation of Kuwait by both of them on 2nd August 1990, and the fact that the UN Resolutions were passed within hours of the occupation) that they could restructure the world more to their liking by using Kuwait was the occasion of setting up a new world order, as they called it. And the New World Order was basically to be the world policed by Britain and America, the two great military Powers of the United Nations, once the Soviet Union and China wee neutralised.

Within America, but certainly not within Britain, you had people of influence prepared to stand up and ridicule Bush for the comparison of Saddam with Hitler, and prepared to say they wouldn’t stand for it. At the height of the war-mongering in August, they were questioning the validity of the Bush-Thatcher policy, and because of that the probability of war decreased. It could still happen, because Bush is going to look absurd if he pulls out.

But what I am saying is basically that his has got absolutely nothing to do with international law. And, if we look at the Security Council, which passed those Resolutions, we have the five permanent states, but then all the other states, from five or six divisions in the world, are all taking their turns to sit on the Security Council as ciphers. To have a Security Council Resolution that is effective you have to have the five permanent states and four others.

When we were being told since August what “the world had decided”, we were never told which states constituted the world for the purpose of deciding its destiny in the Security Council. The list was too farcical to bear scrutiny. In August 1990 it included Rumania, which had undergone a revolution since being elected to the world government and was in a dreadful confusion. (It was Ceausescu’s Government that was elected to the Security Council.) And Ethiopia, which has been waging war against its own minority nationalities for a generation. And the Ivory Coast, whose Government extracted sufficient wealth from the misery of its own downtrodden people to build the biggest basilica in the world and have the Pope to open it in the early Summer. And Columbia, with its state threatened by drug producers.

The safe thing for these small states to do was to raise their hands as they were told to. If you had had India and some other substantial states in the Security Council at the time, things would have been different. The situation was ideal for Thatcher and Bush to say: we’ve got the United Nations. We are going to do everything we have ever dreamed of doing. By using the United Nations in this way we can run the world and have a New World Order.

However the thing ends, it is not going to end with International Law being a more credible thing than it was before the Cold War ended a year ago.

Irish Political Review January 1991


The article was republished in 2014, with the following comment:

At a time when America, with Europe in tow, is leading the world to war-whether Cold or Hot remains to be seen-it is useful to re-read articles which appeared in Irish Political Review in 1991: shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union: a time when there was just one Super-Power.

In the generation since 1990 ‘The West’ failed to draw a willing Russia into its orbit and instead set about weakening, dismembering, and encircling it: all with the willing cooperation of a bunch of starry-eyed innocents in the Kremlin. The result was a dire deterioration of internal living standards in the former Soviet Union and mayhem in international affairs-with no Power willing to curb the inane policies of the sole Super-Power.

With no Vetoes exercised on the Security Council, the UN became an instrument of Imperial aggression-until President Putin, who has taken his country in hand, called a halt.

Eileen Courtney July 2014


It was one of six that appeared in Irish Political Review in 1991, at the time of the Gulf War.  It was also republished in July 2014, in Issue 15-16 of Problems magazine.

Irish Political Review is a magazine which has been in existence in 1986. It was a follow-on from the Irish Communist.

You can find more at the Problems page on the Labour Affairs website.[1]  A PDF of the whole magazine is available there.