Oct 1 2004

An ‘Outrage’–But Is It True?

CNN's Dobbs attacks Annan for calling Iraq War "illegal"

When U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan declared that he thought the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was illegal (BBC, 9/15/04), CNN‘s Lou Dobbs was outraged, calling it “another incredible outburst by Kofi Annan” (9/16/04). But Dobbs and his CNN reporters neglected to pursue the most important aspect of the story: Was Annan right?

Annan told the BBC that the war was “not in conformity with the Security Council, with the U.N. Charter.” When asked, “It was illegal?,” Annan replied: “Yes, if you wish,” adding: “I have indicated it is not in conformity with the U.N. Charter; from our point of view and from the Charter point of view, it was illegal.”

This did not sit well with Dobbs, whose September 16 report began: “Outrage and anger today after an astonishing statement about Iraq by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. Annan said the United States=led invasion of Iraq was illegal.”

Dobbs reported that “U.S. allies Britain and Australia immediately rejected Annan’s assertion. President Bush said he has no regrets about ordering the invasion.” CNN correspondent Kitty Pilgrim’s segment quoted the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., the Australian prime minister, a representative from the conservative Hoover Institute and Edward Walker from the Middle East Institute, who said, “I don’t understand quite what he means by legal.”

After Pilgrim’s report, Dobbs continued by referring to Annan’s “bizarre statement” and lamenting “the interference that was being run over the course of the past two years, in point of fact, by the Germans and the French and now the French in Iran, the Chinese in the Sudan–is, in fact, the United Nations paralyzed?” Pilgrim responded by saying that “it certainly doesn’t seem to be able to move forward on certain issues. In Iraq, it seems like revisionist policy to go back to this issue in the U.N. today. It seems to have some trouble moving forward on many issues.”

Whether or not looking back two years to the origins of an increasingly violent situation is “revisionist policy” is debatable. The more important journalistic question is whether Annan’s comments accurately reflect international law. CNN‘s Lou Dobbs Tonight, however, didn’t bother to interview international law experts about the matter. If they had, they may have found that, as the Washington Times put it (3/21/03), “Legal experts…are divided on the war’s legality, with many saying that the existing U.N. resolutions do not go as far as to authorize the use of force.” A few days earlier, the Los Angeles Times (3/18/03) included comments from several international law experts who thought the war violated international law.

Many legal experts contend that the United Nations resolutions regarding Iraq did not give the U.S. and its allies the power to initiate war without further action from the Security Council. And the U.N. Charter does lay out specific conditions for hostile action; as Article 39 states,

The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken…to maintain or restore international peace and security.

The charter authorizes the use of force only if sanctioned by the Security Council, or if a country is attacked or threatened with imminent attack (Article 51).

But without even referring to the U.N. Charter or other standards of international law, CNN continued the discussion the following night (9/17/04), as guest anchor Kitty Pilgrim called Annan’s statement “outrageous,” then added: “More controversy tonight after Kofi Annan says the war in Iraq is illegal. Critics say he is encouraging this country’s enemies and putting American troops’ lives at risk.” The only “critic” offered by CNN was Nile Gardiner of the right-wing Heritage Foundation.

Annan, of course, is not the first to take the “astonishing” step of questioning the legality of the Iraq War. In fact, the prominent neoconservative hawk Richard Perle, who serves on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, indicated last year that he thought that the invasion violated international law (Guardian, 11/20/03), which in Perle’s interpretation “would have required us to leave Saddam Hussein alone.” Perle argued that French intransigence left the U.S. with “no practical mechanism consistent with the rules of the U.N. for dealing with Saddam Hussein,” and therefore, Perle said, “I think in this case international law stood in the way of doing the right thing.”

Perle’s sentiments toward international law were in a sense echoed by George W. Bush, who mocked a question about the legality of excluding countries like Germany and France from Iraq’s reconstruction (12/11/03): “International law? I’d better call my lawyer.” Despite administration claims that the invasion of Iraq was necessary to enforce international law, Bush’s comments elicited little criticism, and merited only a passing mention on Lou Dobbs Tonight. Now that Annan has brought up a substantive questions about the war’s legal basis, CNN‘s Lou Dobbs Tonight considers these statements of fact to be an “outrage.”