A New Type of War

Michael Byers on Blair and Bush’s attempt to change international law

‘I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.’ According to Richard Clarke, that was George W. Bush’s response when he was told that international law did not permit the retributive use of military force after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.[*] In fact, there was no legal impediment to the intervention in Afghanistan. A sympathetic Security Council would have authorised the action, had it been asked. Even in the absence of a UN resolution, the right of self-defence allows a country to make a necessary and proportionate response. The US suffered a devastating attack, Osama bin Laden claimed responsibility, the Taliban endorsed his acts and refused to surrender him. Only two countries opposed the self-defence claim: Cuba and Iraq. The intervention itself was hardly challenging: American casualties were minimal, foreign assistance readily forthcoming, and the transition to a new government greatly facilitated by the UN. Within a year, fewer than 10,000 US troops remained in the country. Although bin Laden and Mullah Omar were still at large, the Afghan campaign had become little more than a distraction.

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[*] Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror by Richard Clarke (Free Press, 320 pp., £18.99, March, 0 7432 6024 4).