The states of the North Atlantic have, since the days of Palmerston, frequently hoisted the flag of liberalism on their way to war. But rarely since 1945 have the principles of right, law and justice been invoked as strongly as in the call to arms for Desert Storm. The populations of Britain and America were encouraged to believe that half a million troops and one hundred billion dollars were being committed to affirmative action on behalf of the rights of the people of Kuwait and, indeed, to the inauguration of a new global order of justice.
In the first part of this article, I try to untangle the disparate strands that make up this language of rights used by Western leaders to vindicate Desert Storm. I then bring together the principles of evaluation deployed by the liberal current dominant in Britain and the United States today—rights-based individualism—with an analysis of the Gulf conflict. This enables an exploration of the degree to which goals and actions in the war can be
Most versions of Anglo-American liberal and natural-rights thinking employ a universalist standard of judgement to evaluate international politics. They repudiate the normative stance of the realists, who insist, in the words of their post-war doyen, Hans Morganthau, that the national interest is ‘the one guiding star, one standard of thought, one rule of action’ in such matters.footnote1 Rights-based liberals readily acknowledge, of course, that much of what states—including their own—actually do bears little relation to the professed ideal. Indeed many would agree that the political culture that shapes the executives of these states is far closer to the norms of Morganthau than to their own, although they would deplore that fact.
Within this setting, the leaders in both the us and uk sought to mobilize liberal opinion following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait by appealing not simply to national state interests but, above all, to general principles. While some opinion-formers debated the issues in the language of utilitarianism, adopting a universalist welfare criterion for assessing the costs and benefits of alternative policies, the dominant language of public debate was that of rights, justice and law. This discourse was triggered primarily by the use the Bush administration made of un Security Council resolutions. These were interpreted in an idiom that was in fact metaphorical: the transfer of the discourse that serves the domestic legal system within a liberaldemocratic state to the realm of world politics. In the perception of millions, international affairs became a depoliticized process of crime and judicial punishment. This single displacement transformed not only the way people judged the political background to the Gulf war, but above all how they perceived it: namely, as a criminal act with juridical consequences. Thus the complex fields of force that constitute global politics were magically transformed into the image of a world enclosed within a constitutional state order, run according to the liberal theory of law. The metaphor passed itself off not as a moral truth but as the explanation of actual events.footnote2
Firstly, the sufficient and necessary cause of the us attack on Iraq was presented as the act of a villain: Saddam Hussein, personifying the