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 justified in liberal terms, and reveals the severe limitations of a conventional rights-based approach. In the second part, I turn to the ‘enemy’—Iraq—in order to examine the evolution of this state, so many of whose people have been killed by the military forces of Britain and the us, and to challenge the most influential, liberal account of the development of modern Iraq and of its Ba’athist regime.

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 Baghdad government. This act ‘forced’ the us to send half a million troops and its global arsenal in response, just as a domestic crime triggers the standard procedures of police response. The AngloAmerican blockade and attack was thus reduced to the status of a depoliticized, purely judicial action, from which any political motives, methods or aims would be expunged, just as they would in the work of a local law-enforcement agency. Desert Storm was to be as much a work of nature as the impersonal, blind justice of the law—or, indeed, as a storm in the desert. Thus the actual course of events was turned on its head: contrary to the judicial logic of the metaphor, the us administration in fact decided it must ‘prevail’ over Iraq and therefore campaigned to criminalize the Saddam Hussein regime. (Just as the us first decided to support the regimes of Israel or Indonesia and then ensured the decriminalization of those countries’ actions in occupying or annexing.) This process involved anthropomorphizing the Iraqi state and its political-administrative organization into a single person—Saddam Hussein, criminal. And the more his human features were enlarged, the more other men and women in the ‘criminal’ state were dehumanized. The army of conscripts became the murder weapon, the lives of millions of Iraqis the various limbs and resources of their leader. Hence they were fair game; or else they became collateral, in the sense of standing alongside the criminal—by-standers in the police shoot-out.footnote3

This anthropomorphism enabled the weaving of a powerful theme of human-rights abuse into the legalist discourse. The war against Iraq became a campaign against a serial killer and torturer, military action being presented as a mere consequence of the original ‘crime’, the annexation of Kuwait. Furthermore, the war-making itself could be portrayed not as a tidal wave of political violence, killing tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands—an act unleashing the passions of millions across the globe, and bearing unknown and unpredictable longterm political consequences—but as a technical means of enforcing an end—namely, the rule of law.

As a mobilizing ideology for war, then, this metaphor was a formidable construction: an absolutized ‘either/or’—one the monstrous criminal, the other the very embodiment of justice. It provided a thorough integration of theory and practice—cognition, evaluation and necessary action. Indeed, the metaphor was to prove in some respects too efficacious, too powerful, when the war ended with the monster criminal still in place and butchering further victims on a larger scale—Shia rebels in the South and Kurds in the North. However, as an explanatory theory or criterion of judgement the metaphor could not, of course, be taken seriously.footnote4 World politics is not enclosed within a constitutional state order with a fully fledged legal regime and law-enforcement agency. Legal thought and practice are no doubt a significant element in international affairs (valued especially by small, satisfied powers), but international public law remains rather a half-formed, perhaps only embryonic, force. Indeed, for some of the biggest powers the legal element is often no more than the small change of politics. Furthermore, when powers like the us or uk go to war they do so for reasons of national interest, in pursuit of state objectives. As for the idea that attacking a country is equal to enforcing a law, the greatest of classical liberal rights-based philosophers, Immanuel Kant, long ago taught us that war is inherently anti-law.footnote5