Iraq and the shadow of Kosovo

I’m sorry that this is the first new entry in Ephems for several weeks.  I have several cogent excuses but you won’t be interested in them.  What does need some comment now (once again) is Iraq .  Tony Blair clearly earned many starred Brownie points for his role in helping Colin Powell to drag President Bush back from the brink of a unilateral attack on Iraq outside the UN framework and devoid of any legitimacy in international law.  The Blair flight to Washington in September, quickly followed by Bush’s commitment to go down the UN path and seek a tough Security Council resolution to get the weapons inspectors back, with a warning of serious consequences if Iraq failed to comply, caused a global sigh of provisional relief.  But Bush and his attendant flock of ageing hawks have continued to threaten the UN with a US-led attack on Iraq if the Security Council fails to live up to what the White House regards as its responsibilities in the event of Iraqi non-compliance.  Tony Blair and his familiar, the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, are playing it safe by emphasizing the UK’s and the US’s commitment to working within the UN framework, but Straw in particular (and his predecessor Robin Cook in a recent radio discussion programme) still refuse to rule out UK backing for a US attack if the Security Council fails to authorise the use of force when invited to do so.  Perhaps these muted but unmistakably war-like cries are a bluff designed to keep up the pressure on the UN to do its stuff:  most Security Council member countries may well feel that if there’s going to be a war against Iraq anyway, a war authorised by and still nominally under the control of the Council would be the lesser evil.  Or perhaps—a possibility that I haven’t seen mentioned by the pundits—UK ministers, including especially Messrs Blair and Straw, have at the back of their minds the precedent set by NATO’s attack on Serbia over Kosovo in 1999, wholly lacking in Security Council authorisation, plainly illegal under international law (as well as being unnecessary and unsuccessful), but defended at the time by its prime movers, Madeleine Albright and Robin Cook and their chiefs, Clinton and Blair, as being legitimate on the pretext of a trumped-up and newly-minted "principle" of the right of humanitarian intervention.  It was also defended by the even more imaginative plea that NATO was entitled to go ahead with its attack on Serbia without UN authority because if the US and UK had tabled a resolution in the Security Council seeking authority for the military action, Russia would have vetoed it (a bizarre justification indeed).  Anyway, for Washington or London now to admit that an attack on Iraq without UN authority would be illegal would entail an implied admission that NATO’s attack on Serbia in 1999 was also illegal, which would be much more embarrassing for Blair, Straw and Cook, who were fully engaged in the Kosovo affair, than for Bush and company, who weren’t.  Perhaps the UK law officers have reminded UK ministers of this potential booby-trap.  It all goes to show that these well-intentioned but misguided adventures outside the bounds of international law have malign longer-term consequences long after the details of each particular episode have been forgotten.