Over the weekend, Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani caught the attention of the public by essentially advocating plunder. The invasion of Iraq was a poor foreign policy decision, they said. But once the decision had been made, Trump insisted, the US should have taken Iraqi oil for its own benefit. This was how it used to be done, Trump went on. Giuliani modified this position. Iraqi oil, Giuliani suggested, should have been ‘controlled’ because this would have prevented the rise of ISIS (such a moot and incoherent point, I won’t even go there). As if that weren’t enough to stir a public relations hornets nest, Giuliani mused that “anything is legal” in war.
You know though: Trump and Giuliani put their finger on something. Example: two armies go to war. Let’s say two enemy combatants meet each other on an urban street. They can do things to each other – killing the obvious act – and use their surrounding environment in ways that would be illegal normally. There still remain ‘rules’ of war. A city can’t be razed to the ground. A wounded soldier must receive medical aid. These are merely courtesies, however. Soldiers and their superiors will do anything to win wars. Cities do get razed. Wounded soldiers are shot in cold blood. Those facts are as true for the US as much as for leaders like Saddam.
Plunder too is considered unseemly in modern warfare. But yet, Iraqs wealth was plundered through the oil for food programme that followed the 1990-1991 conflict when Iraq was sanctioned. These were very punitive sanctions for an invasion of Kuwait, an invasion that had a casus belli (cause of war). The casus belli was that Kuwait had called in many of its loans that it had made to Iraq during the war with Iran. Saddam had some justification in annexing a neighbour who had posed an existential threat to the integrity of Iraq. He was treated unjustly, in any event. Look at how much territory Israel has annexed or laid claim to since 1948 yet it has never faced sanctions for disrupting the peace, despite the flimsy reasons for some of its land seizures. And, furthermore, after the Iraq war, the wealth of the tragic Gulf nation was controlled by the US. So Trump and Giuliani are kinda endorsing the policies that were followed. It seems like they either haven’t read any books on Iraq or bolstering a widespread opinion that the US is continually being ‘ripped-off’ by sly foreigners.
How about the general claim that everything is legal in war? Was this the way things used to be? Yes and no. It really came down to how different the warring armies were in cultural, religious and political terms. When the Crusaders first invaded the Mid-East, there was a lot of plunder and blood spilt. As the two sides became acquainted with each other – the Crusaders thinking of the Levant as home – some semblance of order governed wars.
Wars between two sides long ago could be as gentlemanly or as brutal as their differences allowed. There were no international rules of war but it wasn’t total anarchy all of the time. Yet, some wars could have humiliating outcomes for the losers.
This is not the world we live in today, though. Under the influence of Roman law, European states began to develop an elaborate international legal system around the 17th century. By the early 20th century, this was extended to non-European countries like Japan and Turkey because European nations were by far the most wealthiest and powerful and these nations wanted to integrate into the neo-Roman system. Later still, we had an entire international system governing war.
Of course, no legal system is set in stone. Trump and Giuliani have pointed out that there is an alternative way to manage inter-state relations. It is one where the winner takes all or the victor subjects the vanquished to his will. But here is my problem: what were the Nuremberg trials about? Weren’t they to try war criminals? But there are no war crimes for Giuliani. What about the invasion of Kuwait in 1990? That was an illegal invasion, we were told. But there are no illegal invasions for Giuliani. How about Iran ‘illegally’ developing nuclear weapons? They would be deployed in a war but banning such weapons, implies Giuliani, is absurd because the ban would cover a situation where there no bans. Similarly, Putin didn’t invade Crimea illegally but Trump obviously would agree on that score.
Of course, the US has flouted rules of war consistently. The bombing of Tokyo, the dropping of the A-bomb, the bombing of Vietnam, the 2003 invasion of Iraq … all illegal, if we adhere to Giuliani’s definition of wartime conduct. But the US marches under the banner of legality. It says that it is bound by rules of war, as are other countries. Its global legitimacy rests in the idea that the US is not some Mongol-type plunderer, but a civilised keeper of the peace.
The Trump-Giuliani thesis is not wholly illogical but would be the death of modern international law. Even dictators like Saddam cleaved to international law. They registered their soldiers, engaged in international diplomacy, agreed to respect treaties, and made themselves liable for war crimes. Saddam did not head a ‘rogue state.’ If the US ditches international law, it also forfeits its ability to judge on the rightness of a war. Countries it invades would be at its mercy, but the US could not use international law as an excuse for an intervention. Is this newish-oldish order better than the one we have?