24 August 1998

Cowboy Clinton: No Excuse for Vigilante Action

The Times of India
22 August 1998

Cowboy Clinton
No Excuse for Vigilante Action


THE massive airstrikes launched by the US against Afghanistan
and Sudan are as much an act of international illegality as
the terrorist bombing of its embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam last
week. Fresh from a display of mock contrition about his personal conduct
in the Monica Lewinsky case, President Bill Clinton appeared on TV once
again to spin a yarn, this time about how the US military action against
two sovereign countries was justified and in accordance with
international law. In truth, the US use of force is illegal; it is a
dangerous violation of the UN Charter and of every civilised norm of
international relations.

The precise impact of the US bombing in Afghanistan may
take a while to be felt. But according to the Taliban authorities, Mr
Osama bin Laden, the Saudi financier whom the US wanted to assassinate
for allegedly masterminding the embassy blasts, has survived ``along
with his companions''. In Sudan, however, the target was a
pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum the US claimed made chemical weapons.
How many people have been killed by the US cruise missiles is not clear
but several persons are thought to have been grievously injured.

Act of Aggression

While the US may self-servingly claim that the murky
political situation in Afghanistan -- the government in control of Kabul
is not internationally recognised and there is still a civil war being
waged against it -- allows it to violate Afghan sovereignty, the case of
Sudan is very different. Sudan has a government that is recognised by
the UN and virtually every country in the world. It is not a party to
the Chemical Weapons Convention and is fully within its rights to make
chemical weapons under international law, should it so desire. It has
not staged any armed attack on the US. Certainly, the US has given no
evidence of Sudanese involvement in the embassy bombings and had made no
prior complaint to the UN Security Council. Hence, the US attack against
Sudan can have no possible justification. It is a clear case of

The US is likely to invoke the right of self-defence
under Article 51 of the UN Charter to justify its airstrikes. But as
Professor Louis Henkin, one of the most authoritative experts on
international law in the US, argued in the context of the US bombing of
Libya in April 1986: ``The law does not -- ought not -- permit the use
of military force against any state (thought to be responsible for an
act of terrorism)''* . Article 51 is ``limited to cases of armed attack that are
generally beyond doubt (but) a state's responsibility for acts of terrorism
is rarely beyond doubt and difficult to prove to international satisfaction''. That
is why the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly condemned the US for its attack on
Libya and a similar resolution in the Security Council secured the
necessary nine votes only to be vetoed by the US, Britain and France.
When Israel bombed Tunisia in October 1985 using the ``terrorist bases''
argument, however, the Security Council voted 14-0 to condemn Tel Aviv
and the US was forced to abstain. In short, there are ample legal
precedents for condemning what the Clinton administration has just done.

Law of Jungle

Even if it were proved that Sudan and Afghanistan are
sponsoring acts of terrorism, international law does not permit the use
of force on a retaliatory, anticipatory or deterrent basis. These
pretexts formed the core of the `Reagan doctrine', which the whole world
found unacceptable at the time. And for good reasons too; for such logic
would reduce the international system to a state of anarchy. Instead, a
country which is a victim of terrorism must pursue other avenues of

What Washington has done by its actions, however, is to
legitimise the law of the jungle. According to the US logic, China need
simply declare that a certain blast in Xinjiang is the handiwork of
terrorists based in Kazakhstan to rain bombs down on Almaty. And India
-- which was urged restraint by the US when there was irresponsible talk
in New Delhi of `hot pursuit' of militants beyond the border -- can
presumably feel free to attack Muridke or any other suspected terrorist
base camp in Pakistan. By the same token, Pakistan, which accused India
of engineering a train blast in June, can claim the right to hit targets
in India that it feels are connected with the bombing. It is precisely
because of these dangerous implications that UN Secretary General Kofi
Annan has expressed his discomfort with Washington's action.

US-Taliban Deal

The official Indian response to this grave violation of
international law has been curiously ambivalent. Perhaps our foreign
policy mandarins are labouring under the illusion that Thursday's
airstrikes in Afghanistan represent an attempt by the US to punish the
Taliban -- and by extension Pakistan -- for their support to
international terrorism, including in Kashmir. Nothing could be further
from the truth. Though the Taliban made brave statements that Mr bin
Laden was their ``guest'' and would be protected, they had signalled to
the US that they were not averse to his being ``taken out''. In fact, it
is quite possible that Kabul has reached some sort of an understanding
with the Clinton administration by which the Taliban's green signal for
the raid against the Saudi dissident is the price they pay for eventual
diplomatic recognition.

The Taliban may be fanatical but even they can see that
the support of Washington counts for a lot more in this world than the
loyalty of an itinerant adventurer. As for the US, its strategic
interests in Afghanistan -- securing transit routes for Turkmen oil and
gas, and containing Iran -- are far too compelling for it to be
squeamish about the threat the Taliban militia poses to others.

In a message the day after the embassy bombing, President
Clinton said that ``Americans are targets of terrorism ... because we
have unique leadership responsibilities in the world, because we act to
advance peace and democracy''. The reality is that it is precisely
Washington's systematic deviation from these goals which has alienated
so many people in West Asia and turned them into implacable foes capable
of using even heinous methods to strike at the US. It is largely the US
support for Israel and undemocratic regimes in Saudi Arabia, Algeria,
Bahrain etc which pushes dissidents towards extremism. Thursday's
airstrikes may please many an unpopular ruler in the region but it will
almost certainly increase the likelihood of terrorism against US
interests. President Clinton has invested in short-term gains at the
expense of long-term losses.

* Right v. Might: International Law and the Use of Force, Council for Foreign Relations, New York, 1991

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