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Participants at the George W. Bush Conference at Hofstra University respond to Elliott Abrams’ comment that the Iraq war was not illegal under international law

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JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: We’re at the George W. Bush presidential conference at Hofstra University, where former administration officials and scholars are debating his legacy. One hot topic of debate is the notion of preemptive war, which led to the invasion of Iraq, which was not taken lightly by many Bush critics, including former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who in 2004 called it an “illegal war.” If illegal under the UN charter, it would be a war of aggression, what the Nurermburg tribunal called the supreme international crime. I asked Elliott Abrams, special assistant to George W. Bush, about Kofi Annan’s characterization of the Iraq war as an illegal war. ELLIOTT ABRAMS, SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO GEORGE W. BUSH: You know, the UN Security Council did vote to permit the use of force in Iraq. Tony Blair was quite insistent that he would not join in this effort unless there were actually two votes by the Security Council. So we went back and got the second vote, which means there was no Russian veto, by the way, to allow the use of force. Therefore, the invasion of Iraq cannot be illegal under international law. NOOR: UN resolution 1441, which was unanimously passed on November 8th, 2002, gave Iraq a final chance to disarm, or else “face serious consequences for not compliance”. But the resolution never specified what those consequences would be, and thus did not constitute an authority of use of force. That’s what Col. Larry Wilkerson, who served as Chief of Staff to then-State Secretary Colin Powell told me at the conference. LARRY WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: There was not authority for the use of force under chapter 7 in the UN first resolution 1441 in November, 2002. PHYLLIS BENNIS, FELLOW, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: 1441 said there would be consequences. It didn’t say what they were, and it was deliberately drafted that way because no country was prepared to endorse a war at that time. NOOR: Even UN ambassador at the time, John Negroponte, publicly stated 1441 “contains no hidden triggers with respect to the use of force.” JOHN NEGROPONTE, AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: I think the important point about the resolution is that it makes clear that any violation, or any material breach, is a matter that is going to be considered and discussed within the council. We have all agreed to that. WILKERSON: That’s why we went back. Not just because the British were [abriding], but because we thought we needed a second resolution. NOOR: Despite repeated attempts, the Bush Administration never got authorization in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. And so does it follow, then, under international law, the war in Iraq was illegal? WILKERSON: Under international law, I think it is a sound argument to say that the war was illegal. You could say that about other exploits of the United States in the past, even without the UN. And I, I think this is the most egregious example, though, because it is, really, a preventive war. PETER KUZNICK, PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: And people should be held accountable. NOOR: Some at the conference argued, including Peter Kuznick, a professor of history and the Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. KUZNICK: It’s perhaps the most serious war crime … perhaps the second-most serious war crime. The most serious war crime would be the use of nuclear weapons and threatening the annihilation of everybody on the planet. But beneath that, the most serious war crime is, is going to war unprovoked, against a country that is not threatening you, without any kind of international authorization. So yes, this is a war crime, and people can be held accountable as war criminals, and should be. NOOR: Isn’t it the responsibility of the Obama Administration to hold Bush and Cheney and the CIA and the other leadership accountable right here in the U.S.? KUZNICK: Only if you believe in the rule of law, which Obama does, on occasion. In fact, Obama is legally required to bring these people to justice for what they did. NOOR: Neither President Bush, Vice President Cheney, or Donald Rumsfeld have been charged with conducting an illegal war of aggression. With Kayla Rivara, reporting from Hofstra University on Long Island, this is Jaisal Noor.


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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.

Peter Kuznick is Professor of History and Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University in Washington, DC. He and Oliver Stone co-authored The Untold History of the United States.