Sauce for the Gander

8 September 2004

Sauce for the Gander

By Gwynne Dyer

It didn’t get much media play, but did you notice what the Russian Chief of Staff, General Yuri Baluyevsky, said after the horrors at Middle School Number One in Beslan? He said that in future, Russia will be prepared to carry out preemptive strikes against terrorist bases anywhere in the world. One man who would not have been surprised to hear it is Kofi Annan.

Kofi Annan is only the Secretary-General of the United Nations, so the big powers don’t have to listen to him, but he is a clever man, and his job is to watch over the peace of the world. National leaders may care about that too, but they also have a hundred other priorities; world peace is Annan’s primary and almost his sole responsibility. And this is what the Ghanaian-born diplomat said at the UN’s General Assembly meeting last September, just six months after the United States, Britain and Australia invaded Iraq.

“Until now it has been understood that when states decide to use force to deal with broader threats to international peace and security, they need the unique legitimacy provided by the United Nations. Now, some say this understanding is no longer tenable, since an armed attack with weapons of mass destruction could be launched at any time, without warning, or by a clandestine group. Rather than wait for this to happen, they argue, states have the obligation to use force preemptively, even on the territory of other states.”

“This logic represents a fundamental challenge to the principles on which world peace and stability have rested for the last 58 years.”

Many people saw Kofi Annan as an American pawn when he was elected Secretary-General, and he certainly was the US choice for the job, but what he was actually saying in that speech, in thinly disguised diplomatic code, was that the new US doctrine of preemptive war against potentially threatening groups and countries is illegal and a danger to world peace. He hasn’t been a very popular man in official Washington since then, but he is absolutely right, and General Yuri Baluyevsky is all the evidence he needs.

Most Americans were not alarmed when President George W. Bush wrote in the introduction to the National Security Strategy statement of 2002 that “America will act against emerging threats before they are fully formed. We will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary….” Surely others would understand that America’s intentions were good even if it occasionally acted outside the law.

That confidence may be slightly dented in the United States after the Bush administration did act on that doctrine in invading Iraq, only to find that there was no “emerging threat” there to American security: no weapons of mass destruction, and no evidence of any links between Saddam Hussein’s regime and the Islamist terrorists who staged 9/11 and other atrocities. But it is only slightly dented.

Vice-President Dick Cheney still gets cheers when he trots out the line about the United States not needing a “permission slip” from the UN to attack countries it suspects of evil intentions towards America. The problem that is practically invisible from inside the United States is that other countries then don’t need “permission slips” to invade their neighbours, either. They can just announce that they have uncovered a grave threat to their security in some other country — they don’t actually have to prove it, any more than the United States did — and then they are free to invade it. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Russia was the natural next candidate to break out of the constraints of international law and embrace unilateralism. It had already been sneaking up on it, with highly illegal operations like the car-bomb assassination of former Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yanderbiyev in Qatar earlier this year by Russian intelligence agents (two of whom were caught and have been sentenced to life in prison). But that was just the learner slopes. Now General Baluyevsky has proclaimed a doctrine that claims the same right to use force on other people’s territory as part of the “war on terror” that the Bush administration claimed two years ago.

This is the doctrine under which Mr Bush invaded Iraq, although there were no terrorists there at the time. Which country will the Russians invade on the same pretext? They probably haven’t even chosen one yet: part of the reason Baluyevsky announced this doctrine now was simply to look tough and distract attention from Moscow’s failure to prevent the terrorist attacks. But the doctrine will still be there when the current outrage has subsided, to be used as and when Moscow wants.

Russia, unlike the United States, is not strong enough militarily to invade countries halfway around the world from it, but all the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus that used to be ruled by Moscow will certainly see themselves as potential targets. Eastern European countries won’t be feeling too happy about it either. And of course, other big countries like China and India are quite likely to follow where the US and Russia have blazed the trail.

Which is why Kofi Annan is looking so worn and worried these days. He has every right to be.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“That confidence …dented”; and “This is…wants”)