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"Lessons for International Law from the Gulf War," 45 Stanford Law Review, Winter 1993.


Politically and militarily, the War in the Gulf remains an unsettled event. Although nearly two years have passed since the War, its political consequences are still evolving. Militarily, the recent reintroduction of allied forces into Iraqi air space suggests that the War continues, though at a much reduced level. In the long run, the War will probably be seen as a footnote to the larger political upheavals that marked the start of this decade—noteworthy because it made visible the realignment of the international order that had already occurred.

While the War may be merely a footnote from the perspective of political history, it is a major event from the perspective of international law. It marked one of the few occasions on which there was a deliberate invocation of international law to justify military force. For this reason, an examination of the War can teach us much about the reality of, and possibilities for, international law. Given the continuing tumultuous politics of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, this legal reconsideration is important. Already, the international-legal machinery deployed in the War has served as a precedent for United Nations Security Council action authorizing military intervention in Bosnia and Hercegovina.

We are moving rapidly toward a new world order of some sort. While it may be too early to predict the political shape of that order, it is not too early to consider the role that international law may play in it. Before we raise our hopes for a vital future for international law, we need to fully understand the character and power of existing international law. To that end, it is useful to examine international law as it operated, and failed to operate, in the Gulf War.

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