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Bush & an 'Irrelevant' U.N.

By Sam Parry
February 13, 2003

To George W. Bush, the future "relevance" of the United Nations rests on its willingness to follow his lead into war with Iraq. But the choice he presents could mean irrelevance to the U.N. whichever way it goes, while putting the world on a risky road toward escalating violence and endless war.

Acquiescence to Bush could buy the U.N. some "relevance" in the eyes of the Bush administration. But falling in line behind Bush would go against the U.N.'s founding principles and cost the international body credibility in the eyes of billions of people around the world. They would simply conclude that the U.N.'s ideals of peace hold only so long as they serve the interests of the United States – and in this case, the desires of George W. Bush.

The loss of faith in the U.N.'s principled opposition to aggressive war could prove to be one of the costliest casualties of Bush's war with Iraq. Indeed, the potential danger to world order from the U.N. embracing the war could be worse than from the U.N. balking while Bush and his "coalition of the willing" proceed on their own.

Preventing War

For the past half century, the Charter has stood as a beacon against war except in cases of national defense or when a menace to world stability is clear and immediate. Written in the historical shadow of World War II, when horrendous loss of life was started by the aggressive acts of Germany and Japan, the Charter was meant to avert "preemptive" war when one powerful nation asserts that it has a right to invade another country to prevent some hazy future threat.

The U.N. Charter makes clear that its overriding goal is to avoid war if at all possible, "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war." Peace – not some Orwellian concept of war in the name of peace – is the core principle behind the U.N.

Not only is aggression to be shunned, but the Charter states that acts of aggression must be opposed by "effective collective measures." Article I states that those "collective measures" must seek "to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace."

Article II states that "all Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations." The Charter further forbids the Security Council – dominated by the five veto-bearing members: the U.S., Great Britain, France, Russia and China – from endorsing actions that contradict the Charter.

So, by endorsing Bush's "preemptive" war with Iraq – when Iraq has been making no overt threats against its neighbors – the U.N. would effectively be redefining its Charter and abandoning its founding principles. In effect, the U.N. would be granting Bush authority to apply international law as he sees fit, a radical departure from post-World War II international norms. Rather than intervening in an ongoing conflict, this would be the first war initiated by the U.N. against a nation and a people living in peace.

Making the Case

To make this case for "preemptive" war against Iraq, Bush is claiming that military force is necessary to remove the threat to peace that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction pose. Yet, neither Bush nor any US official has offered evidence that Iraq is today explicitly threatening the peace, only that Iraq's leader Saddam Hussein might theoretically threaten the peace in the future. Bush's proposed war is not just "preemptive," it is "predictive."

In the State of the Union, Bush tacitly conceded this point. "Year after year, Saddam Hussein has gone to elaborate lengths, spent enormous sums, taken great risks to build and keep weapons of mass destruction," Bush said. He then asked, "But why? The only possible explanation, the only possible use he could have for those weapons, is to dominate, intimidate or attack."

Bush's argument, however, ignored alternative explanations, including the obvious one that Iraq like many other nations may want weapons of mass destruction to deter attack.

For instance, the United States maintains a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons, as does Russia, to give credibility to the defensive principle of mutual assured destruction. That theory holds that nuclear weapons keep the peace by convincing a potential attacker that an assault would be met with a devastating counterattack. To lesser degrees but for similar reasons, China, Great Britain, France, Israel, India and Pakistan also possess nuclear weapons.

With the exception of the U.S. bombing of two Japanese cities in World War II, none of these nations has attacked an enemy with nuclear weapons. Yet, the nuclear nations have kept those doomsday weapons in their arsenals. Some nations, including the U.S., also have developed chemical and biological weapons similar to those that the Bush administration argues still exist in Iraq.

The U.N. inspectors have yet to find evidence of biological and chemical weapons in today's Iraq, nor that Iraq is developing nuclear weapons.

Dangers of Preemption

Still, regardless of Saddam Hussein's motives for wanting chemical and biological weapons, the U.N. Charter does not allow the use of military force to disarm a country that is not actively threatening world peace. If force is to be used, the U.N. Charter says it can only be used to put down a clear and imminent threat to peace, not a theoretical one.

The reason is simple. Preemption begets preemption and can contribute to more, not fewer, wars. Under Bush's doctrine of preemption, for example, Iraq would be justified in launching an attack against the U.S. right now, since there is every reason to believe that the U.S. poses a threat to Iraq. One country’s preemptive posture can be another country’s excuse for war.

Unless Iraq threatens its neighbors or in some other way shows an intention to use force, the U.N. – at least as it has existed to this point – cannot endorse force while at the same time upholding its commitment to promoting peace and stability around the world.

By accepting Bush's insistence on war while Iraq is not threatening war on its neighbors, the U.N. would be abandoning any pretense of acting as an honest broker in international disputes. No longer could the U.N. present itself as a body that applies the principles of international law fairly for every country regardless of size and power. The message would be unmistakable that the rules will be twisted to suit the demands of the prevailing superpower, currently the U.S.

Releasing the genie of Bush's preemption argument could quickly influence the course of other potential conflicts, from the Indian subcontinent to the Korean Peninsula and beyond. Once the bombs start falling on Iraq, the U.S. will be entering new territory as an openly aggressive superpower.

Boarding the Train

Indeed, some Bush supporters make that an argument for the U.N. embracing Bush's Iraq war, that it would be better for the U.N. to sanction the conflict – to "board the train before it leaves the station" – than to have the U.S. in open violation of international law. This argument holds that it's better to keep the U.S. within the framework of international law – even if that means redefining international law – than to have the U.S. operating as a "super rogue state."

Yet, with or without U.N. authorization, the looming invasion of Iraq will be America's war – or perhaps more accurately, George W. Bush's war. The next question will be whether Bush stops with the conquest of Iraq or proceeds to implement his vision of U.S. military action wherever a potential threat is detected.

If that's the case, the future of the U.N. will be in jeopardy regardless of whether it blesses Bush's invasion of Iraq or not. The U.N.'s choice will be either irrelevance as a bystander to Bush's endless wars or as a cover for giving his unilateral decisions a veneer of legality.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday the U.N.'s Security Council was "reaching a moment of truth." He meant that it was time for the council to stand up and join the United States. But a U.N. that simply lends its blue flag to "preemptive" wars chosen by one man will have reached a very different kind of "moment of truth."

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