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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
make this case for "preemptive" war against Iraq, Bush is
claiming that military force is necessary to remove the threat to peace
that Iraqs 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."
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."
argument, however, ignored alternative explanations, including the obvious
one that Iraq like many other nations may want weapons of mass destruction
to deter attack.
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
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
U.N. inspectors have yet to find evidence of biological and chemical
weapons in today's Iraq, nor that Iraq is developing nuclear weapons.
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.
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 countrys preemptive posture can be another countrys excuse
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."