Bush vs. the World

Why Washington can’t go it alone

Ian Williams

George W. Bush has offered the United Nations two choices. Either enough Security Council members can be bribed and bullied into acquiescing to the invasion of Iraq the Americans have been so consistently threatening, or the Security Council can refuse to give him and chum Tony Blair the resolution the latter so desperately wants—and Bush will go ahead and invade anyway. Both options lead to U.N. irrelevance.

Kofi Annan cautiously warned that “if the U.S. and others were to go outside the Council and take military action, it would not be in conformity with the Charter.” But such protestations were never likely to cut mustard with the White House, whose officials had publicly declared their disdain for the organization and the U.N. Charter as they slithered on the fringes of politics long before becoming the mainstream. Their only interest in a U.N. resolution has been to use its outcome to further weaken the organization. Until opposition in the Turkish parliament showed how useful a U.N. resolution could be, the president was interested only insofar as Blair faces regime change himself without a vote.

For different reasons, many leftists and liberals will be equally disillusioned with the United Nations. But the organization is a reflection of the real world. First, it is not a pacifist organization. Its founders would have been very dubious about the efficacy of Gandhian tactics against the Nazis. The organization was founded to maintain the status quo and to make sure there would not be another world war.

That does not mean the small wars should be overlooked. The founders were well aware of how small wars could quickly escalate, and their contemporaries saw a clear line from the occupations of Czechoslovakia, Manchuria and Abyssinia to the worldwide conflict that followed. So the U.N. Charter contains specifications calling for massive military force to be used against any aggressor. Oddly enough, the closest it came to acting that part was when Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait.

Similarly, the notion that each state is equal is a polite fiction. Not even in the most idealist dreams of its planners did anyone think that Nauru, population 15,000, was really equal to China. Hence the Security Council with its 15 members, five of whom are permanent and hold veto power. The veto is very undemocratic. So is reality.

Indeed, the less powerful countries use their vetoes either symbolically or only to defend their close state interests. So in part, the reluctance of Russia and France to declare a veto from the outset of their resistance to Bush’s accelerated war plans was the awareness that it did not reflect the reality of the 21st century. The United States could stop them taking action, but they could not stop Washington, short of unleashing World War III. Neither of them was going to risk national suicide on behalf of Saddam Hussein—who both all but admit has been cheating and defying the weapons inspectors.


After a war, will the United Nations be seen as irrelevant and ineffectual? Perhaps by both sides. But the institution is too useful to everyone for it to wither on the vine. It survived its ineffectiveness during Rwanda, when a U.S. veto stopped the peace keepers from being reinforced during the massacres. It outlasted Bosnia, when it was accused of being an “accomplice to genocide” in the face of studied U.S. refusal to commit military power until forced by the Srebrenica massacre. In Kosovo, although President Clinton vetoed British attempts to get a U.N. resolution authorizing intervention, he still needed the United Nations to legitimize the occupation and the administration after the war.

Despite the diehard opposition to multilateralism from almost everyone in the administration but Colin Powell, Washington will try hard to get retrospective U.N. endorsement of any occupation of Iraq—regardless of whether the invasion receives any sanction. After all, in the Alice in Wonderland world of White House logic, the official reason for invasion is to force Iraq to abide by U.N. resolutions—regardless of whether the United Nations wants it!

Of course, that would be a bitter pill for the unilateralists around the White House to swallow, but reality, in the form of money, is more likely to impinge upon their planning any nebulous notions of international legality. In the end, facing a deficit of avalanche proportions boosted by the direct costs of the war and the economic uncertainty it has engendered, the White House will still have to pay for the occupation. Under the Geneva Conventions, that is more than just paying the troops: The occupying power must maintain all essential services. If there is to be the slightest chance of getting the European Union and Japan to assume any proportion of the costs, they will need a U.N. mandate, not a vice-regal order from Rumsfeld or Cheney.

In addition, the only feasible way to stop mass starvation will be to continue the “oil for food” program, which depends on the expertise of the United Nations and its liaison with local Iraqi officials, not to mention the other U.N. agencies with experience in massive relief operations. Without too much cynicism, we can predict that the part of the French and Russian opposition that depended upon access to Iraqi oil could be muted by an international administration that gave them a pipe in the trough.


On the other hand, if Washington wants to permanently sideline the United Nations, as various spokesmen have threatened, they face a serious problem. The only effective institution they have to use would be NATO—which they have already seriously weakened by treating some of its most important members like unruly satellites. Their most effective military ally, England, may not be so reliable after the Labour Party, the British electorate, and even the military and Foreign Office professionals are finished with Tony Blair. The only other significant U.S. military ally is Turkey, no less than 94 percent of whose population opposed the Iraq war the last time anyone bothered to ask them.

Any such U.S. abdication may further transform the United Nations into an alliance against overweening American power that is beginning to form among Russia, China and the major Europeans. No one is in a position to pose a military threat to the United States, and no one is stupid enough to threaten it. But with the U.S. economy in a precarious state, these allies could make more concerted decisions on trade and finance, and would have less tendency to go along with Bush’s subsequent adventures in Iran and North Korea.

If the United States tries going solo as a global cop, it is in deep trouble. Already, as a result of its actions toward Iraq, Washington has postponed or aborted a solution to the Cyprus problem as a sop to the Turkish military. It has given Ariel Sharon a free hand to confirm all the rumors that Washington is running an anti-Muslim crusade. It still hasn’t found Osama bin Laden or stabilized Afghanistan, yet Undersecretary of State John Bolton is promising the Israelis that Washington will deal next with Iran, North Korea and Syria. (In the past, he also has mentioned Cuba and Libya.) It’s a tough job to clean up the world on your own, especially when your clumsiness has you kicking over the diplomatic bucket all the time.

Reality will force the United States to stay involved in the United Nations, but the organization alone won’t stop U.S. unilateralism and exceptionalism. That remedy has to be found here at home.

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Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush’s War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, now available from Nation Books.
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