The American Enterprise
December 2003
By Alan W. Dowd

The United Nations spent most of its existence before 1990 in a virtual coma, the victim of superpower standoff. Then, on the eve of the first Gulf War, the standoff ended and the world came together to isolate Saddam Hussein and rollback his invasion of Kuwait. In a word, the United Nations was, well, united.

Thirteen years later, the world is anything but united. Faced with certain vetoes from France and Russia, a US-led coalition ousted Saddam’s regime without the UN’s explicit authorization, began the reconstruction of Iraq without the UN’s help, and somewhere along the road to Baghdad laid to rest the notion that the UN could serve a useful purpose in the 21st century.

Irresolute Resolutions

The UN is not going to cease to exist in name, of course. But it has already ceased to exist in practice. Consider that it took eight weeks for the Security Council to agree on a resolution requiring Iraq to comply with existing resolutions, and that happened only after President Bush threw down the gauntlet: “Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding,” he intoned, “or will it be irrelevant?”  

The Council answered with Resolution 1441, which declared that Iraq had failed to provide full disclosure of its nuclear, chemical and biological programs, had repeatedly obstructed access to weapons sites, and was in material breach of UN disarmament demands. Yet the Council refused to explicitly authorize military action to bring Iraq into compliance. Worried that Washington would use the UN “to legitimize the unilateral and preemptive use of force,” French President Jacques Chirac blocked any such language.  

So for five months, the UN inspectors haplessly asked Saddam to account for his known caches of “special weapons,” which included 10,000 liters of anthrax, 80 tons of mustard gas, thousands of mustard bombs, and uncounted amounts of sarin and VX nerve agent. (Saddam never came clean. Thankfully and mysteriously, he never used his WMD arsenal, either.) When Britain and the United States finally called the question in mid-March 2003, the Security Council responded with a collective shrug.  

In a sense, 1441 was a metaphor for the UN’s systemic shortcomings: From the American and British perspective, 1441—like the UN—was the means to an end. Both were a way the great powers could live up to their primary responsibility, which, according to the UN Charter, is “the maintenance of international peace and security.” However, from the perspective of the French, Russians, and Germans, 1441—like the UN—was an end in and of itself. Hence, Chirac could condemn the US-led attack on Saddam’s regime because it was “undertaken without the approval of the United Nations…which is the only legitimate framework for building peace in Iraq.”  

Of course, if the UN is the sole source of legitimacy for “building peace,” Chirac has some explaining to do. From the Ivory Coast to the Central African Republic, French troops are intervening all across Africa—sometimes with UN pre-approval, but often without. In early 2003, it was Chirac who unilaterally threatened East European governments for siding with Washington rather than Paris on Iraq: “If they wanted to diminish their chances of joining the EU,” he snarled, “they couldn't have chosen a better way.” And during the UN’s farcical peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, as historian David Halberstam writes in War in a Time of Peace, Chirac “issued…orders to the French generals in Bosnia—orders that went outside the UN command system.” It seems Washington doesn’t have a monopoly on “unilateralism.”

Easy Targets

As Robert Kaplan observes in The Coming Anarchy, “The UN represents not just the hopes, but more accurately the illusions of millions of people.” Never was this more obvious than in 2003.

Despite their charge under the UN Charter, Paris and the others averted their gaze from Iraq, organized opposition against the US-UK effort, and aborted any chance at consensus. In so doing, the Security Council pointed a loaded gun at itself. The US-UK-led coalition wasn’t deterred by France’s “non” anymore than Saddam Hussein had been deterred by twelve years of feckless resolutions. 

When Washington tried to lift UN sanctions against Iraq after the war, Paris and Moscow balked, cynically arguing that the only way sanctions could be lifted was if Hans Blix confirmed the destruction of all prohibited weapons. Recall that Paris began a concerted push to end UN sanctions on Iraq in January 1999, characterizing them as cruel to the Iraqi people. Somehow those humanitarian concerns lost their urgency when France’s commercial ties to Iraq evaporated along with Saddam’s regime.

The UN’s allergy to military force—and contempt for US leadership—followed it into postwar Iraq. When US troops offered to protect UN headquarters in Baghdad, they were snubbed. To avoid being associated with the allies, the UN instead contracted with a private security firm, thus offering Iraq’s toxic mix of Baathist leftovers and imported guerillas an easy target. They hit the target hard on August 19, killing scores of civilians.

Hoping to prevent such attacks and speed up the postwar stabilization effort, Bush turned to the UN for approval of a multinational peacekeeping force soon after the statues fell. As before, he did so as a means to a greater end: Turkey, Pakistan and India were willing to send peacekeepers—but only with a UN resolution. As before, the French and German governments responded with diplomatic gamesmanship.

The war may have transformed Iraq, but it apparently did nothing to change the UN Security Council or the obstructionists who control it.

Containing America

Even so, there may be a silver lining here. The past year has reminded Americans that it is their elected representatives in Congress and the White House who validate US military action—not the unelected bureaucrats who roam the UN.

A year ago, Washington was excoriated for contemplating military action against Iraq without seeking UN permission. Yet when Bush and Powell went to the UN for approval, they were ambushed. The United States should not go through such a charade again, at least not on a matter of grave importance. As Bush soberly explained before the bombs began to fall on Baghdad, “When it comes to our security, we don't need anybody's permission.” Nor does Washington need the UN’s advice on how to wage the next phase of the war on terror. We now know that the Security Council is more concerned about containing the United States than containing, say, a nuclear-armed North Korea or Iran.

At its best, the UN is an instrument of US power. At its worst, it is a tool of those who seek to limit US power. At this juncture in history, America hasn’t the luxury or patience to allow the Lilliputians to tie it down.