We Just Saved the United Nations. What For?

Friday, January 30, 2004

“If there were no United Nations,” it is often said, “we’d have to invent one.” Like some family curse in ancient Greek drama, the fates of the United States and the United Nations seem inextricably intertwined. The idea for the organization, its name, and the final drafting of the 1945 Charter all came out of Washington near the end of the Second World War.

Although relegated to the sidelines by the Cold War, the United Nations found useful work in peacekeeping in trouble spots around the world. On the Golan Heights since 1973, for example, U.N. blue helmets have helped keep the situation stable.

But in other cases in the Middle East, the U.N.’s record has been abominable: the “Zionism Is Racism” resolution by the General Assembly in 1976; the United Nations’ refusal to recognize the Egypt-Israel Treaty of Peace and to authorize U.N. peacekeepers for the Sinai to consolidate the peace; the decades of one-sided resolutions proposed that, had the United States not used its veto, would have imposed potentially fatal sanctions on Israel while paying no heed to terrorist attacks against it; the U.N. Relief and Works Agency fostering a network of refugee camps and services that precluded normal patterns of assimilation, shut Palestinians off from productive lives, and, in time, became factories for terrorists; and the recent U.N. World Conference against Racism at Durban, South Africa, that degenerated into an anti-Semitic rant.

In January 1992, the heads of state and government of U.N. Security Council members asked U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, in effect, to try to make the organization function as the world player the 1945 Charter had designed it to be. But his vision soon crumpled under a series of hammer blows by the United States. The 1993 “Black Hawk Down” debacle at Mogadishu in which 18 U.S. Rangers were killed was blamed by President Clinton on the United Nations. The following year, confronted with the genocide in Rwanda, the Clinton administration declined to act—despite a legal commitment to do so under the Genocide Convention—and pressured other Security Council members to take no action.

In the mid-1990s, the Security Council sent blue-helmeted peacekeepers into a combat zone in Bosnia, where they were humiliated, harassed, and held hostage. In 1995, when the United States and NATO finally took military action to stop the war in Bosnia, they excluded the United Nations even as an observer at the Geneva and Dayton peace talks. And when President Clinton decided to go to war on Serbia in defense of Kosovo in 1999, he did so without even a pro forma nod to the U.N. Security Council. So by the end of the 1990s, the United Nations appeared to be going the way of the League of Nations.

This background is essential for understanding the remarkable foreign policy approach taken by President Bush in the last twelve months or so. In September 2000 came the National Security Strategy, which featured “preemption,” a doctrine that the president had signaled in his State of the Union address earlier that year when he declared he would not “wait upon events while dangers gather.”

Preemption has been a clearly accepted reality of international security from ancient times. The Peloponnesian War started when Sparta concluded that it had to act preemptively against the rising power and ambition of Athens. And Grotius, the “father of international law,” recognized that preemption would, under strictly limited conditions, be necessary even when the injurious act “has not yet occurred.”

In the early decades of the twentieth century, however, the promoters of international law began to denounce preemption. The U.N. Charter was interpreted as ruling it out. A nation was supposed to wait to be attacked before it tried to defend itself. But the landscape of international security changed radically after the 1945 signing of the U.N. Charter. The development and spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction made it necessary to rethink the established principles of national security. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 forced the question: Should President Kennedy be expected to wait until, say, Atlanta, was obliterated by nuclear attacks before acting? And the appearance of rogue states and nonstate terrorist networks in the latter decades of the twentieth century added to the challenge. Their tactics made it virtually impossible to stop them by the familiar methods of deterrence or containment. To be told that you could take no action to defend yourself until you were attacked made no sense in this era of weapons of mass destruction.

The September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States brought the concept of preemption back into consideration in cases where some combination of weapons of mass destruction, outlaw states, and terrorism posed an imminent threat to the security of the United States or other legitimate states in the international system.

The war to oust the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq was not, however, a war of preemption. The U.N. Security Council over more than a decade had produced a string of resolutions that made it clear that if Saddam Hussein did not cooperate with inspections, the original 1991 U.N. authorization for force against him would be reactivated. President Clinton launched the Desert Fox air campaign against Iraq in late 1998 after the Security Council had passed a resolution declaring Saddam Hussein to be in “flagrant violation” of all U.N. Security Council resolutions going back to the 1991 Desert Storm war, but he called it off after a few days, leaving the Security Council with a basketful of defied resolutions.

President Bush’s decision to take up the Iraq issue at the Security Council in September 2002 began an unprecedented diplomatic effort to urge the United Nations to adhere to its own resolutions. In November 2002 the Security Council produced Resolution 1441, which gave Saddam Hussein one “final opportunity” to cooperate. Soon it was evident that Saddam was defying and toying with the United Nations again. When President Bush announced that the United States would launch a military operation against Saddam Hussein’s regime, Bush made it clear that he was doing so under the original authorization for action in Security Council Resolutions 678 and 687 of 1991. When the major campaign concluded in 2003, the United States again went to the Security Council, which passed Resolution 1483, authorizing the United States and Britain as the legal occupying powers for Iraq. And in October, Resolution 1511 essentially backed American policy toward post-Saddam Iraq in all regards. America’s actions in Iraq have been firmly grounded in a decade’s worth of Security Council resolutions and international law.

So the United States saved the United Nations. The Security Council, left almost moribund at the end of the Clinton presidency, now may be of some use at this moment when the future of international order is at stake.

Why has the United States gone to such lengths to save the United Nations? The Bush administration continues to be denounced for “going it alone” and acting “unilaterally.” So why not just be unilateral and be done with the United Nations?

The reason is of monumental significance. The entire international state system is under attack. Originally a product of Western civilization, the international system has, over three and a half centuries, come to be universally accepted as the way nations agree to deal with one another. The basic elements of the system are the state and its sovereignty, international law, international organizations, professional military and diplomatic services, and norms such as women’s rights.

Over the past several decades a war against our international system has been gathering across the Arab-Islamic world. Slowly it became evident that some states had been taken over by dictatorial gangsters who used state powers to enrich themselves and to wage war on others. These “fake states” shielded themselves with the privileges and immunities of legitimate
member states in the international state system, even as they worked to defy and undermine that system. Saddam Hussein’s quarter-century reign of warfare, torture, and terror took first place among the “fake states” of the Middle East.

In parallel came the rise of the terrorists. Those who took hostages and hijacked airplanes in the 1970s and 1980s were thought to be motivated by political grievances. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” the pundits told us. The decade of the 1990s proved otherwise. The terrorists were radical Islamists, dedicated to overthrowing every Muslim state in the region and to reinstituting the caliphate, which ended in 1924 with the Ottoman Empire. These Islamists set up their terrorist training camps in “failed states,” such as Afghanistan, where internationally recognized governments had vanished or in hinterlands no longer controlled by other Arab state regimes, such as Yemen. By the end of the 1990s a civil war was under way in the Middle East, instigated by a combination of Saddamists and Islamists seeking to win control of the entire region.

The U.S. war to oust Saddam Hussein and transform Iraq into a decently governed legitimate member state of the international system has halted this dangerous trend. And U.S. efforts to bring about a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine would be a powerful reassertion of the validity of the international state system for the Arab-Islamic world.

If another world war is to be headed off, two things must happen. First, the United States must pull together the fragmented and feuding elements of the international system by reaffirming the indispensability of the state and by shoring up international law and organizations. Herein lies the importance of the Bush administration’s effort at the United Nations over the past year. Reawakening the international system also means getting the Europeans to comprehend the deadly threat posed to their way of life by a Middle East in the grip of political and religious pathologies.

Second, quite simply, the United States must pursue its present course in Iraq and across the Middle East to its proper conclusion. If the decades-long downward spiral of the region is not reversed, World War III will soon be at hand.