As the United States and its small band of supporters begin a war against Iraq without Security Council authorization or even a majority show of support, questions about the future of the United Nations seem ever more urgent. For the last several months, Bush administration officials have issued dire warnings that failure to back war against Iraq would condemn the United Nations to irrelevance. Invoking comparisons to the League of Nations, they warned that anything other than full support for the US interpretation of UN Security Council Resolution 1441—threatening “serious consequences” for Iraqi non-compliance with disarmament demands—would constitute a collapse of international resolve. According to the Bush team’s interpretation, intransigent French resistance to the US-British-Spanish resolution authorizing war “forced” the United States to lead its “coalition of the willing” into the war that is now underway.

In fact, it was George W. Bush’s failure to secure a nine-vote majority in the Security Council, despite unusually brazen arm-twisting, that led the administration to withdraw its war resolution from consideration. Far from demonstrating its irrelevance, the Security Council’s remarkable resistance to US pressure has dramatically enhanced its image in the eyes of most of the world, and no small number of American citizens. Had the UN surrendered to Bush’s pressure and bestowed artificial legitimacy upon the war, the institution might indeed have lost its relevance. Refusing to stamp its imprimatur upon Bush’s war has arguably given the UN greater relevance as a moral center of world politics than it has ever before possessed.

Bad Faith

Bush initially challenged the UN’s relevance in his dramatic appearance before the General Assembly on September 12. In that speech, he called on the UN to come together to enforce its outstanding resolutions demanding that Iraq divest itself of weapons of mass destruction. Failing to do so, he argued, would demonstrate the institution’s irrelevance “to the problems of our time.” Weeks of tortuous diplomacy produced UNSC 1441, which unanimously demanded that Iraq comply with its disarmament obligations. Those negotiations revolved around the question of “automaticity”—the French and Russians, in particular, wanted assurances that no member of the Permanent Five could unilaterally decide if, or when, preliminary results from the inspections process warranted a resort to force.

The US ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, affirmed what was then the consensus, that the US would return to the Council before moving to war. It is the US, not France, which violated that agreement. The French, just as much the Bush team, see the other as having negotiated in bad faith. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, after maintaining a surprisingly low profile for much of the conflict, declared on March 10 that a US-British war without a second resolution “would not be in conformity with the UN Charter.”

As the US goes to war with a small coalition and arguably in violation of international law, it finds itself perhaps more isolated and feared than at any point in its history. Incredibly, the Bush administration’s determination to wage war on Iraq has led it to squander the enormous solidarity engendered by September 11 and to throw the future of NATO and the UN into question. Public opinion surveys around the world reveal a frightening level of hostility and distrust among even traditional allies. The Bush doctrine of preemption, asserting a unilateral right to strike against states which the administration deems to be enemies, violates both the letter and the spirit of the UN Charter. While some governments have signed on to offer token support, most do so over intense public opposition, to the point where a full third of Bush’s claimed coalition refused to allow their names to be made public. Alienating virtually the entire world strikes many as an exorbitant price for this war, and a stunning rebuke to Bush’s claims to moral leadership. Whatever the outcome of the war, Bush’s failure in the UN leaves both the US and the world weaker, more divided and less secure.

Disarmament or Regime Change?

Bush’s failure at the United Nations has been blamed on Iraqi deception, on French intransigence or on the inadequacy of the institution itself. Less often noted was the contradiction at the core of the US position between a demand to enforce the UN’s disarmament requirements and an escalating insistence on the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. UNSC 1441, like all of its predecessors, demanded that Iraq surrender its proscribed weapons of mass destruction. Should Iraq comply, and effective monitoring be established, the resolution posited, this would set in motion a sequence of events leading eventually to the suspension of economic sanctions and the gradual return of Iraq to the international community. The core bargain of 1441, like Resolutions 687 and 1284, was that compliance would end the decade-long confrontation between Iraq and the West.

The US has long held a different view. Since the October 1998 passage of the Iraq Liberation Act, the formal US position has been one of regime change. Whatever the merits of removing Saddam Hussein from power, commitment to his overthrow has always clearly contradicted the mandate of the UN. The Bush administration’s enthusiasm for regime change sat uneasily with the disarmament resolution to which it signed on last November. Bush’s increasingly insistent demands in recent months that the Iraqi regime be toppled may have played well with hawkish sectors of American public opinion, but they powerfully undermined the process of inspections and the possibility of UN consensus.

US support for the inspections process was grudging at best, and the Bush team often actively subverted the work of chief inspectors Hans Blix and Mohammed AlBaradei. Even as the inspectors began their work, US officials openly dismissed any chance that they might succeed. Inspectors bitterly complained that the US refused to share intelligence, and much of what was provided turned out to be of low quality. After Secretary of State Colin Powell’s forceful arguments at the UN on February 5 convinced many skeptics of Iraqi non-cooperation with inspections, Blix’s quietly devastating presentation a week later threw Powell’s case into disarray. Revelations that the British dossier on Iraqi security forces was plagiarized from the Internet, that the much-touted aluminum tubes probably were not in fact related to the production of nuclear weapons, and that documents supposedly proving a transfer of uranium from Niger to Iraq were crudely forged by a thus far unidentified intelligence service hurt the US case even more. Powell’s insistence on a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda—in the absence of any credible evidence—bred additional skepticism. Then commentators suddenly noticed that Powell’s alleged “tour de force” on February 5 had focused heavily on the existence of illicit weapons in Iraq, rather than on the crucial questions of whether the putative weapons posed a threat to the US, Iraq’s neighbors or international peace and security, or whether inspections could meet that threat. The virtually unprecedented open applause for French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin’s presentation of the case for continued inspections in the Security Council captured an international mood deeply unsympathetic to Bush’s arguments.

French resistance to US demands for a second resolution infuriated the Bush administration and its supporters. But the French position, however mixed its motivations, was in fact more in tune with both global public opinion and the text of UNSC 1441 than the bluster emanating from the White House. Both French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder have insisted that their opposition to a second resolution is based upon their commitment to the disarmament resolution, and that the Bush administration’s haste for war demonstrates that it was never serious about the inspections. While few would argue that Iraq had fully complied with disarmament, few believed that the inspections process had been given a genuine opportunity to succeed. Proposals for a more robust inspections regime, and several more months for them to operate, seemed reasonable to a world which had never shared the Bush administration’s enthusiasm for war.

Bush’s perceived hypocrisy in pushing regime change and undermining the inspectors, and in demanding that others adopt the US timetable for war without providing compelling evidence for its claims, undermined the administration’s diplomacy and credibility. After US bombing commenced on March 19, Blix told the BBC that the Bush team had been “doubtful from the beginning” about the efficacy of inspections, suggesting that the US had never intended UNSC 1441 to be a disarmament resolution. In the same interview, Blix again cast aspersions on the quality of US intelligence—repeatedly called “bulletproof” by the White House—on alleged weapons sites.


The Bush administration, for all its disdain for the UN and for the inspections process, did want a second resolution to authorize war. Such a resolution would have provided badly needed political cover for allies such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and would have facilitated a wider, formal international participation in the post-war administration of Iraq, if not in the war itself. Getting this resolution proved impossible, however. Ham-handed American efforts at coercion antagonized the non-permament members of the Security Council. The surprising vote of the Turkish parliament on March 1 against allowing US forces to invade Iraq from Turkish territory, despite some $30 billion in American incentives, inspired fence-sitters (though Turkey partially reversed its decision on March 20 by allowing US overflights for the purpose of bombing Iraq). France’s firm promise to veto any resolution which authorized war presented a formidable obstacle. Finally, Bush’s efforts to put together a nine-vote majority which would supposedly represent “moral legitimacy” and isolate France ended in embarrassment for Washington. Even had that effort succeeded, what moral legitimacy could come out of a majority vote achieved so openly through naked bribes and coercion of wavering non-permament members such as Guinea and Cameroon, and veiled threats against Mexico and Chile? After meeting with Blair, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and the Bulgarian premier in the symbolically isolated islands of the Azores on March 15, Bush abandoned diplomacy and moved to the war which began with the bombardment of a “target of opportunity” late in the evening of March 19. This war comes, in the words of de Villepin, “despite the clearly expressed will of the international community.”

The neo-conservative ideologues who have pushed for this war were generally delighted at the UN’s supposed failure. From the beginning, neo-conservative gurus Robert Kagan and William Kristol had warned against falling into what they described as “the UN trap.” They have been deeply frustrated by the drawn-out negotiations, and openly alarmed at the prospect that the inspections process might succeed sufficiently to derail war. They see ignoring the UN and destroying its relevance as a good thing, not an unfortunate price to pay. Committed to the unfettered expression of American power and a unique American moral superiority, they have no patience for the artificial equality of the Security Council. A United Nations willing to accept US instructions might be useful, in their view, but no concessions should be made to win its support. The dour Dick Cheney, who embodies the more traditional conservative hostility to the UN, was upbeat on the Sunday morning talk show circuit on the day that Bush abandoned his pursuit of a second resolution. Disparaging calls for continuation of inspections as based on “twentieth-century standards” of international peace and security, Cheney scolded the French further by commenting that “we’re approaching the point where further delay helps no one but Saddam Hussein.” Bush alone, Cheney’s words implied, would make the decision to go to war.

The triumphalism of anti-UN forces in American politics should not be taken at face value, however. It is highly unlikely that the Iraq crisis will fundamentally harm the United Nations. The institution will be needed almost immediately to help deal with the humanitarian consequences of the war, for which the United States seems to have done little to prepare. Most of the world celebrates the UN for standing up to Washington’s unilateralism and views the institution as more relevant than ever. For all the conservative animosity, opinion polls consistently show that the American public places great weight on UN support, and even Bush’s challenge began from the premise that a strong and effective United Nations best served American interests. As Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter has argued in the New York Times, regardless of the outcome of the UN process, the long months of brutal political give and take themselves confirm the importance which the UN commands, and will continue to command. While some administration officials have speculated off the record that the time might be ripe for the US to suspend its membership in the UN, cooler heads will no doubt recognize the unique value of the international body. The time will come again when the US needs the legitimacy and the global cooperation which only the UN can provide. By demonstrating that its authority was neither for sale nor easily granted under pressure from the world’s sole superpower, the UN has ensured its future relevance.

How to cite this article:

Marc Lynch "Irrelevance Lost," Middle East Report Online, March 20, 2003.

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