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Security Council

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US and the UN

25 May 2003

The US and the UN

By Gwynne Dyer

“The French foreign minister…said he was not completely satisfied with the resolution but supported it in the interests of ‘unity of the international community’. Translation: we give up, you’re bigger than we are.” That was how the Los Angeles Times greeted the UN Security Council resolution on 22 May recognising US control of Iraq, but it isn’t quite that simple.

The debate in the Security Council before the war was not about whether President Bush should attack Iraq or not: he was obviously determined to do that anyway. It was about whether the UN system would be more damaged by defying American power and risking a US boycott, or by cynical complicity in an American attack that most members saw as unjustified. A large majority of the members — eleven out of fifteen, including all the major powers except the US and Britain — decided to take the risk and defy Washington.

That didn’t stop the war, but they got away with it, more or less. President Bush no longer takes phone calls from French President Jacques Chirac, but he will show up for the G-8 summit meeting in France this week and smile with Chirac for the cameras — and the US and Britain have already had to go back to the UN Security Council to get some legitimacy for their occupation of Iraq. Once again, the question for the other Security Council members was how to minimise the damage to the UN.

Should they grant the invasion a kind of post-dated legality by ending the UN sanctions against Iraq and recognising the ‘occupying powers’ as legitimate, so that they can get on with selling Iraq’s oil, rebuilding the shattered economy and creating some sort of government? Or should they stonewall on the issue and push the Bush administration into an outright rejection of the UN’s authority? Put it that way, and the answer is obvious: the Security Council members had to swallow their principles and give the US what it wants. But how deeply does the UN want to get involved in Iraq?

On the surface, the UN seemed to be demanding serious authority over Iraq, in which case it was almost entirely unsuccessful. The oil-for-food programme will end in six months rather than four, which gives Russia more time to be paid on existing contracts, and the UN ‘special co-ordinator’ in Iraq has been marginally upgraded to ‘special representative’ — like being promoted from ‘head janitor’ to ‘building maintenance supervisor’ — with the vaguely defined job of facilitating “a process leading to an internationally recognised, representative government of Iraq”. But there is no timetable for that process, nor any UN veto over how it unfolds, nor even a commitment to allow UN arms inspectors to return. Game, set and match to the US.

But hang on a minute. Are we really supposed to believe that the Russians and French and Germans and Chinese were all itching to send troops to Iraq to share the load that the United States and Britain have chosen to bear? And that they really wanted to help pay for it too? If they didn’t, then they probably weren’t very serious about wanting the UN to take over in Iraq either, for even if Washington had been open to such a deal, that would surely have been the quid pro quo.

The reality of the matter is quite different. Most members of the Security Council see the US occupation of Iraq as a disastrous mistake that will probably end by destroying the Bush administration. A month and a half after the end of the fighting, basic services have still not been restored in much of Iraq, no-go areas are proliferating in Baghdad and other cities, plans to create an Iraqi transitional government within a month or two have been scrapped, and the first American proconsul has already been fired and sent home. It may be only a matter of months before armed resistance to the American occupation begins.

Why would France or Germany want to send troops into that? Why would Russia or China want the UN to take responsibility for it? The default position would be to say to the US and Britain (and Australia and Poland) “You made your bed. You lie in it.” The reason they don’t say that is that they all know there will be a post-Bush United States at some point, and that it will be necessary to persuade Americans (who will probably be feeling pretty battered and unloved by then) to come back to the UN system.

So don’t alienate American public opinion, which remains doubtful about the whole Bush administration project to destroy the existing international system. Don’t stand on legality, and don’t give the hawks in the current administration an excuse to abandon the UN entirely. The more you can limit the damage now, the less you have to rebuild later. It’s a holding operation based on the assumption that the Bush administration has fatally overreached itself in Iraq already, or if not will do so in the next war.

The UN is not finished. It couldn’t stop the US invasion on Iraq, but it has gained enormous credit in the 96 percent of the world that is not American by its refusal to go along with it. Now it has made a compromise that will distress the purists, but it has to keep its popular support in America, too. And it still has a lot of support in the US. After all, Americans practically invented the UN.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“Should…Iraq”; and”Why…system”)

Week of Decisions

23 January 2003

Week of Decisions

By Gwynne Dyer

By this time next week, we’ll know whether the chief United Nations arms inspectors in Iraq, Hans Blix and Mohammed El Baradei, have asked the Security Council for another 60 days to go on looking for Saddam Hussein’s elusive ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (almost certainly yes). We will know whether President George W. Bush told the American public he wants to go to war right now in his State of the Union speech (probably another yes). However, we will still be waiting to learn whether President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the only two Western leaders who think a war is necessary, decide in their scheduled meeting at Camp David at the end of the month to ignore the United Nations and their allies and go it alone.

That’s the key question — and the answer is a maybe. For all the bald assertions about Iraqi ‘weapons of mass destruction’ coming out of Washington, there is no meaningful proof, and over two-thirds of the Americans questioned in a Washington Post/ABC News poll last week said that the inspectors should be given months more before military action is considered.

All the other major powers apart from ultra-loyal Britain certainly think that. As France’s foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, said last Tuesday: “Since we can disarm Iraq through peaceful means, we should not take the risk to endanger the lives of innocent civilians or soldiers, to jeopardise the stability of the region,…to fuel terrorism.” Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder chimed in at once: “Do not expect that Germany (which holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council next month) will agree to a resolution that legitimises war.”

But President Bush is seething with impatience: “Surely we have learned how this man (Saddam Hussein) deceives and delays,” he said on Wednesday. “This business about more time. How much more time do we need to see clearly that he’s not disarming? This looks like a re-run of a bad movie and I’m not interested in watching.” His sidekick Tony Blair then chipped in with some of the deliberate confusion that implicitly (but falsely) links al-Qaeda to Saddam Hussein, and Saddam to nuclear weapons: “Do we really doubt that if these terrorists could get hold of these weapons of mass destruction they would not use them? The most frightening thing is the coming together of fanaticism and the technology capable of mass destruction and mass death.”

One of the falsehoods in this farrago of illogic is obvious enough: why would a brutal but entirely secular dictator like Saddam Hussein, whose whole life has been spent in the Ba’ath Party (more or less the Arab Communist party), want to give anything to a bunch of fanatical Islamist terrorists except a lingering death in his torture chambers? After all, they have been trying to kill him for a long time now. But the subtler bit is this constantly repeated guff about Saddam’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’.

To the person in the street, that means nukes — but Saddam doesn’t have any nuclear weapons. He had an ambitious nuclear weapons programme before the Gulf War in 1990-91 (to create an Arab deterrent to Israel’s nuclear monopoly, not to give them to terrorists), but it never got close to an actual weapon, and it was comprehensively dismantled by the UN inspection teams afterwards. There was a four-year gap in 1998-2002 when the inspectors weren’t there, but given the strict embargo Iraq was under, there is no chance that they could have got the programme into high gear again. NO Western intelligence service, including the American ones, believes that Saddam Hussein has nuclear weapons.

He might, on the other hand, have more old chemical shells and warheads lying around like the eleven (unfilled) ones the inspectors found recently, because Iraq made and used tens of thousands of them during the war with Iran in 1980-88. The US knew and tacitly approved of their use at the time, because Washington became Saddam’s de facto ally in its eagerness to prevent an Iranian victory. It even provided Saddam with US satellite intelligence and air force photo-interpreters to help Iraq plan its attacks on the Iranians. That was naughty of the US government, but it reflects the truth that chemical weapons are not really ‘weapons of mass destruction’ at all. They are battlefield weapons, first used in the First World War and only really useful in situations of trench warfare like the latter stages of the Iran-Iraq war.

Nuclear weapons are the only true weapons of mass destruction: a single one can kill a quarter million, a half million, even a million people. Biological weapons can’t do that (the anthrax attacks in the US in 2001 killed five people), and neither can chemical weapons. When Aum Shinrikyo terrorists released nerve gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995, a dozen people died, not millions. An airliner loaded with fuel, or even a big nail bomb, is a far more terrifying weapon than poison gas.

The phrase ‘weapons of mass destruction’ is merely a catch-all category for all non-conventional weapons, legal or illegal. Nobody would want to go to war because Iraq might have a few old poison gas shells left over from a war that ended fifteen years ago, but that’s the shell game that is being played. So why is the White House so eager for a war with Iraq?

I dunno. Maybe it has some resource that Washington wants.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 5. (“All…war”; and”One…destruction”)