The United Nations: The Damage Done

16 March 2003

The United Nations: The Damage Done

By Gwynne Dyer

In the end, it wasn’t the wicked French and their veto that deprived the US and Britain of a second United Nations resolution authorising them to attack Iraq; the Bush administration couldn’t even come up with a majority of ‘yes’ votes that would trigger a French veto. But it’s a safe bet that when the bombs start to fall on Iraq, the Security Council will not pass a resolution condemning the US attack either. The American veto will not be needed.

The long propaganda campaign to link Saddam Hussein to the Islamist terrorists of al-Qaeda has persuaded about half the American public that there must be some connexion, but it has been a purely domestic campaign based on endless naked assertions by local pundits and authority figures (including President George W. Bush) whose credibility stops at the US border. Nowhere else on the planet is this alleged linkage widely believed, so Washington was bound to find it hard to get UN support for its Iraq adventure.

The anti-French hysteria that has been whipped up by sections of the US media helps to distract American public attention from the fact that there are strong popular majorities against this war in virtually every country in the world outside the United States. If you’re busy shaking your fist against the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” and renaming French fries ‘liberty fries’, you’re less likely to notice that even the few governments that back the US attack on Iraq (Britain, Spain and Italy) do so in the teeth of their own public opinion.

On the other hand, nobody wants the United States to abandon the UN: President Bush is quite right in saying that if the US rejects the UN’s authority then it will become, in his word, “irrelevant”. Other countries would not give legal cover to a ‘preemptive’ US attack on Iraq that most of them see as grossly premature and a terrible precedent, but they will not deepen the rupture with the United States by passing resolutions against it.

The war in Iraq will duly end in an American victory, but how much damage will Mr Bush’s decision to go it alone do to the UN, to America’s alliances, and to international law? If things work out as well as the White House serenely expects (and Tony Blair desperately hopes), then the damage may not be all that great.

Imagine that the fighting in Iraq ends in a week, with Saddam Hussein and perhaps 10,000 other Iraqis dead — and that little of the carnage is seen by the Arab public because Washington persuades Qatar to pull the plug on al-Jazeera for the duration. There are no eruptions of violence leading to Islamist take-overs in other Arab countries or Pakistan, and resistance to the US occupation of Iraq doesn’t start right away.

Pigs may fly, I hear you cry, but remember that the United States is the most powerful nation in world history, run by people who are quite competent at the operational level even if the strategic direction leaves something to be desired. With sufficient thrust, as a friend of mine frequently observes, pigs fly just fine. They have real problems with aerodynamic stability, and in the end they tend to crash and burn, but that could be several years down the road from here.

The United States could get away with the conquest of Iraq without big negative side-effects, at least in the short term, in which case it can return to the UN next month, magnanimously forgive all who doubted it, and get them to do much of the dirty work of post-war reconstruction. A post-facto Security Council resolution would legalise the conquest, France and Russia would sulk for a bit, and then normal service would be resumed. Happy ending, at least for a while.

But if the fighting in Iraq takes several weeks, and the death toll climbs into the tens of thousands, and al-Jazeera stays on the air, then there could be calamitous upheavals elsewhere in the Arab world and a much grimmer start to the US occupation of Iraq. As American casualties mount and the whole enterprise turns sour, the natural response of the Bush administration would be to blame it all on the perfidious foreigners who sabotaged the US crusade — which could have profoundly negative consequences for the UN and NATO.

Nobody would miss NATO all that much, but wrecking the UN would be a very different matter. For all its flaws, the United Nations is a serious attempt to substitute the rule of law for the age-old rule of the strong as a way of running the world. That attempt is now several generations old, and it has made as much progress as you could hope for in the first half-century.

However, it would not survive the defection of the United States, so Washington must be persuaded to remain an active UN member even if it spins out for a while. This doesn’t mean that everyone else must adopt the Bush administration’s view that the UN has ‘failed’ whenever it does not agree with current US policy — but if things go badly wrong for the US in Iraq, what will be needed is not scorn and recrimination but sympathy and understanding. Somehow or other, America must be kept in the system.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“The anti-French…opinion”; and “Pigs…here”)