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”)