Once Again, a President Bush Saves the U.N. from Its Friends

The advantages of internationalism


Iraq hawks in Washington were wary of working through the United Nations, and for good reason. They predicted that Saddam Hussein would agree to weapons inspections. That would allow him to play hide-and-seek with inspectors and diplomats and the U.N. Security Council for a period of months or years or centuries. Meanwhile, the U.N. would go back to its essential work of condemning Israel and opposing racism, and the United States would be left fuming. Why bother with the charade?

Sure enough, everything has happened on cue, except for Iraq's allowing that inspectors could be admitted "unconditionally" (a term that will turn out to mean "unconditionally except for the conditions"). So was President Bush a sucker to go the U.N. route? The lesson of the master suggests otherwise.

On August 1, 1990, one of the first Americans to learn of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was, as it happened, a former ambassador to the United Nations. He was also president of the United States. "A few minutes later," writes George H.W. Bush in his 1998 memoir, A World Transformed (co-written with former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft), "I was on the phone with Tom Pickering, our U.N. ambassador. While I was prepared to deal with this crisis unilaterally if necessary, I wanted the United Nations involved as part of our first response, starting with a strong condemnation of Iraq's attack on a fellow member. Decisive U.N. action would be important in rallying international opposition to the invasion and reversing it."

In hindsight, America's embrace of the U.N. during the Persian Gulf crisis appears natural, and even inevitable. At the time, it was neither. Indeed, it was cause for amazement. "All of this international community-mindedness," wrote University of South Carolina public-affairs professor Donald J. Puchala in 1993, "was coming, to the astonishment of observers, from a Republican administration whose immediate Republican predecessors had given the world the invasion of Grenada, the mining of Nicaragua's harbors, the bombing of Libya, the rejection of the Law of the Sea, the abandonment of the World Court, and the Reagan Doctrine, which endorsed foreign interventions on behalf of 'democracy,' regardless of infractions of international law."

For Bush, going to the U.N. entailed considerable risk. The Russians were reluctant. The French favored half-measures. The Chinese were a wild card. If the U.N. had rejected Bush's call for military action, it would have undercut the legitimacy of any subsequent American effort.

Retrospectively, it is easy to forget that the process of building a consensus in the Security Council took several months. Bush had to push diplomatically while pulling militarily, amassing troops and matériel in the Middle East so as to force the issue in New York. Yet he persevered and prevailed. In the end, the Security Council gave him what he wanted. The council's resolution authorized "all member states cooperating with the government of Kuwait… to use all necessary means to uphold and implement" the U.N.'s resolutions. "The U.N. vote was a tremendous breakthrough," Bush writes. "I felt a huge burden had been lifted from my shoulders."

The administration had fully intended to take military action regardless of the U.N.'s decision. "Never did we think that without [the U.N.'s] blessing we could not or would not intervene," Scowcroft writes. So why roll the dice at the U.N.? Bush cites three reasons, all of them as germane in 2002 as they were in 1990.

First, the U.N. gave the American effort legitimacy in the world's eyes. "It eased some of the problems of coalition maintenance and resolved the debate about the need for provocation before we could act," Bush writes. Second, and often forgotten, Congress and the American public were skeptical about the need for war. U.N. approval comforted the public and cornered congressional doves, who had a hard time opposing a military action that the U.N.—even the Soviet Union!—had blessed. (Congress, of course, voted to support the Gulf War only after the U.N. had given its imprimatur.)

Third, and not least important, Bush viewed the Iraq crisis as an opportunity to make something worthwhile of the United Nations. "I knew what had happened in the 1930s when a weak and leaderless League of Nations had failed to stand up to Japanese, Italian, and German aggression," he writes. "The result was to encourage the ambitions of those regimes." With the long U.S.-Soviet stalemate broken, the Security Council could at last perform the role its founders had envisioned: deterring and, if need be, resisting aggression. This was the "New World Order" of which Bush sometimes spoke.

Things are not so different today. Like Bush 41, Bush 43 has both the intention and, in his view, the right to go to war against Iraq, with or without U.N. approval. Like Bush 41, Bush 43 has nonetheless concluded that the U.N.'s blessing is worth seeking, even at the cost of some compromise and delay. Like Bush 41, Bush 43 is right.

Militarily, a U.N. mandate would improve the odds that force could be applied successfully. Security Council action would isolate Saddam Hussein and reduce his opportunities to play off his opponents against each other. It would provide cover for the civilian casualties that an attack would entail. It would also provide cover for a postwar occupation of Iraq—an occupation that could prove damaging to America's reputation, particularly in the Arab world, if conducted without U.N. support.

Diplomatically, a U.N. mandate translates into Arab acquiescence and European support. A recent poll in six European countries (Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Poland), conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and the German Marshall Fund of the United States, found that the U.N.'s imprimatur would raise the proportion of Europeans supporting their country's participation in an invasion of Iraq from about a third to more than half. Interestingly, U.N. approval matters greatly to European public opinion, but whether the operation would cause "many" or only "a few" Western casualties matters hardly at all. Europeans are not afraid of fighting; they are afraid of American unilateralism.

In America, as in Europe, the public does not want America to "do Iraq" if that means going alone. Almost two-thirds of American respondents in the Chicago/Marshall Fund poll favored invading Iraq only with the U.N.'s approval and with allies' support. As in 1990, the U.N.'s blessing would reassure the public that an Iraq operation would not be a controversial American adventure but a confident assertion of legitimate force.

Not least important, a Security Council mandate for decisive action in Iraq would breathe new life into the New World Order. The genius of Bush's U.N. speech was to confront the General Assembly with the bald fact that the U.N.'s credibility, far more than the U.S.', is at stake.

It was the United Nations that Saddam went to war against in 1991, the United Nations whose eye he has been spitting in ever since, and the United Nations that must now decide whether it means what it says… and says… and says. Iraq is only a potential threat to America, but it is a proven threat to the U.N. Imagine the ruins in which the U.N.'s reputation would lie if Iraq, by alternating between outright defiance of the Security Council and sham compliance, managed to acquire a weapon of mass destruction and therefore emerge as a major regional power. Saddam is out to prove that the way to deal with the U.N. is to outlast it, out-bluff it, and finally humiliate it. He knows that the world is watching and that dictators everywhere will take note.

George W. Bush may not share his father's instinctive sympathy with the United Nations and other international bodies. But he seems to realize, as his father did in 1990, that international bodies charged with defending the peace (the League of Nations, the United Nations) become positive threats to peace if their hollow pronouncements become the skirts for ambitious dictators to hide behind. So the younger Bush has, in effect, offered to put American power at the U.N.'s service, not just for America's sake, but to save the U.N. from a dangerous impotence.

The Kyoto global-warming agreement, the International Criminal Court agreement, and all the other multilateral agreements by which the self-styled "international community" sets such store would, even taken together, do much less to strengthen enlightened internationalism than would concerted action to make the U.N.'s Iraq resolutions stick. The United Nations and its friends had better think hard before snubbing the lifeline Bush has just thrown them, because they may not get another.