As the United Nations Security Council neared approval of a resolution on Iraq, it appeared that Council resistance was giving way to rising US pressure. The final resolution is likely to provide Washington with language it will use as tacit approval for a unilateral attack on Iraq if Baghdad’s compliance with inspections is deemed inadequate. It is also likely to include agreement that there should be further Council discussions (though not necessarily a new resolution or even a formal meeting) before any such action is taken. But that qualifier will be largely a fig leaf for those governments opposed to a unilateral US attack, giving them deniability at home. In Colin Powell’s words, “Independent of the outcome of negotiations in the Council, in the end there will be a resolution that leaves the authority and the right to the US President to act in self-defense for the American people and our neighbors.”
It’s all too familiar. In early 1998, at another moment when the United States was gearing up for war against Iraq, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan went to Baghdad and negotiated a last-minute agreement with Saddam Hussein. The agreement was designed to resolve problems with the arms inspections and to stave off the threat of a US war. When Annan came back to New York, the Security Council crafted a new resolution endorsing his agreement. US ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson demanded that the resolution call for “severest consequences” if Iraq should violate the agreement in the future; under pressure, the Council agreed. The Clinton Administration still wasn’t happy. It was geared up for war, and the resolution meant recalling bombers, fighter jets and troops.
But there was a serious disagreement over just what “severest consequences” meant. The Russian ambassador even coined a word–“automaticity”–to describe what the phrase did not mean. Severest consequences, virtually the entire Security Council had decided, did not give any state the automatic right to move on its own against Iraq. Like earlier resolutions, this one ended with the statement that “the Security Council decides to remain seized of this matter.” In UN diplospeak, that means the issue remains on the Council’s agenda, and under Council authority.
So on March 2, 1998, after the resolution passed, a parade of ambassadors emerged from the Security Council chamber, one by one, to insist that their resolution did not include “automaticity.” It did not, they said, authorize any country–including the United States–to launch a unilateral military strike against Iraq. Ambassador Richardson came last. Dismissing his predecessors’ insistence that the resolution did not authorize a military strike, he shrugged and told the press, “We think it does.” Months later, without UN authorization, the United States and Britain devastated Iraq in the four-day miniwar of bombs and cruise missiles known as Desert Fox.
Warnings of severe consequences are once again included in the US draft resolution. “Automaticity” has now become part of UN jargon, and again Council ambassadors are asserting strongly that the new resolution has no “automaticity” for military action. But the diplomats of the Bush Administration, like their Clinton-era predecessors, disagree with the rest of the Security Council; once again they “think it does.”
Despite some cosmetic concessions, if Washington gets its way the resolution will likely allow, among other things, armed soldiers (even including US troops) stationed at the inspectors’ bases. The effect would be a level of military involvement that would serve to collapse the distinction between inspection and invasion/occupation. And we’ve been there before, too. In 1999, just before the US-NATO bombing began during the Kosovo crisis, there was a last-ditch diplomatic effort at Rambouillet castle in France. When it collapsed, we were told that the Serbs had rejected a perfectly reasonable international demand, which therefore made inevitable, even obligatory, the NATO war that followed. Only weeks later, when the real story of the secret Appendix B broke in the German press, we learned that the Rambouillet accord, presented by Washington in take-it-or-leave-it terms to the Serb side, was designed to insure Serb rejection. Going far beyond the stated US concern about Serb conduct in Kosovo, the accord would have required that “NATO personnel shall enjoy…free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access throughout the FRY [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] including associated airspace and territorial waters.” [Emphasis added.]
Sound familiar? In both cases the official rationales for international intervention–Serb human rights violations in Kosovo, Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs–were, however legitimate in their own right, used as pretexts to impose an international military occupation. And that includes the attendant military control of the entire nation’s ground, air and space in the name of human rights for Kosovars or Iraqi disarmament. At Rambouillet the Clinton Administration deliberately set the bar so high that the Serb side would refuse to sign. It appears the Bush Administration is hoping Baghdad will follow suit, leading directly to the long-planned US/British war against Iraq.
Tragically, it appears that all fourteen other Council members (or thirteen if Tony Blair, against the massive opposition of his own people, allies Britain with his Bush buddies) will be prepared simply to assert that they do not believe the resolution authorizes force, and then essentially to “agree to disagree” with Washington. It looks as if every country on the Council has made the pragmatic determination that if Washington goes to war, they want to be part of it. They may have little interest in actually participating, but they want to be on board the crusade. Their thinking seems to be that being sidelined from an illegal pre-emptive war–which Congressman Jim McDermott called a war for “oil or power or the blandishments of empire”–is somehow more dangerous in the era of a sole superpower than signing on to such a war.
We have been there before too. In 1990, in the run-up to Desert Storm, George Bush Senior bribed and threatened virtually every country on the Security Council to force them to vote to authorize the US war. The Administration cajoled poor countries with cheap Saudi oil and dangled arms packages before governments like Ethiopia and Colombia, whose access to US military support had been cut because of wars and human rights violations. US diplomats went to China and said “name your price” to avert a veto–and fulfilled Beijing’s wish list for post-Tiananmen Square diplomatic rehabilitation (with the announcement of a White House visit by the Chinese foreign minister) and new development aid (in the form of a $114 million World Bank assistance package). China abstained. When Yemen, the only Arab country on the Council, voted against the war, a US diplomat said, “That will be the most expensive No vote you ever cast.” And Washington cut off its entire $70 million US aid package.
There are other options for the UN. There is an alternative to the US-dominated Security Council: The “Uniting for Peace” precedent allows the General Assembly to step in when the Council is unable to take appropriate action on an issue involving international peace and security. The first use of this precedent was at the outset of the Korean War, when the United States, exploiting a moment of Soviet absence from the Council, maneuvered to move the question onto the General Assembly agenda, claiming that the Council was paralyzed. The Assembly, overwhelmingly in thrall to the United States, quickly endorsed the US war. Since then, the precedent has been used for more appropriate goals, including Assembly efforts to investigate and condemn Israel’s violations of the Geneva Conventions by its settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territories.
A new effort to involve the General Assembly in the Iraq crisis may have already begun. On October 16 the Non-Aligned countries, under South African leadership, demanded an open meeting of the Council to discuss the issue. Under the Uniting for Peace precedent, if a majority of the 191 member states of the vetoless General Assembly, acting in the name of “the peoples of the United Nations,” agrees, that body will take up the issue. Such a move would redefine the real relevance of the UN–standing defiant against Washington’s unilateralism and upholding international law, at the center of the growing global challenge to the legitimacy of Bush’s war.