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April 2003

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How to Save the UN—a Personal Statement

This old observer finds himself still, at this late writing, caught between two points of view: not fully committed either to launching a war in Iraq or to strong opposition under practically all circumstances. Not completely convinced that Saddam’s Iraq constitutes a serious threat to the rest of the world, nor fully committed to a belief that the West, in particular the United States, has a duty to its traditions to avoid any and all preemptive military actions.

What has steadily become more apparent to this editor, however, is the danger that the UN may not face up to its obligations and become—dread word!—irrelevant. That is, if the United States ignores the UN, all bets about that body’s future world role would be off. It seems likely that the United States can best accomplish its own aims, and very importantly help to preserve the usefulness of the UN, by acting on the Iraq question through—and only through—that body, no matter how complicated and time consuming and frustrating a process that may prove to be. As a last resort, yes, wage war against Iraq, but only under the flag of the UN; exert every effort to bring that body along.

A bit of history (which UN members could usefully be reminded of): The League of Nations Council, like its lineal descendant, the United Nations Security Council, had a few successes before it became virtually useless. Perhaps it would be instructive to take a look at a parallel or two between those bodies.

In the 1920s, the League, the first international organization devised by mankind to head off war, dealt successfully with a few border disputes in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. A good beginning, but the problems were comparatively minor, not involving any of the major powers of the day.

There is no League of Nations success story, however. When disputes arose involving major powers in the following decade of the twentieth century, the story was quite different. The Manchurian crisis of 1933 and the Ethiopian crisis of 1935 led to ineffectual action by the League and futility on the peacekeeping front.

In the first instance, in 1933 Japan ignored the League’s findings that it bore primary responsibility for aggression against China. Rather than even considering compliance with the League’s insistence that it pull out of Manchuria, Japan withdrew instead its membership. It was the first stage of a conflict in the Pacific that led in time to Pearl Harbor and ultimately to Hiroshima.

Two years after that early failure, the League Council quickly denounced Italy for aggression in Ethiopia; in 1935, the League Assembly voted trade sanctions (limited though they were) against Italy for its actions. Member states ignored the sanctions, however; all nations involved, big and small, sought mightily to avoid any actions that might cause economic loss or lead to war, as did the United States. It was another fiasco. In 1937, Italy left the League.

During this period, Nazi Germany (which quit the League in 1933) reoccupied the Rhineland and began systematically to discard inconvenient provisions of the Versailles Treaty. The League and its member nations did nothing in response. The international peace organization which had begun with such high hopes, by 1936 had become impotent. September 1939, the start of the Second World War, was not far away in time.

May we never have to render such a doleful verdict on the UN. It, too, has had its successes—far more in number and in consequence than the League’s meager accomplishments. One, perhaps, will serve to illustrate the point: North Korea’s invasion of the South in the summer of 1950 and the Security Council’s response.

The crisis came suddenly, but the UN met its responsibilities as the last best hope of those who seek peace in the world. With North Korean forces pouring across the border in late June 1950, the UN Security Council in emergency session passed a resolution condemning the invasion. Then consisting of eleven members, all voted in favor other than Yugoslavia, which abstained, and the Soviet Union, which was boycotting that body over another issue. In effect, the United States mobilized for war under the banner of the UN to deal with a case of naked communist cross-border aggression. The U.S./UN forces stayed the course, even in the face of an early setback that brought Communist China into the war. Aggression was denied a reward as U.S. and UN purposes coincided.

The same could be true in the current situation, as different as it is from the Korean War (there is no invasion in evidence for one thing). The United States and its allies, on the question of disarming Iraq, could well achieve their aims through the UN, even without the strong Security Council support that President Truman had therein over half a century ago.

What’s wrong with thwarting Saddam’s capacity for evil outside his own borders by jamming him up with UN inspectors in large numbers, maybe accompanied by blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers? Make it a formal UN program to counter what might be a real threat to peace, but a program within the limits of nonmilitary preventive measures. Never mind that that’s more or less a current French proposal, one that smacks of temporizing for the sake of temporizing. Even the French position actually has potential merit: Inspect the blue blazes out of Iraq’s military, on and on, thus bolstering the UN’s relevance, not diminishing it.

As this old editor has already observed, there are necessary wars, and this may prove to be one in the end. But there are no good wars. They should be avoided if other means are available to achieve the necessary end, in this case both stopping potential Iraqi aggression and simultaneously bolstering the UN.


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