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February 2004

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“Does the United States really need the Security Council?” The authors, one an experienced career U.S. ambassador and the other a scholar in the field of UN studies, answer the question. Further, they set forth reasoned and thoughtful steps for the reform of U. S. foreign policy. — Ed.

The UN Security Council and Iraq: Why it Succeeded in 1990, Why it Didn’t in 2003, and Why the United States Should Redeem it

The United Nations Security Council has, in the words of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, "come to a fork in the road… (that) may be a moment no less decisive than 1945." The US administration precipitated the crisis when, unable to secure Council approval for using armed force against Iraq, it fashioned its own "coalition of the willing" and drove Saddam Hussein from power. The events surrounding the US action and its aftermath have spawned a vigorous debate over President Bush's policies and whether the Security Council in its present—or any other—form can play a serious role henceforth in the quest to ensure international peace and security.

In the years between the two wars with Iraq, the disasters in Somalia, Bosnia, and Rwanda gravely tarnished the Council's image. A host of commentators, with American conservatives at the forefront, castigated it for fiascoes and ineffectiveness, culminating in its inability to deal with Saddam Hussein's obstructionism in 2002. Although the need for burden-sharing in Iraq's reconstruction has tempered the rhetoric, diehard neoconservatives find the Council an antiquated relic ready for the dustbin of history. On the eve of the US invasion of Iraq, Richard Perle, a prominent neoconservative advising the US government, put it starkly, "coalitions of the willing… are, by default, the best hope for (a new world) order, and the true alternative to the anarchy of the abject failure of the United Nations."

But the Security Council's record includes significant successes. Its numerous peacekeeping operations have policed truces that ended deadly conflict; its nation-building activities have helped rebuild countries devastated by war from Afghanistan to Cambodia to Namibia; and its economic sanctions played key roles in bringing Libya to account for the bombing of Pan Am 103, and in ending the racist government of colonial Rhodesia. The Council and it alone can confer a "legitimacy" for the use of armed force that is recognized around the world, even if great powers, as the enforcers of Council actions, can choose to ignore it with relative impunity.

The Council's most impressive achievement as a body working together to tackle a major crisis was the liberation of Kuwait. This was no mean feat given shifting political sands in the United States and abroad, the enormous cost of such a major war, and the potential fighting power of the Iraqi forces. Regrettably, the ultimate breakdown of the postwar phase came to diminish the luster of the Council's accomplishment and the diplomacy that made it possible.

If the Security Council is as fatally flawed as some assert, why was it able to do the job in 1990-91? This article considers the differences between the two armed showdowns with Saddam Hussein, and what the comparison says about the central issues of Security Council capabilities and the course of American aspirations to global leadership.

The Origins of the Security Council Concept
The two Iraq wars can be looked upon as milestones in the search for an international security architecture—a set of institutions and procedures to manage disputes among nations and guarantee global peace. To understand and assess the Security Council’s efforts to deal with Iraq, one must appreciate the historical context. The following section examines how the Security Council’s structure evolved from the experience of the League of Nations, and how, once established in 1945, the Council’s capabilities ebbed and flowed with the willingness of its members to work together.

The structure and functions of the Security Council owe much to its predecessor, the Council of the League of Nations, which initially had four great powers—Britain, France, Italy, and Japan. Four other members of the League Assembly were selected to join the Council on a rotating, non-permanent, basis. Perhaps its most noteworthy innovation was that the League Covenant granted the Council the power to issue verbal, economic, or physical sanctions against states violating international norms. Yet there were a number of problems from the outset. The United States, the largest of the victorious powers and the chief creator of the League, subsequently decided not to join, dealing a blow to the Council’s prestige but, perhaps most importantly, undermining future efforts to create a workable system of collective security. Furthermore, the Soviet Union and Weimar Germany were not initially allowed in, although both eventually joined, Germany in 1926 and the USSR in 1934. The lack of concurrent membership at any given time by these three powers meant that putting substance into the concept of collective security remained unattainable. And, as the postwar era entered a period of renewed nationalism—with the growing power and assertiveness of so-called revisionist powers such as Italy, Germany, and Japan—the Council was confronted with seemingly insurmountable challenges.

The structure of the League Council also caused difficulties from the beginning. Unanimity was required for all decisions in both the Council and the Assembly, thus leading to frequent paralysis. When the number of non-permanent members increased to a total of 11 in 1936, this merely made unanimity more difficult. Judged by the lofty goals enunciated by its founders, the League Council failed to measure up to much of its original promise, and ultimately found itself unable to perform even its most basic functions. Yet if one assesses this experiment in the broader context of historical trends in the relations among states, it continues to stand, even after nearly a century since its inception, as a remarkable innovation. The Council established a number of important precedents that carried over into the era of the United Nations,in particular the effort to promote collective security and to move away from unilateral great power politics, toward more more cooperative, consensual approaches to the problems of the world. Perhaps most importantly, the Council served as a model for the next attempt to create a new and improved council of powers: the United Nations Security Council.

During the Second World War the "Big Three" allied powers of Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union formulated allied strategy by themselves. This was, however, not a formal organization, and China was gradually, at times grudgingly, accepted as the Big Three evolved into the Four Policemen. France, with her defeat in 1940, did not initially seem to merit much consideration, but ultimately reemerged as one of the permanent members of the Security Council of the UN in 1945.

The Security Council and Global Security, 1945-1990
Today the Security Council has 15 members, five of whom—the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China—have permanent status with veto power. The other ten are elected to the Security Council by the General Assembly to two-year nonrenewable terms, thus the Security Council is not so much of a great power forum as it would otherwise be. The non-permanent ten are elected on a staggered basis, with five new members brought on board each year. The number of non-permanent members was expanded from six to ten in 1965 but has remained at ten since.

The Security Council began meeting in 1945 with much initial optimism that the world might now embark upon a new era in relations among states. After years of war, the world could be forgiven for succumbing to such optimism. And, in the United States, fear of a repetition of Woodrow Wilson’s earlier mishandling of the peace led the Roosevelt and Truman administrations to oversell the Security Council’s potential, particularly in the area of achieving security. Yet these high expectations were destined to be dashed. The Cold War, which evolved simultaneously with the history of the United Nations, would temper much of that initial optimism and come to have a profoundly negative influence on the history of the first four decades of the Security Council.

Initially, it seemed the Security Council might help ameliorate the Cold War, as it did indeed play a central role in adjudicating early Cold War tensions in Iran in 1946, facilitating a Soviet withdrawal. Its action in the subsequent Korean crisis, where large numbers of forces fought nominally under the UN banner, also led many to optimistically believe that the Security Council might loom large in the Cold War. The war which began when North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950 marked the first time that the Security Council invoked chapter VII of the UN Charter to authorize force. The Council met in emergency session, where the Soviet Union had been boycotting the council in protest against the UN’s refusal to seat the People’s Republic of China. President Truman seized upon the opportunity to use the Security Council to legitimize the western response to North Korea’s aggression. With the U.S. leading the way, a series of resolutions passed the Security Council before the Soviet ambassador, Jacob Malik, could return from his boycott and cast the predictable veto. Thus, in retrospect, the collective response to the Korean crisis was something of an anomaly. No member of the permanent five ever again risked boycotting the Security Council.

When the Soviet delegation returned so did the paralysis, and the US sought to use the General Assembly as an alternative peacemaking mechanism. Resolution 377(V), passed in November 1950 at the instigation of US Secretary of State Dean Acheson and commonly referred to as Uniting for Peace, set up procedures for the General Assembly to act when "the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exorcise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security… " The resolution was not binding on members, as are Security Council actions, but it provided for "…recommendations to Members for collective measures, including… the use of armed force when necessary…" Ironically, United for Peace was first used by the United States to censure France and Britain at the time of the 1956 Suez Crisis, pressuring them to withdraw their invasion forces from Egypt. In the same year it was called into play against the Soviets over the Hungarian uprising. Its tenth and last invocation was the 1997 Emergency Special Session called at the behest of Arab States to censure Israel. Although the Uniting for Peace process can have a psychological impact, it is no more able than the Security Council to compel action by a major power and, on most issues these days, the United States would put little credence in an outcome determined by the Assembly’s majority of developing nations.

Winds of Change on the Security Council
After years of Cold War inertia, currents of change began to stir the Council as the reforms of Soviet Union President Gorbachev took hold in the 1980s. The Iraq-Iran war proved the telling barometer. In 1980, Iran was a pariah state due to the ongoing US Embassy hostage crisis, and when Iraq attacked without prior warning, the UN response was muted. Although Iraq was clearly the aggressor, the United States and others tilted in its favor, offering support to prevent the worse evil in their eyes, namely Iranian victory. By 1987, after horrific losses on both side, the war was winding down and the new foreign policy of the Soviet Union opened the way for the Security Council to compel a settlement that kept either side from winning and thus preserved a power balance of sorts in the region. More than rhetoric, Council Resolution 598 held out the possible use of force by invoking Articles 39 and 40 of Chapter VII in its demand for observance of the truce, which then took hold under a Council-mandated observer mission.

Eighteen months later in December 1988, Gorbachev in a speech at the UN declared the Security Council would play a key role in the Soviet Union's changed approach to foreign affairs. His choice of venue for what in hindsight appears to have been a unilateral declaration of the Cold War's end seemed to demonstrate a vision on his part with the Security Council at center stage in a new international system that could now come into effect after having been postponed by East-West rivalry since 1945.

In the wake of Gorbachev's address, peacekeeping evolved in new directions. This "second generation" of peacekeeping was notable not only for the increasing degree of consensus among the permanent five—particularly Moscow and Washington—but also for a more concentrated, although not exclusive, focus on intrastate conflicts, as opposed to those between states, as well as an expansion of Council concern into peacemaking and nation building, areas rarely explored in the past. The new spirit of cooperation opened the doors for the Council to concern itself with geographic areas or spheres of interest previously considered "off limits."

As noted above, the Council in 1987 had been able to agree on an intervention to end the Iran-Iraq war, invoking articles of Chapter VII to threaten the use of force and compel a formal cease-fire. With the three subsequent years of nascent collaboration between East and West under their belts, delegates spoke of real possibilities that the Council would finally be able, in the Charter's words, to "end the scourge of war." The driving core of the Security Council, the Permanent Five, had reinforced their own cooperation with a procedure for regular consultation amongst themselves on important issues of the day, meeting outside the UN under a rotating chairmanship. There was an almost tangible desire to forge consensus. "Veto" had become a dirty word.

The Security Council and the Gulf War of 1990-91
By mid-1990 an atmosphere of teamwork pervaded Security Council chambers. In the three years following the Council's path finding action noted above to end the Iraq-Iran war, collaboration had intensified and delegates began to speak of real possibilities the Council would finally be able in a meaningful way to tackle the Charter's injunction to "end the scourge of war." The Council's driving core, the permanent five, had reinforced their cooperation with a procedure for regular consultation amongst themselves on important issues, meeting outside the UN under a rotating chairmanship. There was an almost tangible desire to forge consensus and "veto" had become a dirty word.

Adding to the halcyon mood, the American Administration under the senior President Bush enjoyed considerable credibility at the UN despite such aggravations as US arrears and America's widely denounced unilateral invasion to unseat Panamanian dictator Noriega in late 1989. The UN community drew comfort from the fact that the President himself had served as America's Permanent Representative from 1971-73. Moreover, the appointment of Thomas Pickering, a distinguished career diplomat, seemed to underscore that the Administration would take a serious, professional approach in its dealings with the UN. And, indeed, when the Iraq-Kuwait crisis erupted, the President and key advisors, gave high priority from day one to working with the Security Council and the international community.

The "new face" of the Security Council did not, however, dissuade Saddam Hussein from his second armed attack into a neighbor's territory, this time Kuwait. Iraq had long nurtured grievances against the Emirate, alleging illegal extractions of oil belonging to Iraq and claiming Kuwait itself to rightfully be Iraq's 19th province. As he massed his troops on the Kuwaiti border, the Iraqi leader may have drawn mistaken conclusions from the UN's indifference to his 1980 attack on Iran or from the western support he received as that conflict wore on. In fact, in the months preceding his attack on Kuwait, he had received ambiguous or confusing signals from western officials, including in a much publicized meeting with the United States ambassador. In any case, in the early hours of August 2, more than 150,000 Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait and chased the ruling al-Sabah clan into exile.

The battle between the two oil-rich nations was one sided militarily and politically. Iraq was a large country, militarily strong (despite its losses in the war with Iran), and clearly aspiring to regional dominance, while in contrast Kuwait was small, militarily weak and pro-western. The world was prepared to condemn Saddam's unprovoked aggression, but to put armies in the field and chase him from Kuwait was another matter. There was a real possibility the Iraqi dictator might have held onto Kuwait or its northern oil-fields if the United States did not find the resolve to oust him and mobilize the needed force. The Security Council looked to America for leadership.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2 caught Security Council members and their capitals by surprise, and put their newfound cooperative spirit to the test. Washington, Arab, and European governments, Moscow and Beijing had all calculated that the movement of massive Iraqi forces to the Kuwaiti border was a psywar pressure tactic or bluff. They were wary, perhaps, but not overly concerned. Thus, Council representatives were taken aback when the news reached New York late on August 1 that Iraqi tanks, easily crushing opposition, were well on their way to Kuwait City. From a Security Council delegate's point of view, the good news was the clarity of the reports—there was no doubting the essential element of unprovoked Iraqi aggression; the bad news was that there was no game plan, no draft resolution text in hand to deal with the situation.

Security Council Resolution 660: A Line in the Sand
In New York, Ambassador Pickering swung into action about 9:00 p.m., August 1 within minutes after receiving news from Washington of the Iraqi invasion. His phone consultations with administration officials swiftly reached consensus to proceed on a Security Council resolution, and he immediately requested an emergency meeting under the Council's standing commitment to convene on one hour's notice. Not all members had quick communications and several needed more time to get instructions from capitals. No one quibbled over the delay of two to three hours and the 15 Council delegates began informal consultations around midnight. Pickering presented a draft with the strongest possible language that could gain approval on such short notice. Delegates soon hammered out Resolution 660, which in its essential elements:

  • invoked Articles 39 and 40 of Chapter VII of the UN Charter, a formulation which followed the precedent set in the case of the Iran-Iraq cease fire resolution and made the vital link to the prospective option of military force;
  • "condemned" the Iraqi action;
  • "demanded that Iraq withdraw immediately and unconditionally all of its forces to positions… "of August 1 (the initial US language had spoken of the Iraq-Kuwait border); and
  • foresaw "further steps to ensure compliance," and called for immediate negotiations between Iraq and Kuwait, but no one expected this appeal to be heeded any time soon.

During the Council's review of the American draft, there had been no serious disagreement on substance. Only Yemen balked, and informally its affable Permanent Representative suggested it was not a question of approving the invasion, but rather obligations arising from the Yemeni President's personal friendship with Saddam Hussein. The one material but minor change from the US draft language followed from a sensible suggestion that its reference to the Iraq-Kuwait border could engender controversy over exactly where the line was, whereas reference to positions of August 1 would be indisputable.

Amazingly, within less than eight hours from the first news of the invasion, council members had agreed on a text that committed the international community to oppose the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. Before dawn on August 2, the Permanent Representatives moved to the familiar horseshoe table for predictable approval of the resolution and public statements. Not only the Soviet Union and China were fully on board, but so too Cuba and Ethiopia, at the time self-declared foes of US "imperialism." Pickering was able to cast the US vote and catch a shuttle flight to Washington for a session of the US National Security Council.


Christopher D. O’Sullivan received his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and is currently a lecturer in history at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of Sumner Welles, Postwar Planning, and the Quest for a New World Order, 1937-1943 (2003), which won the American Historical Association’s Gutenberg Prize.

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