Today the New York Times declared war. Its editorial (Facing down Saddam, 2/25/03 ) was remarkable both for its finality and for its sheer heartlessness. One sensed that a corner had been turned in a remote hallway of power, that a message had been delivered, privately, but for wide distribution.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post was reporting details of the administration’s final effort to subvert the United Nations before it begins its conquest of Iraq. (U.S. Officials Say U.N. Future At Stake in Vote, 2/25/03 )
The new pitch demonstrates that there is no limit to the cynicism of the Bush rot. According to diplomats on the Security Council, the US now says that the decision to go to war has already been made, and there’s nothing the Council can do about it. Since their votes can’t stop the war, they should vote for the US/UK proposal, lest they, by opposition, “irrevocably destroy the world body’s legitimacy..”
We could dwell on the diabolically doubled hypocrisy of this latest gambit. We could marvel at how Bush strips the Security Council of its relevance by arrogating the war decision to himself, and then demands that the Council approve its loss of relevance by voting for his proposal, “unless it wants to render itself irrelevant.”
Yes, we could go on choking on this non-thought, this moral void that swirls like a black hole at the center of US power. We might learn something by dissecting the techniques of this rhetorical jujitsu, which exploits its opponents respect for meaning and truth as a weakness to be used against them. But time is short, and the immediate victims, the United Nations and the people of Iraq, need our help now. Mr. Bush assures us that he can “go it alone.”
Could this dreadful trap entice the Security Council into giving its imprimatur to Bush’s war? Yes, it could, especially if it is supplemented by the usual US approach to UN “negotiations”. The Post reported that the US was bringing no new bribes or threats to the table for this final vote, but it is difficult to believe this will remain true for long, if indeed it was ever true. The US has become addicted to a “carrot and stick” approach to UN diplomacy, one that has degenerated into the outright corruption of the Security Council. A thorough report just released by the Institute for Policy Studies, Coalition of the Willing or Coalition of the Coerced? , exposes these shameful tactics in detail.
If the US bullies and bribes enough votes from the temporary members of the Council, it may be able to grab a majority for its proposal, even if the Big Four (France, Germany, Russia, and China) manage to hang together in opposition. So it’s likely to boil down to a veto; will France, or Russia, or China exercise their right to veto the US/UK proposal for war?
And here’s where we run into the Holy of Holies; the “unity” of the Security Council. According to the Post article, “France has repeatedly spoken of unity as the primary council goal.” But France is by no means alone in its regard for “unity”; it is widely accepted as self-evident that unity is essential to maintaining the Security Council’s strength and relevance.
Predictably, the soft side of the US gambit sings the song of unity like the Sirens, urging that “the council has to demonstrate that it is capable of taking decisions”, that, as Condoleeza Rice says, it “needs to be strong.” They want you to forget that the United States has cast more vetoes against the consensus of the Council than all other Security Council members combined.
What does “unity” mean to the United Nations, and what should it mean? Currently, Security Council “unity” is understood to connote “unanimity with occasional abstentions”. Under this definition, “unity” is an absolute. But in a process of deliberation, an absolute can only be a goal, never an imperative.
Unity is desirable because it confers strength, and the UN cannot ignore the need to maintain and build its strength. The pursuit of unity also challenges opposing parties to seek solutions that work for all. But the strength of unity is weakness if it comes at the price of the UN’s own integrity, if it erodes the trust it keeps with the people of the world. If unity is made the paramount goal, compromise will become capitulation, and the sought-after strength will drain away in distrust and alienation.
Resolving the tension between the necessity of integrity and the desire for unity is the real art and anguish of a healthy and relevant Security Council. It is also the genius of democracy.
Yet even a democratic body cannot be strong, or even survive, if it is not also bound by the rule of law. It is often forgotten that the Security Council itself must answer to the higher power of international law.
Respect for international law is the one universal key to strengthening the Security Council and the United Nations itself. Nothing would be so deeply injurious to the Council’s strength and legitimacy as a Security Council decision that contravenes international law.
But the Council is now looking down the barrel of just such a decision. With all responsible authorities in agreement that Iraq clearly does not pose an ‘imminent threat’, there is no justification, precedent, or excuse under international law for approving the use of military force.
Nor is the importance of international law merely a long-term or philosophical question for Council members. Illegal action by the Council could also be met with more immediate consequences. If the Security Council approves a use of force that cannot be justified under international law, it could wind up in the docket rubbing shoulders with the likes of Rumsfeld and Cheney. (Bush will no doubt be AWOL.)
Sometimes the decision to not make a decision is the best possible course of action. Only the young and the foolish would disagree. The UN Security Council may face such a moment now. It cannot approve an illegal war on Iraq opposed by nearly 90% of the world, without gravely damaging its integrity. So a veto must be used if necessary. But the Council also cannot prohibit a war on Iraq; any move in that direction would be vetoed instantly by the United States.
The outcome would reflect the deeply divided will of the members, as it should. It would save the Security Council from the censure of world opinion, and would strengthen faith in the UN’s integrity. Would the Security Council’s strength as global arbiter be damaged? How could it not? Yet what other course would leave it stronger? The world knows that Bush will stop at nothing to coerce the process. In such circumstances, how can a vote to authorize his illegal war be viewed as anything but the most abject public humiliation of the Security Council? Can this lead to strength and relevance?
“But a veto would be divisive.” If so, the United States has been by far the most divisive Security Council member, as noted above. The obvious question must be asked: If the US could repeatedly veto Security Council resolutions passed to make Israel comply with international law, how can France, or Russia, or China shrink from vetoing a US resolution for an illegal war on Iraq? These are precisely the most legitimate circumstances in which to exercise the veto. At such times the veto power is not a political privilege but a moral imperative.
The trust of the world is truly the UN’s strength of strengths. Without it the UN can only become the irrelevant tool of the powerful few. It is no accident that the brutal ‘diplomacy’ wielded by the United States is by far the greatest threat to this trust today. To veto the war may well not stop it, but it will stop the world’s fear that even its own United Nations has been completely hijacked by the US quest for hegemony.
 Facing Down Iraq, New York Times, February 25, 2003: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/25/opinion/25TUE1.html? ex=1047200319&ei=1&en=cb993853c190cf19
 U.S. Officials Say U.N. Future At Stake in Vote, Washington Post, February 25, 2003: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A62438-2003Feb24.html
James Brooks of Worcester, Vermont is former marketing director of Vita-Flex Nutrition and was founding vice-president of the National Association of Equine Supplement Manufacturers. Currently Mr. Brooks serves as webmaster for Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel (www.vtjp.org) and publishes News Links, a daily e-mail digest of Middle East news and commentary. Brooks is also a member of the national Al-Awda coordinating Committee.