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Snubbing the U.N. 

The cost of waging a lonely war

Thursday, Mar 20 2003
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The summit in the Azores was typical of the new style of American diplomacy. Even when not declaring war, it can be pretty objectionable. According to some Portuguese journalists, Washington forgot to tell the Portuguese prime minister that the summit was being held in his territory. But then, the week before, Donald Rumsfeld, who, as one diplomat says, does not do sensitive, had been dismissive about the British military contribution. Luckily for Bush, this did not have the same effect as Rumsfeld dismissing France as “old Europe” or comparing Germany with Cuba and Libya.

In fact, by his own standards, Bush did well for Blair, which is only fair, since Blair was about to become his accomplice in what Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary general, had declared to be a breach of the U.N. Charter. Perhaps some flavor of how it would be regarded by the rest of the world came from the Belgian foreign minister, who said that his country could be accused of complicity if it continued to allow U.S. forces transit rights if Washington decided to wage war against Iraq without U.N. backing. “If they put themselves outside the United Nations, they put themselves outside international law,” he said. Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien took a similar line and explicitly ruled out involvement.

Bush probably has difficulty understanding what all the fuss is about with the U.N. Among classic Bushisms was his blaming the U.N. for its inactivity over Rwanda and Kosovo, when a quick call to the State Department might have reminded him that it was Clinton and Albright who would not allow the U.N. to act. It is reminiscent of the man who murdered his mother and father and then pleaded for mercy because he was an orphan.

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In contrast, Tony Blair knows all too well about the importance of the U.N.: His hide is on the line, with one Cabinet minister already out, and more threatening to follow, over the prospect of war without a U.N. resolution to back it. The British line is to blame the threat of a French veto for the failure of their resolution, but in fact it was very clear by last Thursday that the Americans and British had lost. Not even with their metaphorical diplomatic testicles in a vise were the elected members of the Security Council going to back London and Washington.

What Blair secured from Bush in return was some insurance for his continued survival as prime minister. Suddenly came a pledge that the U.N. would be involved in legalizing the postwar regime and postwar reconstruction, a stipulation totally ignored in all of Washington’s plans for postwar Iraq. This was clearly modeled on Kosovo, where the U.S. refused to seek Security Council sanction before the war, but afterward sought a U.N. mandate for the settlement and administration of the province. But in the case of Kosovo, a united Europe, with support from much of the Muslim world, dragged in a reluctant American president. The present scenario of a failed attempt to bulldoze a resolution in the teeth of worldwide popular and governmental resistance hardly meets the case!

If the war is quick, weapons are found and the invaders are greeted as liberators, Blair may well survive. To add to his case, he also secured at the Azores a declaration that the oil (as in blood for) was the property of the Iraqi people and a grudging commitment to a Palestinian state and the road map for Middle Eastern peace.

All of these would have helped Anglo-American diplomacy at the U.N. if they had been announced some months ago. Now, it is too little too late for persuasion, but it may go some way to help repair the huge tear in the U.N. Charter that the two countries are ripping open at the moment.

The initial reaction at the U.N. was business as usual in the hope that it would all go away. Diplomats actually scheduled a meeting for later in the week to discuss the program of work for the inspectors — whom Kofi Annan was already withdrawing for their own safety. In the end, the U.N. can’t impose sanctions on or invade the U.S. and Britain, and not just because the latter two would, unreasonably or otherwise, veto any resolution.

The damage to the U.N. Charter, even if Scotch-taped over with a role in postwar Iraq, is already permanent, and the bitter diplomatic grudge fight will have lasting effects in bringing together, if not an opposition, at the very least a counterbalance to a superpower that is behaving overweeningly and irrationally.

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