What's Left

March 12, 2003

UN authorization can't make rank imperialism just

By Stephen Gowans

Tam Dalyell, a British Labour MP, says "that if (British Prime Minister Tony) Blair goes ahead with his support of an American attack (on Iraq) without unambiguous UN authorization…he should be branded as a war criminal and sent to The Hague."

Dalyell's views are similar to those of many people opposed to war on Iraq. A war without UN authorization, they say, would be wrong.

But if a war without UN authorization would be wrong, does that mean that a war with UN authorization would be right?

If Security Council members authorized a war to seize control of a country's resources and divide them up among Security Council members, would the war be right simply because it had UN authorization?

And if the UN authorized an attack on a country that posed no real threat to peace, would the attack be just?

According to Dalyell's reasoning it would. But that reasoning fails to recognize that what's just and what's legal are not always the same.

And so too does it fail to recognize that the Security Council may serve the interests of Security Council members, even where those interests are at odds with peace and global security and the interests of other countries.

Indeed, it may be argued that the UN Security Council serves none of the noble functions routinely attributed to it. It does not, for example, abolish rivalries among great powers or lessen the chances of war or prevent the domination of the weak by the powerful. Rivalries still exist, wars erupt frequently, and domination of the weak persists unabated.

Yet whenever the interests of great powers sufficiently intersect (or don't greatly collide),  some great powers can persuade other great powers to confer upon them a UN authority which says, "We are engaged in the noble, legal and legitimate business of preserving the peace," when in fact what they may be doing is what great powers have always done: conquer weaker countries.

Whenever the interests of great power don't intersect (as they often don't), the Security Council is stalemated, but that doesn't stop great powers from going to war anyway, or even persuading large majorities that their unauthorized wars are legitimate.

Washington didn't bother to seek UN authorization for a war on Yugoslavia because it knew it couldn't get key Security Council members to go along. And yet that war was backed by many of the same people who now insist a war on Iraq must have the UN's blessing.

It seems that whether the UN's approval is deemed necessary or not, depends on whatever suits a country's or an individual's ad hoc interests.

For example, some antiwar protesters complain that Washington and London don't have UN backing for an attack on Iraq, but would continue to oppose war even if the United States and Britain received UN approval.

And Canada's Prime Minister Jean Chretien now talks favorably about UN authorization for a war on Iraq, but committed Canadian forces to war on Yugoslavia with no UN authorization whatever.

Being inconsistent on the need for UN approval smacks of dishonest opinion-management -- invoking UN blessing or its absence as a red herring to win political points.

But there are some antiwar protesters who are quite genuine in their concerns about UN authorization who haven't thought through the differences between a just war and a legal war, or don't recognize that UN authorization can be bent to the purposes of aggressive war-making to suit the purposes of some or all Security Council members.

One such effort to obtain UN-backing for war is being led by Canada, which is floating a proposal to break the Security Council deadlock between Russia and France and the United States and Britain.

Canada's "compromise" solution would effectively hand Washington a UN fig leaf to go to war, which it seems almost certain to do anyway.

The proposal would see the Security Council authorize a US-led attack on Baghdad effective three weeks from the date the resolution is issued, with the understanding that the authorization would be rescinded if Iraq is deemed to be fully in compliance with UN demands to disarm at the end of the three week period.

But there's a catch. The UN Security Council – over which the US has a veto – would have to issue a second resolution revoking the authorization for war if it was decided that Iraq had complied.

With Washington's repeated insistence that Baghdad is hiding weapons of mass destruction, it's clear that any subsequent resolution to revoke the original authorization would be vetoed, and the authorization would remain in force.

The Canadian plan is tantamount to giving the US a blank check, revocable only if the US agrees.

Canada's Ambassador to the UN, Paul Heinbecker, who's spearheading the initiative, says "Mr. Bush would be reluctant to invade Iraq if 13 or 14 council members said it was disarming in good faith."

Mr. Heinbecker is being disingenuous.

If Washington was prepared to bomb Yugoslavia for weeks on end without UN approval, it's unlikely the Bush administration, equipped with a UN authorization for war, would withdraw 300,000 troops from the Persian Gulf because 13 or 14 council members said Baghdad was disarming in good faith.

All Washington would have to say is that Baghdad isn't disarming, pointing to its own (undisclosed and publicly unverifiable) intelligence as confirmation.

A deeply cynical maneuver, the Canadian proposal lays bare the UN's many problems.

For one, nothing prohibits a proposal like this from being put forward and approved.

And yet the proposal would hand authorization to Washington to attack a country that poses no immediate threat to either its neighbors, Security Council members, or the United States.

And in so doing, it would legitimatize the doctrine of preemptive war – the right of the United States to attack any country it pleases, simply by claiming the country poses a threat to its security.

Moreover, it underscores one of the most troubling aspects of the UN Security Council: It can confer legitimacy upon itself for any action it pleases to undertake, no matter how aggressive, unjust, or imperial in nature that action is, and no matter whether it complies with the UN Charter or not.

For Russia and France, with oil interests in Iraq, withholding UN approval for a US war serves as a defense of their own great power interests. And, at this point, with Washington making no secret of its plans to subordinate other great powers (and control of the Middle East would give Washington considerable leverage over Europe) it is doubly in the interests of rival states to impede US designs on Iraq, unless they're granted concessions. It is hardly for love of peace that France and Russia oppose the possibility of war.

Oil, control of the Middle East and geo-strategic advantage are the reasons Washington wants to invade Iraq. UN authorization would hardly change that.

Would Mr. Dalyell say that a war to control Iraq's oil and to put Washington more firmly in charge of the Middle East than any power since the Ottomans (as former Bush speechwriter David Frum puts it) is wrong because it doesn't have UN authorization, and not because it represents rank imperialism run amok?

It's true that countries from time to time deliberately circumvent the UN to wage unjust and aggressive wars of conquest. But it shouldn't be supposed that countries that go to war with the UN's blessing don't also have conquest as their goal.


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