Irrelevance and Credibility: The Bush Administration, the United Nations, and NATO

Relevance–or rather its opposite, irrelevance–seems to be one of the many mantras of the Bush administration with respect to the United Nations.

President Bush declaimed on the subject in his September 12, 2002 address to the UN General Assembly: “The conduct of the Iraqi regime is a threat to the authority of the United Nations, and a threat to peace. Iraq has answered a decade of UN demands with a decade of defiance. The entire world now faces a test, and the United Nations a difficult and defining moment. Are Security Council resolutions to be honored and enforced, or cast aside without consequence? Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?”

Most recently, on February 9, 2003, at a congressional Republican Party policy forum, he reiterated the theme: “It’s a moment of truth for the United Nations. The United Nations gets to decide shortly whether or not it is going to be relevant in terms of keeping the peace, whether or not its words mean anything.”

As part of these rhetorical assaults on the UN, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (among others) has tried to draw a parallel between the League of Nations and the United Nations. Rumsfeld’s comparison, however, is faulty. He notes, accurately, that the League’s irrelevancy was exposed–and its demise assured–when it failed to respond meaningfully to Emperor Haile Selassie’s plea for help when Italy invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935.

But Rumsfeld misses the mark by equating the League of 1935 with the UN of 2003. A more apt comparison is the UN in 1990, just after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Then the UN, through the Security Council (for which no equivalent existed in the League) did act by endorsing the U.S.-led coalition of 35 countries that reversed Iraq’s aggression in 43 days. And he misses the mark this time by assuming that military force is the only (or only remaining) option open to the UN.

But the UN is not the only organization incurring U.S. wrath for not toeing Washington’s line. It seems that the venerable North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) also is on the road to irrelevancy. At a high-level meeting the weekend of February 8-9, three “old Europe” countries blocked NATO approval to initiate planning to help Turkey defend itself from attack should a U.S.-led war against Iraq begin. The essential argument reportedly made by the three–Belgium, France, and Germany–is that approval of the U.S. proposal would signal that the alliance had given up on peaceful means of resolving the Iraq question before all options had been tried and exhausted.

Even this refusal to go along with the U.S. is nuanced by a willingness to send Turkey, “unofficially,” Patriot air defense missiles to counter possible Iraqi Scuds. The distinction being drawn is that an “unofficial” move would not put the alliance “on record” as having taken what opponents see as the first political step on the road to war.

The U.S. ambassador to NATO, Nicolas Burns, responded to “old Europe” for the administration: “This is a most unfortunate decision. Because of their actions, NATO is now facing a crisis of credibility” (Washington Post, February 10).

A crisis there is, but it is one whose origin lies in the intense U.S. war rhetoric and massive war preparations. Unlike 1991, Iraq has not invaded or threatened any foreign country. The northern part of Iraq, which abuts Turkey along a 250-mile border, is not controlled by Baghdad but by two U.S.-backed Kurdish factions. Yes, if Turkey were to be attacked or determined that an attack were imminent, NATO nations would be obliged to consult on coming to Turkey’s defense. But as events are now unfolding, it is not Turkey that is in imminent danger of being attacked first, but Iraq. And Washington’s pressure on Ankara to allow from 20,000 to 80,000 U.S. troops to move through Turkish territory to establish a second military front against Iraq’s army only exacerbates the situation. Undoubtedly, Iraq will try counter-military action against these troops–and therefore Turkey will be involved.

Considering recent events, the credibility and relevance of the U.S. position, not the UN’s or NATO’s, seems more questionable. For example, during his February 5th presentation to the Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell made three statements that bear out this assessment.

  • “[W]e are providing all relevant information we can to the inspection teams for them to do their work.” Why did the U.S. wait so long, considering the inspections resumed in November 2002?
  • “I would call my colleagues’ attention to the fine paper that United Kingdom distributed yesterday, which describes in exquisite detail Iraqi deception activities.” That document has been discredited as a current intelligence picture of Iraq’s activities. In fact the purported “authors” of the document, itself a clumsy compilation of three publicly available articles, work in the U.S.-UK “Coalition Information Office,” which is little more than a “spin the news” operation.
  • “Iraq has now placed itself in danger of the serious consequences called for in UN Resolution 1441. And this body places itself in danger of irrelevance if it allows Iraq to continue to defy its will without responding effectively and immediately.” Yes, the UN must respond effectively and immediately, and it ought to do so by creative measures such as those recently proposed by Germany and France–move ahead with U-2 and other reconnaissance flights, triple the number of inspectors, open more field offices, etc.

And then there is a question about the credibility of a U.S.-led “coalition of the willing.” Why are so many countries in the region unwilling to throw their support behind the White House? Why are so many outside the area so willing to join? Instead of a coalition convinced of the truth of its principles, there is a lingering suspicion that what is emerging is a coalition of energy-dependent countries who need cheap petroleum, countries (new members and candidate members of NATO) that feel they must prove their bona fides, and even a few countries who exacted a quid pro quo from Washington for signing on.

Can such an amalgamation, based largely on narrow national interests rather than principle, be credible and relevant in the longer-term for world peace and the mitigation of human suffering?

(Dan Smith <[email protected]> is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus (online at www.fpif.org) is a retired U.S. army colonel and Senior Fellow on Military Affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.)