Politics & Policy

Passage to Irrelevance?

The U.N. belatedly wises up.

Thursday’s unanimous (14-0) passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1483 marks a welcome — if belated — acknowledgement of reality in the shape of undeniable facts on the ground: Saddam Hussein’s gangster regime toppled; mass graves mutely reproaching the tyrant’s erstwhile supporters; nearly 200,000 coalition troops deployed throughout Iraq; and pressing civilian needs unmet due to now unnecessary international sanctions.

Resolution 1483 rightly lifts (rather than merely suspending) the 13-year-old sanctions regime, thereby offering immediate relief to the long-suffering Iraqi people. It also provides an immediate, much-needed $1 billion infusion to fund transition and reconstruction activities for the acceptable price of phasing out the U.N.’s thoroughly corrupt oil-for-food program over six rather than four months. More important, Resolution 1483 fully authorizes the Coalition Provisional Authority — a U.S./U.K. condominium — “to promote the welfare of the Iraqi people through the effective administration of the territory” until the establishment of an independent, internationally recognized Iraqi government. During this interim period, the Security Council has granted the U.S. and its allies full control of Iraq’s oil industry — virtually its sole source of foreign exchange — along with full authority to apply the proceeds of oil sales to the costs of reconstruction, administration, disarmament and “other purposes benefiting the people of Iraq.”

Resolution 1483 wisely limits the U.N.’s role to one of consultation and coordination, given its manifest failures at nation building in Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor.

Resolution 1483 puts the Security Council in the curious position of legitimizing the postwar Anglo-American military occupation of Iraq without ever having addressed how U.S. and British forces got there in the first place. This is not, however, unfamiliar territory for the council. In the run-up to NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, the chief proponents of intervention — once again, the Americans and the British — decided not to seek Security Council authorization in the face of a certain Russian (and possible Chinese) veto, even though the council had repeatedly determined that the situation in Kosovo was a “threat to international peace and security” — the legal predicate for mandatory sanctions and military action under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. After Serb forces were driven from Kosovo by a U.S.-led air campaign, Resolution 1244 retroactively ratified the settlement terms that NATO imposed on the defeated Serbs without the council ever voting on the legality or legitimacy of the military action that brought about the settlement. Then, as now, the Security Council chose to overlook the elephant in the room.

Connoisseurs of Security Council precedent will note that the council has now bestowed retroactive legitimacy on military intervention against a member state in precisely the same number of instances (twice) that it has granted prior authorization for armed intervention in interstate conflicts (Korea in 1950 and Kuwait in 1990-1). So much for the council’s claimed monopoly on prior approval of all arguably nondefensive uses of military force.

Resolution 1483 also marks the demise of the so-called Axis of Weasels, that unnatural ménage a trios pulled apart by the centripetal forces of divergent national interests among the French, Germans, and Russians. This bouleversement — a reversal of fortune in the diplomatic parlance of Old Europe — has left Paris increasingly isolated as Berlin and Moscow set about conciliating Washington. Hence the uncharacteristically emollient tone struck Thursday by France’s egregious foreign minister, M. de Villepin. “Even if this text does not go as far as we would like,” he said, “we have decided to vote for this resolution. This is because we have chosen the path of unity of the international community.” One hopes this path of unity is reachable only by way of a steep learning curve demonstrating the consequences of gratuitously obstructing vital U.S. national interests.

This is a teachable moment for the U.N. as well. Where vital U.S. national interests are at stake, the U.N.’s remaining relevance and authority depend entirely on that body’s willingness to assist or at least acquiesce in U.S. efforts to maintain minimum world public order. This remains to be seen.

Jack Cullinan, a lawyer, was formerly a senior foreign-policy adviser to the U.S. Catholic bishops.

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