Critics accuse President Bush of undue harshness in condemning the United Nations to "irrelevance" if it fails to heed Washington's call for decisive action against Iraq. Actually, the president pulled his punches. A less charitable and more accurate assessment of the world body would note its relevant--but harmful--role as enabler and facilitator of aggression, humanitarian catastrophes, even genocide.
Far from fulfilling its mandate to enforce international peace and security, the U.N. has often served instead to allow governments to hide their own passivity behind the protective cover of international action--or more likely, inaction.
For their part, lawless dictators such as Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein have found the U.N. quite useful as they went about their brutal business.
After it launched its war against Bosnia's Muslims in 1991, Yugoslavia raced to the U.N. Security Council and received permission as a nonmember to introduce a resolution the council dutifully adopted, imposing an arms embargo on the nation--the only time a state has requested sanctions against itself.
The result was to freeze the Serbs' weapons monopoly and to deprive Bosnia of the means to defend itself--a right guaranteed under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter. That preemptive diplomatic strike by Belgrade proved highly successful and set the pattern for U.N. fecklessness and complicity during the next 3 1/2 years and in more than 100 ineffective Security Council resolutions. The council statements were always couched in stark moral terms and suggested stern action. But the torture, mass rapes and massacres continued as the world looked on.
Worse than futile rhetoric, the Security Council took additional actions that served to enhance Milosevic's ability, through the likes of Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, to carry out evil schemes. It established six Bosnian "safe zones" where besieged Muslim men, women and children could gather under the protection of U.N. "peacekeepers." This inadvertently concentrated the targets for Serbian bombers and snipers. The ultimate shame of the U.N. was Srebrenica, a safe zone, where lightly armed (and morally disarmed) peacekeepers stood by helplessly as Serb forces rounded up busloads of men destined for certain execution.
On other occasions, Serbs boldly seized hundreds of blue-helmeted U.N. soldiers as hostages, using some as human shields against Western air attacks. By the time the United States had seen enough of U.N. peacekeeping and pushed for the use of force against the Serbs, more than 200,000 Bosnian Muslims had died and 2 million had been made refugees.
Similar U.N. paralysis characterized the response to Serb atrocities in Kosovo. That time, after a year's delay, the U.S. led a NATO operation that bypassed the Security Council, avoiding certain Russian and Chinese vetoes. And in Rwanda, where minimal intervention could have prevented the slaughter of a million Tutsis, the Security Council, with Washington's shameful collaboration, strove successfully not to get involved.
The situation with Iraq shows again how counterproductive it can be when the U.N. asserts legal authority over a situation: It can provide the excuse for states to shirk their own responsibilities even when the U.N. falters.
The invasion of Kuwait provided a clear case of international aggression, and vigorous American leadership pushed the organization to carry out its mandate. But since then, the Security Council has been all too willing to look the other way as Baghdad flouted its resolutions.
While Secretary-General Kofi Annan finds his Iraq diplomacy more effective when backed by a credible threat of force, he has won only Hussein's false promises. Now he has withdrawn from further "negotiations," which Washington opposes, after helping Iraq draft yet another empty letter.
President Bush has said he will not allow U.N. diplomacy to subvert the U.N.'s mission. Failure to enforce Security Council resolutions does more than make the organization irrelevant; it makes it complicit in Iraq's dangerous violations of international law and its escalating threat to international peace and security.