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The U.S. heads to war without United Nations support
Is the UN finished?

March 21, 2003 | Page 8

PHIL GASPER answers the question: Could a stronger United Nations stop a war on Iraq?

AFTER MONTHS of attempting to bribe and bully the United Nations (UN) Security Council into passing a resolution authorizing war against Iraq, the Bush administration abandoned hope of gaining UN support, and was preparing to launch a military attack within days, as Socialist Worker went to press.

"There are only two diplomatic options left: submit a resolution to the UN Security Council that will be defeated, or at the very least vetoed by France; or withdraw the resolution because it faces defeat," said a senior State Department source. "Either way, the U.S. goes to war."

As it became clear that not only would a war resolution be vetoed by France and Russia, but the U.S. would not even obtain a "moral majority" of nine votes in its favor, Washington abandoned a pledge to bring the issue to a vote.

Enraged at this diplomatic failure, one White House official said France would "veto motherhood and apple pie." Tensions within the Security Council are so extreme that some are asking whether the UN can survive as a credible organization.

U.S. attempts to pressure members of the Security Council have ranged from the laughable to the outrageous. Last week, Congress renamed French fries in its cafeteria "freedom fries," while a U.S. diplomat warned that if Mexico didn't support a U.S. resolution, it could "stir up feelings" against Mexicans in the U.S.

Bush himself told Mexico and other Security Council members that if they opposed the U.S., "there will be a certain sense of discipline"--causing "a political firestorm" in Mexico, according to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.

Britain's Observer newspaper revealed that the U.S. has been conducting a "surveillance operation, which involves interception of the home and office telephones and the emails of UN delegates in New York" to gather intelligence on their voting intentions.

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EVEN THOUGH the arm-twisting failed, Washington's naked power politics shatters the illusion that UN approval would have given legitimacy to a military attack. Despite the lofty words of its charter, which promises to "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war," the UN has been either a vehicle for major powers to promote their own interests or an ineffectual irrelevance since its founding in 1945.

"The United States has always regarded the UN as selectively useful," says Ted Galen Carpenter of the conservative Cato Institute. "Occasionally, it provides a good multilateral facade for U.S. policy. But the U.S. has never let the United Nations get in the way of what it wanted to do."

In 1999, for example, when the threat of a Russian veto made it impossible for Washington to win UN support for bombing Serbia, the Clinton administration simply bypassed the organization and began air raids with its NATO allies.

The UN was set up by the victorious Allied powers in the Second World War--the U.S., the Soviet Union and Britain--in order to enforce a world order congenial to their own interests. All member countries were given an equal vote in the General Assembly, but real power lies with the Security Council, dominated by five permanent members, each of which has veto power over Council decisions.

Soon after the UN was founded, the wartime alliance between the U.S. and the USSR broke down, and for the next 40 years, global politics was dominated by the Cold War between the two superpowers.

For most of this time, the UN stood on the sidelines as the permanent members of the Security Council overthrew governments, fought to maintain their colonial empires, invaded their neighbors and slaughtered millions.

The USSR invaded Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1980. The U.S. helped to overthrow governments in Iran, Guatemala, Chile and elsewhere, and fought a brutal war in Vietnam. In all of these cases, the UN did nothing.

When U.S. allies violate international law, squelch human rights or carry out massacres that promote U.S. interests, Washington's veto makes it impossible for the UN to act. The UN did nothing serious to oppose South African apartheid. It turned a blind eye when Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975 and slaughtered 250,000. And it has not ended Israel's illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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AS MORE Third World countries joined the UN in the 1960s, it became common for the General Assembly to criticize U.S. actions. When the Reagan administration invaded Grenada in 1983, for example, the Assembly denounced this as "a flagrant violation of international law." But since it had no real power, it was simply ignored.

Three years later, when the World Court, the UN's main judicial arm, found the U.S. government in violation of international law for mining Nicaragua's harbors, Washington refused to recognize its jurisdiction.

But with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the end of the Cold War, the U.S. began to see new opportunities to use the UN for its own purposes. When Saddam Hussein, a U.S. ally in the 1980s, invaded Kuwait in August 1990, his sin was to threaten Washington's control of Middle Eastern oil.

George Bush Sr. was committed to a military solution in order to expand U.S. domination in a crucial strategic region, and with the Soviet Union increasingly dependent on Western loans to shore up its economy, it became possible to win UN backing for a U.S. attack. The non-permanent members of the Council were offered economic support and arms deals. Other countries in the Middle East were given billions in debt relief and new loans.

In the end, the only countries on the Security Council to oppose the U.S. war drive were Cuba and Yemen. In response, the U.S. cut off economic aid to Yemen while hundreds of thousands of Yemeni workers were expelled from Saudi Arabia.

Having gained UN "legitimacy" for its attack, the U.S. launched a devastating war that deliberately destroyed Iraq's infrastructure, and killed as many as 200,000 people.

Over the past few months, the second Bush administration has tried to repeat the strategy of the first and cloak a unilateral intervention with UN support. This time, however, France and Russia in particular have been less willing to give Washington a blank check.

This is not because either country has gained a new appreciation of international law, but because each has its own oil interests in Iraq and fear growing U.S. global dominance. "The Americans cannot tolerate anyone limiting their military supremacy, and other countries cannot accept that," says Georges Le Guelte, of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.

The rhetoric that opposes "the international community" to Washington's unilateralism is an echo of the real competition between the major European states, which represent the interests of European business, and the U.S., fighting for U.S. capitalism. As one expert on international relations puts it, "each member of the UN tries to use its membership to further its own interests. States have not joined out of respect for the 'UN idea,' or with a view to creating a stronger organization by transferring some of their powers to it. Rather they are in the UN for what they can get out of it."

This is why antiwar activists cannot place their hopes in the UN. There are no international forces capable of creating a global organization that could "police" the world independently of the most powerful states.

Washington's drive to war in Iraq has created the biggest crisis in the UN's history, though it's far too early to conclude that the organization is finished. But the hope that the UN can be transformed into an institution that can bring world peace is an illusion.

There can be no "internationalism from above" that will ride in and save the day. The real alternative to war must be based on international solidarity and mass struggle from below.

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