Why World Body May Be Irrelevant; Foreign-Policy Analysts Say the U.N. Security Council's Failures to Meet the Challenge Posed by Saddam Hussein Expose Greater Structural Flaws That Threaten Its Viability

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Byline: James P. Lucier, INSIGHT

Is the United Nations finished or is it just irrelevant? A little bit of both is the growing opinion of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, which points to the world body's incapacity to meet the threat of international terrorism. In fact, it is not just the United Nations' flibbertigibbet attitude toward Iraq that is at the bottom of this conclusion. Former U.S. secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger, in an exclusive interview with Insight, says that the failure of the U.N. Security Council to enforce its resolutions against Iraq is a structural failure that cannot be repaired. "The way in which all this transpired means that the U.N. will never if 'never' is not too strong a term will never again be what it once was to the United States."

The truth is that the dereliction of the United Nations has been evident to close observers ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the lead article of that venerable bastion of the establishment, Foreign Affairs the quarterly journal of the Council on Foreign Relations Michael Glennon, a Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy professor at Tufts University, says "there is little reason to believe that the Security Council will soon be resuscitated to tackle nerve-center security issues."

A year and a day after the al-Qaeda strikes against the U.S. homeland, President George W. Bush stood before the U.N. General Assembly and challenged the world body to prove that it had not become irrelevant to the cause of peace. The United Nations, he said, must act against outlaw groups and outlaw nations to preserve the cause of human dignity. "Our greatest fear," he told the delegates on Sept. 12, 2002, "is that terrorists will find a shortcut to their mad ambitions when an outlaw regime supplies them with the technologies to kill on a massive scale."

That threat was the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. The president catalogued Iraq's repeated resistance of U.N. resolutions, its falsifications, and its defiance and expulsion of inspectors. "The history, the logic and the facts lead to one conclusion: Saddam Hussein's regime is a grave and gathering danger," Bush said. He declared the United States would work with the United Nations to meet that danger, but he made it clear that if the U.N. didn't act, the United States would. As he said later in his State of the Union address, "The course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others."

Bush issued a challenge to the delegates: "All the 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?"

In October 2002 the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives backed the use of force in Iraq with a joint resolution, and in November 2002 the U.N. Security Council, after a furious round of back-corridor diplomatic haggling, unanimously passed the famous Security Council Resolution 1441 warning Iraq that if it did not comply it would face "serious consequences." That phrase was a diplomatic fig leaf to cover the use of armed force, as even the French agreed in off-the-record discussions reported at the time. The practice of doublespeak is a well-established tool in trying to achieve a text to which everyone can agree. But in this case France, by February of this year, was leading a quartet of dissenters, including Germany, Russia and Belgium ("Old Europe," according to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld), who argued that the United States and its allies could not use military force without the approval of the Security Council. On March 20, coalition forces moved into Iraq, reducing France to sputtering with an accent aigu.

"In addition to the French having their own view of the appropriateness of U.S. unilateral action against Iraq," says Eagleburger, "they have as well substantial anti-American interests. …