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U.N. may be a casualty of the Iraq War

By W. James Antle III
web posted March 24, 2003

Before the first shot was fired in the war with Iraq, one hapless bystander was wounded, perhaps mortally. This war may yet be the beginning of the end for the United Nations.

In his St. Patrick's Day speech outlining his ultimatum for Saddam Hussein, President George W. Bush listed the U.N. Security Council's unwillingness to enforce its own resolutions as part of the rationale for American military action. Even before this speech, the president warned that failure to support the use of force in the face of Iraqi defiance would make the U.N. "irrelevant." Now the Security Council's position on the war and the opposition of permanent members France, Russia and China has proved itself incapable of preventing a coalition led by the United States and Great Britain from waging war for regime change in Iraq.

Conservatives of all stripes have long been critical of the United Nations, but support for getting "the U.S. out of the U.N." has generally been limited to smaller conservative groups and harder-line proponents of constitutionalism and American sovereignty. Calls for ending American membership in the U.N. have generally been dismissed as the conspiratorial locutions of the "black helicopter set." Legislation regularly filed by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) to withdraw the U.S. from the world body has generally gone nowhere and met with little support even among conservatives Republicans.

Yet in the last week, there has been open speculation that the U.N.'s days were numbered and arguments for ending or at least cutting back the U.S.'s role from well-known commentators who are generally favorable toward internationalism. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Joshua Muravchik argued against "a presumption that Security Council approval is the necessary prerequisite for the use of American force abroad." Richard Perle wrote in The Guardian that the Iraq war will refute "the fantasy of the U.N. as the foundation of a new world order," by demonstrating "coalitions of the willing" to be "the true alternative to the anarchy of the abject failure of the U.N." Calls for ending or curtailing U.S. involvement in the U.N. came from Charles Krauthammer, Mona Charen, William Kristol, Linda Chavez and David Gerlernter. These are not Birchers; they are mainstream pundits.

Indeed, during the last Gulf War the air was full of happy talk about the U.N.'s productive role and the establishment of a New World Order. Some of that kind of rhetoric still persists, but mainly this war has been justified in terms of stark national security interests. In defiance of a pseudo-governmental U.N., the U.S. professes to be acting in defense of these interests with the help of allied countries who chose to go along.

At the very least, conservatives appear to be moving toward a unified opposition to the U.N. This does not mean that all conservatives oppose the U.N. for the same reasons. Some see the U.N. as a nascent world government waiting to shred our Constitution and national sovereignty. Others see it as an obstacle to an American-led international order. But in any event, increasing numbers of mainstream conservatives are arriving at the conclusion that the U.N., like the League of Nations, is not all that it is cracked up to be.

Truth be told, the U.N. is both inherently incapable of dealing with many crises and fundamentally at odds with the political vision of our Founding Fathers. It counts numerous tyrannical regimes among its members in good standing. In the General Assembly, the votes of dictatorships count for as much as the votes of free nations. In the Security Council, veto power is held not just by countries like Britain and the U.S. One permanent member, China, is a communist dictatorship while another, Russia, was one until a little more than a decade ago and retains many vestiges of repression.

The U.N.'s fabled concern for human rights has been selective to say the least. The body's conferences tend to blame Western nations for the world's ills and propose the redistribution of wealth as the solution. The two countries that are most frequently criticized in this debating society are the U.S. and Israel, despite the fact that the former is a significant source of funding. Some members actually see it is a potential counterweight to American world power. It was basically useless during the biggest struggle of its existence, the Cold War, and may prove to be equally so in the war on terrorism.

Of course, the U.N. may survive this test of its relevance. An America under economic strain may rely on its international relief agencies to play a large role in postwar Iraq. A failure on the part of coalition forces to find any significant stockpiles of prohibited weapons of mass destruction will be seen by many as a validation of the inspectors. Some U.N. critics may move on to other issues after the war is over, with no more interest in criticizing Kofi Annan than they had in criticizing Jacques Chirac before the war debate.

Nevertheless, it is apparent that many people are now rethinking both the utility of international organizations like the U.N. and the vitality of the nation-state. In recent years, people have confidently asserted that the United Nations represents the future while the nation-state represents the past. So far, the conduct of the Iraq war cast considerable doubt upon these claims.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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