No time to leave the U.N. behind

Posted: Mar 25, 2003 12:00 AM

In the final declaration of the Azores summit meeting just before we invaded Iraq, President Bush and U.K. Prime Minister Blair agreed to a major U.N. role in the reconstruction of Iraq. The European Union also has called for the United Nations to have a central role "during and after the current crisis." Administering and reconstructing post-Saddam Iraq would be an appropriate role for the United Nations, and the United States should avail itself of this opportunity to cooperate in a U.N.-led transitional administration in Iraq.

At this crucial juncture of history, the United States needs to take advantage of the positives and minimize the negatives to diffuse growing worldwide opposition to the war and to dampen rising anti-American sentiment. The strong reactions of the Malaysian and Indonesian governments and people are indications of how even the more remote countries of the Muslim world oppose us. We must recapture the moral and political high ground.

Going to the United Nations would not be a sign of U.S. weakness, but strength. It is also smart. Whoever governs Iraq during "reconstruction" is going to have an expensive and complicated undertaking on their hands. It must be modeled on a 21st-century Marshall Plan, which should be based on trade and private property rights, sound economic, tax and monetary policies, and helping to build democratic institutions - not only for Iraq but also Afghanistan and the entire region. The image of an American raj in Baghdad feeding multibillion-dollar contracts to American companies will transform what the Bush administration wants the world to see as a "war of liberation" into what would be labeled a colonial war in the eyes of the world, which, I fear, will aggravate the terrorist threat.

I was disappointed to see Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer say last week that it is time to "leave the United Nations behind." He described the Security Council as an "anachronism," characterizing it as the "victory coalition of 1945," which now should be replaced by the "coalition born out of the Iraq coalition."

My old friend Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, went even further. In columns he wrote for The Spectator and The Guardian, Perle implied that more "wars of liberation" led by coalitions of the willing would be required to win the war on terrorism: "We will not defeat or even contain fanatical terror unless we can carry the war to the territories from which it is launched," Perle wrote. "This will sometimes require that we use force against states that harbour terrorists. ... The most dangerous of these states are those that also possess weapons of mass destruction. Iraq is one, but there are others."

Perle believes the Security Council is not up to this task. Instead, he says, "We are left with coalitions of the willing. Far from disparaging them as a threat to a new world order, we should recognise that they are, by default, the best hope for that order, and the true alternative to the anarchy of the abject failure of the U.N."

I do agree with one of Perle's observations in those columns, namely that we must abandon "the liberal conceit of safety through international law administered by international institutions." But I reject the premise that we are justified in assembling coalitions of the willing to invade and occupy any nation we determine might someday pose us a threat.

The common hubris of the left and some of my neoconservative friends alike is their belief that pre-emptive military force may legitimately be used other than in unambiguous self-defense against a present or imminent threat to a nation's or a people's security.

The only difference between many on the left and the right today seems to be whether they believe preventive war must be waged through the United Nations, as liberals desire, or by ad hoc coalitions of the willing, as some neocons prefer.

The promise of the United Nations was not to legitimize war but rather to provide a collective forum to help avoid war and a mechanism of collective security if members were attacked or in imminent danger of being attacked. The terrible irony of this war is that the United Nations is being criticized, not for failing to keep the peace, but for failing to wage war to enforce one of its resolutions (No. 1441).

Even liberal supporters of the United Nations now seem to agree that the organization may appropriately use force to enforce its own demands, even if those demands are not directly related to repelling a present or imminent threat of attack on a member of their own. Not only is this a corruption of the original idea of the United Nations, it would seriously erode national sovereignty if it comes to the point where member states can be coerced into war by a vote of the Security Council.

Heavens knows, the United Nations has been a disappointment, and it needs reform.

However, rather than leaving the United Nations behind or propelling us into a future where that institution or NATO, the United States and the European Union act too readily in ad hoc coalitions of the willing to wage preventive war, we should take this opportunity to restore and reform the United Nations to its original purpose: keeping the peace, not waging preventative war. There is no better place to start than with the administration and reconstruction of post-Saddam Iraq and post-Taliban Afghanistan.