The United Nations has been castigated by critics for weeks as a toothless organization loaded with appeasers and weasels, as a throwback to the League of Nations, as a cracked body tottering on the brink of irrelevance. George F. Will, the erudite conservative columnist, even suggested it was heading the way of the medieval Hanseatic League. Yet the current Iraq crisis may actually prove one of the UN's finest hours. In the end, the UN will surely be badly scarred, especially if the Bush Administration goes to war without any or only tepid Security Council approval. But this should not blind us to what the UN has accomplished.
The UN has given the world a chance to hesitate and think before plunging into war. Try to imagine the crisis if there were no UN. We might be at war by now. In any case, there would be no theatrical Security Council confrontations in which Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to lay down the case for war and French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin tried to pick it apart. Nor would worldwide demonstrations by millions be likely. Doubters would feel too heartsick and helpless to take to the streets.
Instead, the UN has provided a channel for doubt and an alternative to war. Perhaps there is only a limited chance that the alternative - the inspections - can work. Perhaps inspections, as President Bush insists, may prove too ineffectual to disarm Iraq. But, even if he is right, inspections might provide, after a few more weeks or even months, enough time and evidence for governments like France to put aside their qualms. Throughout the crisis, Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a statesman of great moral force, has preached that while he believed in the possibility of a peaceful solution, the international community might have to make a different "grim choice." But that choice for war would have legitimacy, he says, only if the Security Council agrees on a common position. The United States should not rush off on its own. If "action is taken without the authority of the Council," Annan told a news conference in Brussels, "then the legitimacy and support for that action will be seriously impaired." His logic is impeccable.
The clamor of the American hawks has been choked with cant about appeasement and Munich and Chamberlain and the need for the UN, unlike the League of Nations, to show its relevance. Yet the present crisis bears no resemblance at all to the British and French acceptance of Hitler's violation of Czechoslovakia in the crises that led to World War II. Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 did seem Hitlerian, of course, but the UN acted with great resolve then, authorizing the United States and its allies to turn him back.
There is a far more pertinent parallel now than Munich. It is the Suez crisis of 1956. After Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser seized control of the Suez Canal that year, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden was determined to remove him. Eden likened Nasser to Mussolini and warned that he would not be allowed "to have his thumb on our windpipe." Joined by the French, the British presented the case against Nasser in the UN Security Council and then conspired with the French and Israelis to mount a three-nation invasion of Egypt.
Although the anti-Nasser rhetoric of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had led the British and French to believe they would have American support, the conspiracy infuriated President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He condemned the invasion and took the issue to the UN Security Council. While the British and French vetoed resolutions against them, they could not withstand Eisenhower's anger and the condemnation of worldwide public opinion. In the end, they and the Israelis accepted a plan by UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold to replace their forces with UN peacekeeping troops. Nasser kept the Suez Canal. Eden was broken by the crisis and resigned as prime minister.
The parallel, of course, is far from perfect. The cast of characters have changed their roles, and the climax bears no resemblance to what might happen in our days. I am not trying to suggest that the rest of the world has Suez on its mind. But the mood and issues of the Iraq crisis have far more resemblance to Suez than to Munich. President Bush may not see it that way, but most of the rest of the world does, and that may explain why anti-Americanism is so rampant these days.
Three key events in the Security Council underscored the significance of the UN's role in the current crisis. The first was the Security Council's 15-0 passage of Resolution 1441 last November demanding the disarmament of Iraq. The resolution was a tough one, its rhetoric in tune with the tough talk of President Bush. But it was passed unanimously only because those who doubted the necessity of war voted for it as a way of appeasing the wrath of Bush and buying time for peace.
The second event was the February 5th presentation, enhanced by audiovisuals, of Colin Powell's case for war. The case, in my view, was a weak one - enervated by the fragility of the evidence for a link between Saddam and Al Qaeda. But it was effective nevertheless. Powell is the only member of the Bush Administration with international prestige and moral stature. By lending this prestige and stature to President Bush's case for war, Powell made the case seem stronger than it was. Moreover, his support signaled that the administration's leaders were united and ready to rush to war. There was little time left to stop it.
This presented the doubters with a choice - they must either acquiesce or challenge. The challenge came February 14 from French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. He did so by, in effect, invoking the ethos of the United Nations. The preamble to the UN Charter, largely written by American poet Archibald MacLeish, states that the UN's primary aim is "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war." For more than a half-century, that admonition has inspired Secretary-Generals and diplomats to take all steps necessary - even the stretching of resolutions - for peace. That is why diplomats and UN officials burst into applause when de Villepin said: "In this temple of the United Nations, we are the guardians of an ideal, the guardians of a conscience. This onerous responsibility and immense honor...must lead us to give priority to disarmament through peace."
Throughout the crisis, President Bush has constantly berated Saddam Hussein for playing games with the UN. It is true that Saddam has tried to cheat inspections for a dozen years. But there has been game playing on both sides. The resolution ending the Persian Gulf War promised to lift sanctions once Iraq rid itself of all weapons of mass destruction. But the first Bush Administration announced it would never allow the lifting of sanctions so long as Saddam remained in power. That policy was followed implicitly by the Clinton Administration as well. There never was much inducement for Saddam to do other than play games.
There is no doubt that the UN has been harmed by the rhetoric of President Bush. He has kept up a drumbeat demanding that the UN show its relevance. His words have sullied the image of the UN among Americans. If the UN fails to support the war on Iraq, it is irrelevant. If it does support the war, it has been bullied into relevance. Neither description reflects the truth. Against great odds and continuous badgering, the UN has performed with stirring relevance.