UN hit by vigilantes

December 25, 1998

The US and UK's unilateral strikes against Iraq have undermined the UN's mission, say

Iraq represents a clear and present danger to the United States and the world. These words were invoked frequently during the cold war by US presidents to justify a policy of nuclear threats against the Soviet Union.This week, they have been used by President Bill Clinton and prime minister Tony Blair to justify bombing missions against Iraq. We are even witnessing the withdrawal of Russian ambassadors from Washington and London, a cold-war strategy that most people believed to have been relegated to memoirs written by former intelligence officers.

Assertions of continuity with the cold war should not be overdrawn. For one thing, Russian objections are now only an irritant where once they were a serious deterrent. But when the Duma's opposition is yoked with widespread disapproval of Operation Desert Fox by governments and by public opinion in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, it is clear that there is no consensus for US-led acts of global policing.

Few commentators now subscribe to the idea, prevalent at the beginning of the 1991 Gulf war, that the post-cold war period heralds a new era of collective security based on the authority of the United Nations. Instead, there is a question mark over whether Desert Fox is taking place within the UN system or outside it. In Paris two weeks ago, the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, reminded western states that military intervention required the specific approval of the Security Council. International lawyers in the court of the British government disagree. They insist that there is authority for the use of force against Iraq in existing Security Council resolutions 678, 687 and, especially, 1205.

Even if there is a legal basis for the operation, is it ethical to kill civilians to stop a state from developing its capacity to make and deliver weapons of mass destruction, especially when some of the experts behind Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear programmes learned their trade as students in United Kingdom and US universities?

According to a long and venerable tradition of ethical reasoning about the justice of resorting to war, force is deemed legitimate when it is necessary and proportionate. Given the importance attached by this government to the ethical dimension in foreign policy, it is not surprising that prime minister Blair's speech to the House of Commons on December 17 defended the action in these terms. On the one hand, the US and the UK can justifiably claim that they had no option but to use force given their ultimatum to Iraq that future non-compliance with the inspection regime would automatically trigger military action. On the other, by backing themselves into a corner, Mr Clinton and Mr Blair forgot a cardinal lesson of the cold war: give your opponent a means of retreat.

Under the test of proportionality, force must be commensurate with the harm it is supposed to prevent. Though Iraq's emerging mass destruction capability poses a danger to the region, defenders of the bombing have to show that the immediacy and scale of the threat warranted this level of violence. It is significant that many of Iraq's neighbours fear their own publics more than they do the risk of Iraqi aggression.

Moreover, the strategy of punitive retaliation is likely to herald the end of the inspection regime, which, for all of its shortcomings, delivered results and offered the best chance of degrading Iraq's mass destruction capacity.

The shift from disarmament on the ground to punishment from the air reflects a change in UK/US policy. By striking at what British cold-war warriors used to call the key aspects of state power, Mr Clinton and Mr Blair have put Saddam Hussein on notice that they intend to squeeze him into submission. Even if there is a legal justification for using force to uphold Security Council resolutions, there is no mandate for embarking on imperial policing missions designed to wound the regime fatally. By dividing world public opinion and polarising the Security Council, Britain and the US have played into Iraq's hands. The vigilante action of these self-proclaimed trustees of the United Nations significantly undermine the charter in which so much hope was invested a decade ago.

Dr Nicholas J. Wheeler and Dr Tim Dunne, department of international politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

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