Can the United Nations Avert War with Iraq?

by Joe Auciello

As the Bush administration intensifies its preparations for war on Iraq, Americans are growing increasingly cautious and skeptical about the president’s accusations and threats against Saddam Hussein.

According to a December 17 Los Angeles Times poll, “The overwhelming majority of respondents—90%—said they do not doubt that Iraq is developing weapons of mass destruction. But in the absence of new evidence from UN inspectors, 72% of respondents, including 60% of Republicans, said the president has not provided enough evidence to justify starting a war with Iraq.”

The Los Angeles Times article goes on to report: “If the United States should launch an attack, 68% of Americans want it to be only with the support of the international community.”

This immense antiwar sentiment is becoming increasingly visible. Unions, labor councils, church groups, student organizations, etc., have adopted resolutions against Washington’s war policy. In December, for instance, the International Executive Board of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a union representing 1.3 million members, issued a resolution against this impending war.

The AFSCME resolution called on “Congress and the Administration to assemble a broad international coalition for an aggressive and effective policy of disarmament in Iraq—and to work through the United Nations and deal with Saddam Hussein’s lawlessness in a manner that reinforces international law.”

The hope of millions of Americans, as expressed in the AFSCME resolution and many others like it, is that the United Nations will bring about a peaceful agreement between the U.S. and Iraq and thereby avert war.


But are these hopes credible and realistic? Can an appeal to the Unted Nations form the basis for a strategy that will build the peace movement into a force powerful enough to prevent the outbreak of war?

Some activists have hoped that the United Nations Charter would serve as a barrier to war and that conflicts between the U.S. and Iraq could be resolved in negotiations founded on principles of equity and justice. Since the United States has signed the UN Charter, so this reasoning goes, pressure could be brought on the Bush administration to abide by these rules of international relations and thereby avoid war.

The UN Charter and the “Scourge of War”

The language and sentiment of the UN Charter certainly inspires these hopes. According to its Charter, adopted by the General Assembly in 1945, the purpose of the United Nations is “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights.” Signers of the Charter pledge “to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors, and to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security…”

But the United Nations Charter, for all its fine language and lofty ideals, was never intended to be a peace document. For all its talk of “equal rights and self-determination of peoples” and “fundamental freedoms for all,” the Charter does not attempt to prohibit war, only to regulate it. “[A]rmed force shall not be used” proclaims the Charter, “save in the common interest.”

This “escape clause” in the UN Charter of “common interest” wipes out all the rest of its high-minded sentiment. The Bush administration can certainly argue that war against Iraq is justified precisely for “fundamental freedom,” “self-determination,” and “peace.” In fact, President George Bush Sr. made just this claim when he called for “a new world order” thirteen years ago.

The forcible removal of Saddam Hussein by armed force (“regime change”), say the Rumsfelds and the Powells, is necessary precisely for “peace” and the “common interest.”

In this way imperial interest, that is, a war for geopolitical control, a war for oil, is cloaked in the language of peace. In this way the United Nations can be led to endorse the U.S. war against Iraq, just as it did in 1990. Only a few months after a favorable vote in the Security Council, the United States in 1991 launched its missiles on Baghdad with the “legitimacy” and political cover of United Nations approval.

UN Never a Force for Peace

More importantly, the United Nations has never served as a force for peace in the past, nor can it be used to halt the Bush administration’s drive to war today.

The United Nations, which could not halt war against Vietnam, Grenada, and Nicaragua, which carried out war in Korea, will not stop this war against Iraq. One of two scenarios is likely: either the United States will exert its influence with other nations on the Security Council to strike a favorable deal and buy their votes for war, or the United States, with a few allied countries, notably Britain, will go to war on its own. Washington might prefer UN support but will act without it if necessary.

Wouldn’t the peace movement be more likely to attract mass support if it called on the Bush administration to abide by the rule of international law as expressed in United Nations resolutions?

National and local protests and demonstrations have not yet drawn in the 72% of Americans who do not want war with Iraq. Would an antiwar strategy directed toward the United Nations be more successful? Wouldn’t the peace movement be more likely to attract mass support if it called on the Bush administration to abide by the rule of international law as expressed in United Nations resolutions? After all, isn’t it better for Iraq to accept UN weapons inspectors and trade self-determination for safety?

Regardless of the political concessions Iraq may be forced to make, the peace movement in the United States must clearly and firmly say “no” to war, whether it be led by the United States or the United Nations.

If the peace movement called for some form of UN negotiation and for the U.S. to follow the lead of the U.N., it is likely that the movement would grow in the short term. Nonetheless, such a strategy would be wrong. When the United Nations bends to Washington and calls for war, as it did in 1990, and as the Security Council did in November when it unanimously adopted a resolution for intrusive weapons inspections in Iraq, then, to be consistent, the peace movement would have to become a pro-war movement.

A movement that built its hopes on the resolve of the United Nations would be thrown into disarray and division when the UN authorized war. The movement’s potentially large numbers would quickly evaporate, and it would be extraordinarily difficult to rebuild.

The best course for the antiwar movement is to take a firm, principled stand now, at the outset, even at the cost of some popularity. Demand “No U.S./UN War Against Iraq,” and “No War for Oil.”

To sacrifice principle for popularity means ultimately to lose both. Adopting a faulty strategy will not disarm the U.S. war machine; instead, the antiwar movement would only disarm itself.

Judging from the history of the UN and its role in (not) managing world conflict, any hope that the UN will prevent the U.S. from going to war is a hope sadly misplaced. The ruling class of the United States will not subordinate its interests to the ruling classes of other countries, much less to the workers and peasants of those countries, who will suffer the most from war.

The United Nations is not an alternative to U.S. power but an extension of it. The peace movement must organize and rely on its own strength to prevent a slaughter in Iraq.