Mar. 14, 2003
"The American people understand," President Bush said at his March 6 news conference, "that when it comes to our security, if we need to act we will act. And we really don't need the United Nations' approval to do so."
An obvious truth. But Bush must have thought it came off a bit tactless, because he immediately tried to dilute it with some insincere UN boosterism:
"I want the United Nations to be effective," were his next words. "It's important for it to be a robust, capable body. It's important for its words to mean what they say."
But of course the last thing Bush wants is for the UN, which dances now to an anti-American tune played by the French and their fellow obstructionists, to be more muscular. And so, lest anyone listening to him get the wrong idea, he promptly backtracked on his backtrack:
"And as we head into the 21st century, when it comes to our security, we really don't need anybody's permission."
What Bush knows but doesn't want explicitly to say is that the United Nations is finished. Oh, it isn't going to go out of business any time soon -- the League of Nations wasn't formally dissolved until 1946 -- but it is finished as a force of any consequence in world affairs, and it is finished as a body whose judgments serious people have reason to take seriously.
Last fall, Bush warned the UN that it would make its own downfall inevitable if it failed to support the US campaign to disarm and depose Saddam Hussein.
"The conduct of the Iraqi regime is a threat to the authority of the United Nations, and a threat to peace," he said on Sept. 12. "Iraq has answered a decade of U.N. demands with a decade of defiance. All the world now faces a test, and the United Nations a difficult and defining moment. Are Security Council resolutions to be honored and enforced, or cast aside without consequence? Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?"
For a brief moment -- when the Security Council, after weeks of haggling over the text, unanimously passed Resolution 1441 -- it was possible to believe that the UN intended to stand with the world's superpower and enforce its own directives after all. But it is clear now that France, and perhaps China and Russia as well, never viewed 1441 as anything but a way to buy more time -- time for the antiwar movement, and for that matter Saddam himself, to work at undermining the US effort. The United Nations could have chosen to take part in bringing down one of the world's most brutal tyrants. It chose instead to shred the last few strands of its own legitimacy.
Shed no tears. For all the beautiful words in its charter, the UN has never lived up -- never even tried to live up -- to its founding ideals. The UN Charter venerates justice and human rights, but dozens of UN members states routinely pervert justice and crush human rights. The stench of hypocrisy did not enter the United Nations when Qadhafi's Libya was elected to chair the UN Human Rights Commission. Or when the UN responded to Serbian aggression by imposing an arms embargo that crippled the victims. Or when Yasser Arafat addressed the General Assembly with a gun holster on his hip.
In 1974, William F. Buckley fantasized about a United Nations in which hypocrisy was banned. In the epilogue to United Nations Journal, which he wrote after serving a stint on the American delegation to the UN, he imagined a takeover of the General Assembly by military officers attached to the UN Conference on Disarmament:
"In due course the UN colonels will issue their instructions, but already it is disclosed that the Soviet Union will not be permitted to talk about disarming without disarming; the Chinese may not speak about human rights without granting human rights; the Arabs will not be permitted to speak about the plight of the Less Developed Countries without forswearing the cartelization of their oil; the Africans may not talk about racism until after subduing the leaders of Uganda, the Central African Republican, and Burundi, for a starter.... The countries of East Europe must wear red uniforms when they appear on the floor and, before rising to speak, must seek explicit and public permission from the delegate of the Soviet Union."
Funny stuff, and even after 29 years, at least half of it is still apt. The UN has always been a treasure-trove for satirists. But Bush isn't laughing anymore; after 9/11, some jokes aren't as comical as they used to be.
While the League of Nations fiddled in the 1930s, Italy invaded Abyssinia, Japan conquered Manchuria, and Hitler's armies marched into the Rhineland. The League's fecklessness helped bring on the deadliest, most destructive war in history. The United Nations in its fecklessness prolonged the Cold War and acquiesced in the rape of nations from Tibet to Bosnia. Given the chance, it will fatally compromise the war against international terrorism and its sponsors. Bush doesn't intend to give it the chance.