When President Bush was making the case for war against Iraq, he warned the United Nations that it should act with the US or become "irrelevant." Specifically, here's what he said:
"The conduct of the Iraqi regime is a threat to the authority of the United Nations, and a threat to peace. 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?"
Apparently, even though the UN did not support the US/UK invasion of Iraq, the President has decided that the UN remains relevant after all. As I've written before, the US is seeking cash and troops from other states -- and Bush realizes that other states want UN authorization before providing this assistance:
"Some countries have requested an explicit authorization of the United Nations Security Council before committing troops to Iraq."
And so, this past week, Secretary of State Colin Powell has been trying to convince US friends that they should cooperate with the US at the UN. Clearly, the administration is trying to convince states like Germany and France that they have a common interest in such multilateral action:
"I recognize that not all of our friends agreed with our decision to enforce the Security Council resolutions and remove Saddam Hussein from power. Yet we cannot let past differences interfere with present duties. Terrorists in Iraq have attacked representatives of the civilized world, and opposing them must be the cause of the civilized world. Members of the United Nations now have an opportunity -- and the responsibility -- to assume a broader role in assuring that Iraq becomes a free and democratic nation. "
Some media reports, including one from the Associated Press, suggest that the negotiations are making progress -- and that the US has "flinched." However, other reports (including the NY Times, which requires registration to view) suggest that states like Germany and France require a greatly diminished role for the US. They want Iraqi self governance very quickly -- and for the UN, not the US, to supervise the transfer of power.
To me, the most interesting part of all this is that the UN's chief role in world politics is becoming quite evident to everyone. It conveys political legitimacy on genuinely multilateral operations. Many countries will simply not line up behind the US to provide political cover for its foreign policy:
'''The fact the U.S. is coming back to the United Nations at this point is itself an indication the U.N. did not become "irrelevant,"' said Yale University scholar James S. Sutterlin, a former top U.N. political aide.
The world body 'has a unique capacity to mobilize money and legitimize the use of troops,' he said."
This political legitimacy, of course, was lacking in the war itself.
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