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Bush actions put U.N. credibility on the line


President Bush issued a public ultimatum to the United Nations in his Sept. 12 speech there. This public act must be understood as part of a larger gauntlet he has thrown down to challenge the United Nations, much of it behind the scenes.

Bush challenged the United Nations to force Iraq to adhere to U.N. resolutions regarding disarmament, or the United States would force it to do so, presumably through unilateral warfare. In the week following his talk, the president continued to publicly raise the ante: “The United Nations will either be able to function as a peacekeeping body as we head into the 21st century, or it will be irrelevant. And that’s what we’re about to find out,” Bush said. “The United Nations [must] show some backbone and resolve as we confront the true challenges of the 21st century.” But he added, “Make no mistake about it, if we [the United States] have to deal with the problem, we will deal with it.”

Conflict resolution theory and practice show us that ultimatums issued in multiparty forums typically reveal two things: severe power imbalances between the two parties, which is what the ultimatum is designed by the more powerful to exploit; and a corresponding lack of openness and good will on the part of the party that has thrown down the gauntlet. Both are on display here.

President Bush claims that Saddam Hussein has “put the credibility of the United Nations on the line.” True enough, but it is also true that Bush’s ultimatum also threatens U.N. credibility over the long term. When the United Nations is seen as susceptible to ultimatums by its most powerful member, it risks success in speaking with an authoritative voice to all countries, large and small, influential or not so.

The Bush administration has actually been engaged over the past six months in a series of strong-arm tactics with the United Nations, actions that ultimately weaken the organization’s ability to evade the irrelevancy that Bush purports to be concerned about. While none of these American actions are as well known as the gauntlet thrown down so dramatically in his U.N. speech, they are no less corrosive for the United Nations’ health and the multilateralism for which it stands.

In April, the United States ousted Jose Bustani, the Brazilian director-general of the 145-nation Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the U.N. agency policing the international chemical weapons ban. Bustani refused to follow U.S. policy, tried to bring Iraq into the organization’s fold, and forcefully pursued multilateral, nonviolent solutions to chemical weapons destruction in Iraq and elsewhere. These were the “ill-conceived initiatives” of which Bustani was accused by Washington. The first time a director general of a U.N. agency had been fired in midterm, it was even more remarkable because it came only a year after Bustani was unanimously reelected to a second five-year term.

Bustani’s ouster followed by a week the dismissal of Robert Watson as chairperson of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific body charged with assessing causes of climate change. Watson, who was removed after pressures from Washington and from Exxon-Mobil via Washington, was outspoken on the threats of global warming and a strong supporter of the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty to reduce industrial nations’ emissions of greenhouse gases, which the Bush administration has refused to sign. In both cases, U.S. and U.N. officials indicated that Washington had used direct and indirect threats of nonpayment of dues to leverage its argument. This is no small threat from the United States, already notorious for dereliction of its dues-paying duty.

The highest-ranking U.N. official to run afoul of the Bush administration was Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland who was “eased out” last month as only the second U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Robinson, who received high marks internationally for her dedication to victims and her fearlessness in the face of violators, said she was let go because of pressure from the United States, which she frequently accused of violating human rights during its war on terrorism.

The current crisis that President Bush has forced upon the United Nations is real, not only because of his public ultimatum, but also due to the private, behind-the-scenes tampering and bullying by the organization’s sole superpower outlined above. While the United Nation’s credibility and future effectiveness is indeed on the line, it must be not be understood in the simplistic and disingenuous way pointed to by President Bush. It is not just Saddam Hussein whose actions threaten U.N. credibility. George W. Bush may be the greater long-term threat.

Patrick G. Coy is associate professor at the Center for Applied Conflict Management at Kent State University in Ohio.

National Catholic Reporter, October 11, 2002