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April 23, 2003

The American Project and the UN's Mission

Ronald Dore (Professor, University of London)

10 April 2003. Nothing was more symbolic of the great victory of the American and British forces than the image which filled the world's television screens -- the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein. Equally symbolic was the way in which the marine who was attaching the rope to pull it down covered the statue's face with an American flag, and hastily pulled it off when admonished by a superior officer.

Two days later, when the looting and destruction reached its height and the International Red Cross was moved to remind the United States government that establishing law and order was the first duty of occupying powers, Secretary of Defence Rumsfeld came to his press conference to denounce those segments of the media who were giving sensational prominence to the scenes of anarchy. One should expect, he said, a certain "untidiness" which always accompanies episodes of liberation. The next day he offered his threatening advice to Syria and Iran.

The "Strategic Guidelines" issued last autumn made it clear that the "world order under American leadership" of President Bush senior, was to give way to "world order under American control" of President Bush junior. The warnings to Syria and Iran are not just a symbolic expression of American overbearing confidence, but a sign that the "secular project" of the Guidelines is steadily being put into effect.

Will it succeed? No-one can predict the long-term outcome, but let me list three major factors.

1. Is American public opinion ready to accept the necessary cost in what in Japanese is usually called "blood and sweat" and lately in the United States is called "blood and treasure"? The American army will no doubt succeed in doing what it has given up trying to do in Afghanistan outside of Kabul, namely in establishing some semblance of law and order over most of Iraq. But if it turns out that the cost of occupation is that suicide bombers claim the lives of American soldiers at the rate of five or so a week? Might an administration gearing up for a presidential election next year not be forced to change course?

Israel, for the American administration "the frontier of Western civilisation" in the Middle East has, as its most troublesome opponent, the terrorist group Hamas. Hamas had close links with Iraq. It was said that Saddam gave over 20,000 dollars to the families of their suicide bombers. (The fact that victory in Iraq was immediately followed by threats to the main supporters of Israel's other strongest opponent, Hizbollah suggests that the Hamas connection and the protection of Israel was a powerful element in the American decision to attack Iraq.) What is difficult to predict is whether Hamas, deprived of Iraqi support, and overwhelmed by the demonstration of the awesome military power of its opponents, will lose its vitality, or whether, alternatively, the war has so inflamed anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment in the region that it produces an endless supply of would-be martyrs, and turns the whole of Iraq, like Israel, into a battlefield for suicide bombers.

2. Supposing that the United States resolves its "clash" with Islamic civilization and succeeds in "tidying up" the Middle East. Will it then proceed to challenge that other great counter-civilization, that of China and its neighbours? (Remember that early in his administration Bush called China America's major "strategic competitor".) And if it does, will Japan take Blair's England as its model and decide to stick closely to America through thick and thin? In that context I, at least, count it as good news that, on the North Korean issue, the Japanese foreign office has taken an independent line vis-a-vis the United States and cooperated with South Korea and China to mediate and bring about the multi-bilateral talks in Beijing. So much so that Washington hawks have branded the deputy foreign minister a "cowardly appeaser".

3. Will the United Nations manage to avoid simply being used to legitimate American occupation of Iraq and succeed in maintaining its moral authority? It is possible to interpret the turbulent events in the Security Council that surrounded the attempts to get a second resolution authorising the attack on Iraq as an episode which strengthens the UN and its long-term mission.

What the British representative was trying to get -- and needed to pacify opposition at home -- was a resolution which, although it would necessarily fail thanks to an "unreasonable" French veto, would nevertheless gain the moral authority of a majority vote on the Security Council. But not even that was achieved. Not even those nine votes could be mobilised. Mexico, Chile, Cameroun, Guinea refused to cooperate.

Those who drafted the United Nations charter quite consciously gave the organisation a dual character. On the one hand it was to be an arena in which the great powers could contest, compromise and resolve classes of national interest. At the same time it was, if you like, "an idealist's arena" -- an organisation aiming at the gradual long-term establishment of rules of international conduct, based on peace and human rights, which even great powers would be constrained to obey. I would like to believe that the failure of that second resolution to mobilise even those nine votes was not just because of the inept way in which the British and Americans sought to apply big-stick diplomacy on those small countries, but that those "rules of international conduct", the merits of the case and the justice of the arguments, played a part in their decision not to cooperate.

If that was really the case, then the outlook for mankind in the twenty-first century is not quite as gloomy as it presently seems.

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