TCS Daily

The UN Fallacy

By Uriah Kriegel - October 14, 2002 12:00 AM

Of all the arguments against waging war on Saddam Hussein's regime, the "must go through the UN" argument is surely the oddest.

A few months ago, when tensions flared on the Pakistani-Indian border, and India threatened military action against Pakistan's Islamist terrorists, much diplomatic effort was invested in averting war. But never was it suggested that one of the arguments against the war is that India must go through the UN - that the UN must authorize Indian military action against Pakistan.

In trying to contain the war in The Congo, much international energy has been expended on getting the Rwandan army out of southeast Congo, where the Rwandan army has been chasing Hutus suspected of involvement in the 1994 genocide of the Tutsis. But never did the Europeans make the argument that Rwanda must go through the UN if it thinks that its mission justifies control of parts of The Congo.

Come to think about it, the must-go-through-the-UN argument has never been leveled against any military adventure of any nation other than the US. Why is this form of argument reserved to American military engagement?

This question is even more baffling given the following consideration. The argument for the war against Saddam made by the United States relies on two premises. 1) The cooperation between terrorist organizations and rogue regimes is so threatening that it justifies preemptive action to undercut the threat. 2) Of all the rogue regimes in question, Saddam's is certainly the most willing and the most capable. It follows from these two premises that preemptive action against Saddam, in attempt to undercut possible cooperation between his regime and terrorist organizations, is the first order of business in our War on Terror.

Now, the threat referred to in this argument - concerning possible Terrorist-Rogue cooperation - is a threat to the United States. It is true that since 9/11, several alleged plots to hit European nations have been exposed. But clearly terrorists are chiefly interested in harming the US. (Even with the alleged terrorist plot to hit Paris, the target was the American Embassy.) So if the American argument for war against Saddam rests on a threat to the US, and not on a threat to the international community, why would action to confront the threat need the approval of the international community, rather than of the US?

Suppose China vetoes a Security Council resolution declaring war against Saddam. Given that China has nothing to fear from the threat at stake, how could its veto possibly nullify America's case for defending itself? Since when does China have the same moral authority over the security needs of the U.S. as does the U.S.?

How should we understand the strange appeal to the 'must go through the UN' argument, given (i) that the rationale for the war has to do not with the security of the international community but of the U.S. and (ii) that no other country is subjected to it but the U.S.? How should we understand this newfangled moral authority of the UN, which was presumed meaningless when Saddam dismissed over a dozen UN resolutions, but is now trumpeted as all-important when it is used to shackle the United States of America?

In The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche argues that morality is nothing but the weapon of the weak against the strong. By appealing to morality, the weak limits the ability of the strong to pursue his goals, thereby effectively annexing portions of the will of the strong to his own will.

Now this is very sinister as an image of morality. But it may serve as an uncanny description of the abuses of the institution of morality. For it does often happen that pseudo-moral considerations are dishonestly adduced by the weak as weapons to shackle the strong.

The Arab world, which otherwise shows very little interest in decentralizing power, uses the UN in this way quite routinely - both in its struggle with the military superiority of Israel and in its quiet war of attrition against the unfavorable American influence in its region. Europe, which has been ravaged by centuries of French and German quest for dominance and power, is still obsessed with these parameters. Not once and not twice did I hear European intellectuals justifying the project of the European Union by citing the "need" to balance American hegemony. For Europe, the great tragedy of the twentieth century has been its cultural, economic, and military eclipsing by America.

It is in this context that we should understand the 'must go through the UN' argument. And of course, once this is how we understand it, it loses whatever force it may have been deemed to carry. The war against Saddam Hussein's regime may or may not be justified - but it cannot be unjustified on the grounds that it was not authorized by the UN.



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