Monday, April 09, 2007

Making the U.N. Look Good

Published: April 10, 2007

The United Nations. Among mainstream American political thinkers, those three words elicit reactions that run the gamut from deep antipathy to less deep antipathy. O.K., I’m overstating the case. Many liberals will go all the way to deep ambivalence, and some venture further.

Still, even defenders of the institution can’t seem to start a defense of it without half-apologizing and ritually reciting its structural flaws.

Today I’ll break new ground by saving the recitation of flaws for last. First, let’s celebrate an underacknowledged feat. During a crucial phase of history — the run-up to the Iraq war — the United Nations performed just about flawlessly and showed auspicious adaptability.

In early 2003, a few die-hard fans of multilateralism asked why America was launching an essentially unilateral war. A common reply was that the multilateral body whose support America sought, the United Nations Security Council, wouldn’t vote to authorize war, so President Bush had to proceed without it. Blame Security Council “gridlock.”

Now that we know how the war turned out, it’s tempting to ridicule this logic by comparing Mr. Bush to a driver who runs a red light, kills a pedestrian and blames the tragedy on the light’s redness.

But that would be ridicule on the cheap. Let’s earn our ridicule with some laborious analysis.

A sacred duty of bodies that authorize things — the Security Council, Congress, zoning boards — is to sometimes not authorize things. (Imagine a world where everything was authorized!) People who want a thing authorized sometimes call the failure to authorize it “gridlock.” People who don’t want the thing authorized prefer to say “the system worked,” and refer to people who complain about gridlock as “whiners.” Who is right?

Truly dysfunctional gridlock happens when a body fails to take action it was designed to take. Under the U.N. Charter, the Security Council is to authorize armed intervention when one nation attacks another one. If, say, Iraq invades Kuwait, the Security Council should authorize a war rolling back the aggression. It passed that test in 1990.

But in 2003, Iraq hadn’t invaded anybody. It wasn’t doing the basic thing the United Nations was designed to stop.

Now, it’s fair to complain that the U.N.’s design is rapidly obsolescing. It took shape when war among states was the big threat to world order, but these days threats come from “non-state actors”: terrorists.

So when a nation seems to be developing nuclear arms and fraternizing with terrorists who seek nukes, we need a systematic way of dealing with that. The U.N.’s focus on the external behavior of nations should be supplemented by selective concern with their internal conditions.

In theory, then, President Bush could say he invaded Iraq because the United Nations hadn’t yet evolved to a point where it could address the nefarious nexus between states and non-state actors. In theory. But in fact, this evolution was taking place before his eyes, and he aborted it.

In a remarkable precedent, the Security Council had demanded that Iraq submit to pervasive arms inspections, and had prevailed. On the eve of war, inspectors were being let into every facility they asked to see.

Indeed, inspectors had checked out the sites American intelligence deemed most suspicious and had found nothing. So the idea that the inspectors should scram so America could invade and then do a better job of finding weapons struck some Security Council members as less than compelling. They gave America the red light. (Insert ridicule here.)

Oddly, and accidentally, Mr. Bush had catalyzed the evolution he then aborted. Iraq would never have admitted the inspectors had American troops not been poised to invade. This points to a flaw that future evolution should remedy: the U.N. lacks the power to get arms inspectors where they’re most needed. The sort of toughness Mr. Bush showed needs to be institutionalized multilaterally and integrated with such structures as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Space doesn’t permit a recitation of other U.N. flaws or proposed remedies. (Google “single-nation veto” and “Security Council expansion.”) Anyway, in the real world, the question isn’t whether an institution is perfect, but how it compares with other institutions. And in the case of the Iraq war, the U.N. did much better than some institutions, notably the U.S. government.

Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, runs the Web site