Iraq and the UN Security Council
International Herald Tribune, 28 February 2002
Until very recently, war between states seemed a much less real threat than internal conflict. Interstate conflict had become rare and seemed likely to remain so. The ideology that saw virtue and nobility in war had all but disappeared in advanced countries.
Globalization was making national borders ever less important. And the united international response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait gave further pause to those thinking that territorial aggression might be cost-effective.
Recent events have made it impossible to be so optimistic. Just a few weeks ago, India and Pakistan were much closer to the brink of all-out war than has generally been recognized.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue to hover on the brink so long as resumption of serious political negotiations is made hostage to the last extremist on either side. And a number of other trouble spots, not least in East Asia, depend on the retention of very cool heads on all sides. But a different phenomenon is now capturing most attention - war between states being waged for self-defense purposes, as permitted under Article 51 of the UN Charter in response to armed attack.
America's short and devastating campaign against Afghanistan for harboring Al Qaeda was a totally justifiable response of this kind, and not seriously controversial in the international community. What will be extremely controversial, however, is any extension of that self-defense reasoning to justify war waged unilaterally against other countries perceived to be a threat to the United States or its allies.
That specter was raised by President George W. Bush's State of the Union address calling Iraq, Iran and North Korea "an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world."
Thus yoked together as immediate potential targets were three regimes which, however unlovely, are not alone in weapons proliferation or in sponsoring terrorism; are not a united axis in any obvious sense; are not equally culpable in their past actions; are not equally uncooperative in their present behavior; and do not require anything like the same un-nuanced strategy to get them to behave consistently better in the future. Immediately after this address came a presidential budget request for a defense spending increase of $48 billion. The increase alone is larger than the total military budget of any other country in the world, and would bring U.S. military spending to 40 percent of the global total, double the U.S. share of global GDP.
This is a breathtaking, but not illogical, product of the new U.S. doctrine that assesses defense needs in terms of others' capability, not in terms of the actual threat they pose.
It is not surprising that international, and even domestic, applause for the new U.S. policy has been less than tumultuous. Nor that there has been something of a scramble in Washingnton recently to disentangle the three "evil axis" countries and make clear that it is only really Iraq that is in the gunsights in the reasonably foreseeable future.
But in Iraq's case the prospect of major military action is very real indeed, and the international community will have to grapple with it very soon, as a test case for a kind of security issue that may recur in the years ahead.
It is certainly not unreasonable to paint Iraq as a potentially major threat not only to the United States but to international peace and security, given its track record in the production and use of weapons of mass destruction, its known capability and its suspected intentions.
And it is high time to be demanding some better behavior of it. But the way to deal with the whole issue is through the United Nations Security Council, which exists, and is fully mandated, to deal with precisely such threats.
A big responsibility in this respect lies on those Security Council members who say they are committed to multilateral processes and who find deeply distasteful the U.S. tendency toward unilateralism (an understandable viewpoint). They need to put their money where their mouths are. They should support an ultimatum demanding the return of fully empowered weapons inspectors, and be prepared to follow it through.
If the evidence for strong Security Council action is compelling (and that's a big if), and if credible enforcement action can be identified that improves rather than worsens the overall security environment (a very big if), then that evidence should be acted upon, without the luxury of double standards.
If some major powers are not prepared to make the hard calls, then they will have to accept that others may make them unilaterally.
That is not good for the United Nations, but it is what we might have to live with in times ahead which, in terms of that old Chinese curse, look all too unhappily likely to be "interesting".
The writer, a former foreign minister of Australia, is president of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. This comment was adapted by the International Herald Tribune from a Feb. 25 address to an Asia-Pacific security conference in Singapore.