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President Bush's Dangerous Ultimatum to the United Nations

Posted Sep. 25, 2002

By Patrick G. Coy
(Appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal on Wed, Sept. 25, 2002)

KENT - The writer, an associate professor at Kent State University's Center for Applied Conflict Management, is a member of the National Council of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and editor of ``Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change,'' an annual volume published by Elsevier Science/JAI Press.

On Sept. 12, President Bush issued a public ultimatum not only to Iraq, but to the United Nations itself when he challenged it to force Iraqi disarmament or risk unilateral U.S. military action against Iraq.

While much commentary has focused on the details of Iraq's surprising agreement to allow an unconditional return of inspectors, the president's ultimatum to the United Nations is newsworthy in its own right.

In the weeks following his speech, the president has continued to raise publicly the ante for the United Nations: ``The U.N. 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 also said recently. ``The United Nations (must) show some backbone and resolve as we confront the true challenges of the 21st century.''

He added: ``Make no mistake about it, if we (the United States) have to deal with the problem, we'll deal with it.''

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

Bush claimed that Iraq's Saddam Hussein ``put the credibility of the U.N. on the line.'' True enough. It also is true that Bush's ultimatum to the United Nations threatens its credibility over the long term. When the United Nations is susceptible to ultimatums by its most powerful member, it risks success in dealing authoritatively with all countries, large and small, influential and not.

Over the past six months, private, strong-arm tactics by the United States toward the United Nations are weakening the organization's ability to evade the irrelevancy Bush is purportedly concerned about. While these American actions are not as well known as the gauntlet thrown down so dramatically in Bush's 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 Brazilian Jose Bustani as director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the 145-nation U.N. agency that polices the international ban on chemical weapons. Bustani refused to follow U.S. policy by trying to bring Iraq into the organization's fold, and by forcefully pursuing multilateral, nonviolent solutions to chemical weapons destruction in Iraq and elsewhere.

Bustani's firing -- the first ever carried out in the middle of a U.N. director-general's term -- was even more remarkable because it came only a year after Bustani was unanimously re-elected to a second five-year term.

Bustani's ouster came only one week after the dismissal of Robert Watson as chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific body charged with assessing the causes of climate change. Watson, who was removed after pressure was exerted by Washington directly and by Exxon-Mobil through Washington, was outspoken about the threats of global warming. He also was a strong supporter of the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty designed to reduce industrial nations' emissions of greenhouse gases that 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 America's U.N. dues to leverage its argument. This is no small threat from the United States, already notorious for dereliction of its dues-paying duty, which has historically contributed to the very irrelevancy of the institution Bush is criticizing.

The highest-ranking U.N. official to run afoul of the United States was Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland who was ``eased out'' two weeks ago as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Robinson, who won wide international respect 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 in its pursuit of the war against terrorism.

The crisis that Bush is forcing on the United Nations is real, thanks to his public ultimatum as well as to the private, behind-the-scenes ultimatums and bullying by the organization's sole superpower.

The United Nations' credibility and future effectiveness are indeed on the line; but it must not be understood in the simplistic and disingenuous way pointed to by Bush. It is not just Saddam Hussein whose actions threaten U.N. credibility.

George Bush may be the greater long-term threat.