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SEOUL — As the U.N. Security Council debate on Iraq moves forward, precedent is pertinent. For Korea a half-century ago, it took three Security Council resolutions to authorize and organize an armed U.N. response; for Kuwait in 1990, more than a “baker’s dozen.”

How has the Security Council reached consensus in the past and what might occur in its absence?

Whereas, the first two enforcement actions involved territorial aggression against sovereign states — a fundamental violation of the U.N. Charter and international law — this time, we are dealing with a more abstract but potentially more lethal threat stemming from alleged weapons of mass destruction but without the smoking gun needed to secure Security Council consensus. Thus, in the current crisis, the members of the Security Council have been divided over whether one or two resolutions are necessary or, indeed, any at all.

Not only did a Soviet boycott over the admission of Communist China to the United Nations smooth the way for action in Korea, but fear of its return impelled the United States toward a unilateral course. Thus, the U.S. was prepared to act on the basis of the first of three resolutions merely authorizing members “to render every assistance to the Republic of Korea.”

Both U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson and President Harry Truman were on record favoring unilateral action if the U.N. failed to adopt a second resolution specifically authorizing military action. The former stated that: “We (the U.S.) would go right ahead under the earlier resolution” and provide military assistance.” The latter was even more adamant: “A U.S. military response would not be held hostage to additional U.N. action” [and] if the Soviet Union attended future Security Council meetings and attempted to veto Security Council action, we would go right ahead on our own and justify our action on the basis of the [earlier] June 25 resolution.”

(In the present situation involving Iraq, the French proposal for two separate resolutions — one for inspections and a second authorizing the use of force — is more in line with the intended spirit of the Korean resolutions.)

Fast-forward to the final prewar Persian Gulf resolution of 1990 authorizing “all means necessary” against Iraq. War was waged through a coalition force totally independent of U.N. oversight because, in the distorted historical memory of the presiding officials of the first Bush administration, Korea was where the U.S. was hamstrung by the U.N.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The U.S. was not hobbled by a unified U.N. Command that it controlled; it was buffeted by differences over policy goals and how the war should be conducted — bringing it into conflict with its allies (Britain and France) — to say nothing of the bitter personal and political vendetta between Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur over war aims.

There was even disagreement between the U.S. and other U.N. members regarding the respective roles of the U.N. Command and the U.N. Commission for the Reunification and Reconstruction of Korea. Which would be in charge of the unification process, and should South Korea be allowed to merely spill over the 38th parallel in lieu of all-Korean elections to replace the undemocratic Rhee regime? These issues were subsequently rendered moot by Chinese intervention.

By contrast, in the Persian Gulf War, victory was swift and complete, preceded by a lengthy period of U.N. Security Council debate and the passage of a series of increasingly severe resolutions. In the place of a unified command, the U.S opted for a coalition force operating without formal U.N. oversight. However, this established a dangerous precedent that has made the destruction of the Iraqi infrastructure the functional equivalent of ousting its forces from Kuwait — not necessarily what the other members of the Security Council had in mind.

Korea also exerted a powerful influence in the realm of regime change. Under previous enforcement actions in Korea and Kuwait, the U.S. was given a free hand in implementing a U.N. mandate. However, in the former, the U.S. wisely sought a second, broader Security Council resolution to carry the war to North Korea and thereby secure a legitimate regime change (MacArthur vowed “to dissolve the DPRK and its supporting Communist Party and all other subversive and totalitarian groups inimical to the occupation”). In Kuwait, the “all means necessary” resolution made this unnecessary.

Ironically, however, it was the failure in Korea to successfully implement regime change and unification in the wake of Chinese intervention that made the U.S. reluctant to pursue the goal in the Persian Gulf four decades later. As the elder President Bush never tired of pointing out, the U.N. mandate was limited to evicting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, not marching on Baghdad.

This time the goal is more ambiguous and reaching a Security Council consensus correspondingly more difficult. Not only do the national interests of Security Council members differ profoundly, but perceptions of the threat differ, as illustrated by the intensive diplomacy among the permanent five. Action or inaction depends on whether the U.S. and Britain can successfully convince France, Russia and China of the need for a new resolution with teeth and automaticity.

In the month since Bush spoke to the General Assembly — putting the U.N. on notice that it must act or the U.S. would — the Security Council has been reluctant to grant an “all means necessary” style resolution, not least because of the aforementioned ambiguity of goals. To disarm Iraq or replace Hussein are two very different objectives;one falls short of an enforcement action, and the other goes well beyond it. The challenge now is for the U.S. to make securing a Security Council consensus — not regime change — the overriding priority.

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