As the issue of Iraq comes to a head, the United Nations faces a grave challenge. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are deeply divided; many governments — British, Japanese, Spanish, Turkish — are at odds with their own people; and the divisions have hardened since U.S. President George W. Bush made his dramatic address to the General Assembly in September. Three different perspectives exist on the challenge posed to the U.N.:

* The first perspective is the U.S. warning of irrelevance if the U.N. fails to enforce its resolutions on recalcitrant outlaws. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, removed the cobwebs from the strategic big picture. For Washington the issues could hardly be more serious. Iraq is ruled by a “rogue regime” that has vigorously pursued the clandestine acquisition of weapons of mass destruction; used biochemical weapons against its own citizens and neighboring Iran; engaged in some of the most horrific human rights atrocities; attacked Iran and invaded and annexed Kuwait; and defied the U.N. for 12 long years.

Can one of the world’s most dangerous regimes be permitted to remain in power until it succeeds in acquiring the world’s most dangerous weapons? The concurrent crisis with North Korea proves the wisdom of dealing with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein now, before he gains his hands on nuclear or other equally powerful weapons — for it will be next to impossible to defang him after he has usable weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems. The typically foggy lens of multilateralism has been confronted by the moral clarity claimed by an administration that, distinguishing good from evil, is determined to promote one and destroy the other.

Meanwhile, America’s threat of war has galvanized the U.N. into putting teeth into the inspection machinery and produced unprecedented cooperation from the Iraqis. If there is a swift and decisive war; if the ouster of Hussein paves the way for a brighter and happier future for Iraqis and lets a hundred flowers of freedom bloom in the arid Arab desert; and if this is done without U.N. authorization, then the credibility and authority of the U.N. will be gravely damaged, and the prestige and mana of the U.S. greatly enhanced.

Conversely, under this first perspective, it is assumed that cooperation from Baghdad will not last forever. As international pressure slackens, Hussein will return to his familiar game of cheat and retreat. His survival following full U.S. military mobilization will gravely dent U.S. global credibility. Should that happen, the U.N., which has no independent military capability, will lose its most potent enforcement agent even as other would-be tyrants are emboldened. The resulting political backlash in the United States could well imperil continued American membership, and the U.N. could become this century’s League of Nations.

* The second point of view acknowledges the need to confront Hussein, but rules out acting without U.N. authorization. The Security Council lies at the center of the international law-enforcement system. It is the chief body for building, consolidating and using the authority of the international community. The challenge is not to find alternatives to it, but to make it work better. Bypassing it will undermine it and put at risk the very foundations of a secure and just world order. The U.N. is our only hope for unity in diversity in a world where global problems require multilateral solutions.

U.N. legitimacy has been steadily eroding because of perceptions of the Security Council’s unrepresentative composition, undemocratic operation, lack of accountability to anyone “below” the General Assembly or “above” the World Court plus ineffectiveness. Americans often mock the last failing. But if it were to become increasingly activist, interventionist and effective, then the lack of representational and procedural legitimacy and judicial accountability would lead many others to resist the authority of the Security Council even more forcefully.

* The third argument accepts U.N. authorization as necessary, but not sufficient. There is growing disquiet that the U.N. is being subverted to the U.S. agenda for war. It risks becoming to the U.S. what the Warsaw Pact was to the old Soviet Union: a collective mechanism for legitimizing the dominant power’s hegemonism. It cannot be the case that the U.N. is harnessed to U.S. interests when convenient but trashed otherwise.

U.N. credibility could be in tatters if Iraq is attacked by the U.S. with its ability for self-defense sharply degraded after months of disarmament by the U.N. As chief weapons inspector Hans Blix put it, the Iraqis have not been breaking toothpicks when they destroy their missiles.

Reasons for the strong worldwide anti-war sentiment include doubts about the justification for going to war; anxiety over the human toll, uncontrollable course and incalculable consequences of a war in an already inflamed region; and skepticism that the U.S. will stay engaged — politically, economically and militarily — for the years of reconstruction required after a war.

Washington is seen as determined to wage war not because it has to, but because it wants to and can. Hussein was on this administration’s agenda when it came into office: The 9/11 attacks provided the excuse, not the reason. Advances in military technology make it possible to complete the unfinished agenda from the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War. Washington has found it especially difficult to convince others of the need to go to war now, and has not helped its cause by a continually shifting justification.

Containment and deterrence worked against the far more formidable Soviet enemy during the Cold War. Why should they be replaced by the destabilizing doctrine of preemption? Excessive comments and opinion about the postwar scenario has strengthened suspicions of a predetermined agenda for war.

The U.N. has not escaped this dilemma. If it does not prepare in advance for a postwar humanitarian challenge, it will be accused of criminal neglect of a predictable contingency. But if it does prepare for the contingency, it is accused of implicitly accepting an assault on the fundamental principles of the U.N. Charter instead of actively fighting such a gross violation of international norms prohibiting the use and threat of force.

In 1990, in flagrant violation of the U.N. Charter, Iraq invaded Kuwait; the U.N. strongly supported a war to eject the Iraqis. In 2001 the U.S. was attacked by terrorists; the U.N. rallied to the American call for waging war on the terrorists and on Afghanistan’s Taliban government that had given them a territorial base. This time, the crisis is seen to be the result of U.S. belligerence, not Iraqi aggression. If the Security Council does authorize war, it will be seen as caving in to American threats and thus lacking the courage of U.N. convictions.

People look to the U.N. to stop war, not wage one. The U.N. is the chief symbol and instrument for moderating the use of force in international relations.

Some in civil society say the crisis has heightened the need for a global peoples’ assembly to counter the repeated betrayals by an intergovernmental organization. Others look to the U.N. secretary general as the last line of defense of the U.N. Charter principles. But this places an impossible burden on the world’s top international civil servant. If the Security Council is united, the secretary general cannot be an alternative voice of dissent; if it is divided, he cannot be a substitute for inaction.

The costs already incurred before a war has begun include fissures in the three great institutions of peace and order since World War II: the U.N., the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is still at large (though the net may be closing) and regaining popularity among Muslims. While markets keep falling, hostility to U.S. policy is on the rise. So is the price of oil.

North Korea has taken advantage of the U.S. preoccupation with Iraq to throw off international fetters and restart its nuclear weapons program. And in the U.S. itself, civil liberties are being compromised on a scale not seen since McCarthyism in the 1950s.

With successes like these, why should America’s enemies pray for failure? Their joy and delight is the despair and distress of well-wishers and admirers of much that is so great and inspirational about America.

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