With the war on terrorism one year old, the focus now shifts to the United Nations in what could be its “League of Nations Moment.” As former Secretary of State George P. Shultz stated recently in The Washington Post, “The world has now entered the third decade of crises and dangers to international peace and security created by Saddam Hussein.” From his 1980 war against Iran, to his 1990 conquest of Kuwait, to his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, to his rampant pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein’s actions have been met with a series of binding, enforceable United Nations Security Council resolutions against him.
So for those who care about international law, Saddam holds the record as the longest reigning violator. For those who respect the Security Council’s role in maintaining international peace and security, Saddam ranks as its most damaging adversary. For those who respect state sovereignty, Saddam stands out as the only aggressor who waged war to totally erase the legitimate sovereign existence of a state, Kuwait. Saddam has systematically made himself into the enemy of all the great international causes of our time: human rights; non-proliferation; anti-terrorism; and economic, social and political development.
And most prominently in recent years, Saddam has been the assailant of multilateralism. In the course of the 1990s, the United States and the international community, working with the United Nations, conducted the most multilateral, consultative, cooperative effort ever put together to solve a single problem: the depredations of Saddam Hussein. That record, which in the present debate has been studiously ignored, deserves attention.
In 1990-1991, the U.N. Security Council authorized military action by the United States and an international coalition to force Saddam’s army out of Kuwait. When the “Desert Storm” campaign succeeded, the Security Council, in an unprecedented series of resolutions, “suspended” military operations but left its original authorization for war intact as a means of pressuring Saddam to comply with Security Council Resolution 687, which demanded that Saddam accept international inspections and the demolition of his weapons of mass destruction. The United Nations thus extended the international legal case against him beyond the goal of liberating Kuwait to encompass action against his weapons program as a threat to international peace and security in general.
When U.N. inspectors got inside Iraq they found and destroyed many such weapons. But Iraq’s compliance, always grudging and deceptive, turned defiant. In early 1998, Saddam barred inspectors from “presidential sites,” the many palaces he had built around the country. Former President Bill Clinton publicly detailed the violations and demanded that Saddam agree to “full, free and unfettered” inspections or face armed attack by the United States. This induced U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to fly to Baghdad, where he negotiated an agreement committing Iraq to give “immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access” to inspectors. A Security Council resolution endorsed the agreement and threatened Saddam with the “severest consequences” if he failed to fulfill the agreement.
Of course, Saddam failed to comply. Once again, the United Nations responded vigorously. Resolution 1205 condemned Iraq’s “flagrant violation” of the resolutions following Desert Storm. This reactivated the United Nations’ original authorization for the use of military force against Saddam. That was in late 1998. Clinton ordered American armed forces into action in an operation called “Desert Fox,” but then he called it off amid speculation that he felt he could not take the United States into war at a time when he was facing impeachment.
Since then the international effort to de-fang Saddam has been moribund. The world’s failure to act in accordance with its own requirements has given him nearly four undisturbed years to expand his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.
So today we are just where we were in 1998, while Saddam has gained ground. If the U.N. Security Council can summon the resolve to pick up where its effort left off, it can reacquire some of its severely depleted credibility. Many American politicians are facing a similar moment of truth. In 1998 the U.S. Congress passed a resolution urging the president “to take all necessary and appropriate actions to respond to the threat posed by Iraq’s refusal to end its weapons of mass destruction program.” Will Congress do the same in 2002?
This is a defining moment in international affairs. As Clinton said in 1998, “We have to defend our future from these predators of the 21st century. They will be all the more lethal if we allow them to build arsenals of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and the missiles to deliver them. We simply cannot allow that to happen. There is no more clear example of this threat than Saddam Hussein.”
This also is an opportunity for progress. We know that Saddam’s regime has turned Iraq into a state that supports terrorism. We know that no peace agreement between Israel and Palestine can work while Saddam stays in power. And we know that Saddam’s Iraq represents the kind of stagnant, repressive system that, as detailed in the United Nations’ “Arab Human Development Report 2002,” has brought the Arab world to its most miserable condition ever. With Saddam Hussein out of power, new and positive possibilities will open up at every level of international life.
Charles Hill is a diplomat-in-residence and lecturer in the Political Science Department.