A Wounded United Nations
Date: 02-01-2004
Author: Editorial New York Times
These are difficult times for the United Nations. The Bush administration's taste for unilateral action and its doctrine of preventive war pose a profound challenge to the U.N.'s founding principle of collective security and threaten the organization's continued relevance. Since the day the administration took office, it has been chipping away at the multinational diplomatic system that America did so much to build in the past two generations. It has walked away from the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, waged war against the International Criminal Court and disparaged international arms control agencies and weapons inspectors.

The war in Iraq brought these conflicts to a new height. Washington's rush to invade split the Security Council in ways that have still not healed. Yet the months since the Iraq invasion have shown how much the United States still needs the U.N.'s unparalleled ability to confer
international legitimacy and its growing experience in nation-building.

Even after the U.N. was shoved aside over Iraq, it tried to play a constructive role in rebuilding that shattered country. The price it paid was the terrorist bombing of its Baghdad headquarters last August, perhaps the most costly blow the U.N. has ever endured. Its top diplomat in Iraq was killed, along with 21 others. Despite standing aside from the invasion and being excluded from the subsequent administration, the U.N. found itself a prime target of Iraqi guerrillas, and a particularly vulnerable one because relief and reconstruction work cannot be carried out from behind impregnable barriers. Since August, the U.N. has all but withdrawn from Iraq.

The U.N.'s global concerns reach far beyond Iraq. In Afghanistan, a senior U.N. diplomat is responsible for assisting the transition to a fully elected government. The U.N. is part of the quartet group, which is trying to get Israelis and Palestinians to carry out their responsibilities under the agreed road map for peace. Its nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, is charged with detecting nuclear weapons programs. Just as important is the U.N.'s role as a crucial catalyst for education, health and poverty-reduction programs, which can help prevent future armed conflicts. This work has suffered from the fallout over Iraq and the resulting tensions between the United Nations and Washington. Unless the U.N. finds a way to reclaim a leadership role on Iraq, it could have an increasingly hard time mobilizing the political and financial resources it needs.

That seems to suit the Bush administration. The White House continues to disparage the effectiveness of U.N. weapons inspectors, most recently in Libya. It complains about the U.N.'s reluctance to return to Iraq without acknowledging its legitimate concerns about the lack of a clear political mandate. But the U.N. cannot afford to wait until Iraqi sovereignty is restored next July. It must take on increased responsibilities in the coming weeks.

Instead of complaining about the U.N., Washington should smooth the path for its return. It should take up Secretary General Kofi Annan's suggestion of a three-way meeting of U.N. officials, the American occupation administration and the Iraqi Governing Council later this month to clarify the role the U.N. can play in shaping the transition to a self-governing Iraq. One meeting would not resolve all the differences between Washington and the U.N. But it would be a useful start.

America needs the United Nations as an effective partner in Iraq, not as a whipping boy for the administration's continuing problems there. The U.N. needs to be involved, most immediately so it does not default on its responsibilities to the Iraqi people. By taking a strong
role in shaping Iraq's return to the community of sovereign nations, the U.N. can also demonstrate that it is determined not to let its global influence be marginalized.
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