The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The ballast provided by the UN is essential in a unipolar world

Kofi Annan’s gravelly voice announcing that he did not “see an argument for military action” against Iraq was the best news that the television broke on New Year’s day. It offered welcome assurance that the United Nations has not quite degenerated into a subcommittee of the congress of the United States of America, and that its secretary general, who has sometimes unkindly been called the Uncle Tom of international diplomacy, does not only echo the White House spokesman.

It may have been no accident that within hours, George W. Bush expressed the pious hope that “this Iraq situation will be resolved peacefully”. True, he reverted to breathing fire and brimstone almost immediately afterwards. Even if he had not, it would not have done to invest the secretary general with more influence than even he might claim. But his symbolic authority is undeniable, and even if he does not exactly lead the world, his pronouncements give a good idea of which way the global wind is blowing.

Gerhard Schroeder’s Germany, critical of Bush’s reckless militarism, joined the UN security council this week. And two leading Saudis denied US claims that the kingdom had promised the military use of its airspace, airbases and an operational command centre. Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister, and Prince Abdul-Rahman bin Abdul-Aziz, the deputy defence minister, reiterated their opposition to attacking Iraq.

Given American leverage (of which we suffered a ruthless demonstration during the Bangladesh war), Germany and Saudi Arabia might yet succumb to pressure. But triumph alone will not make might right. Annan’s view that no military action should be considered until the inspectors report to the security council on January 27 drew attention to the inherent conflict between an imperial power’s determination to treat the UN as the instrument of national statecraft and the UN’s own respect for due process. The UN chief executive’s tactfully muted tone was also a reminder that the UN is only as strong as UN members dare to be.

They are under intense pressure like the weapons inspectors whose American mandate — a wholly illegal one, it must be stressed — is quite explicit: produce evidence of chemical, biological, nuclear and ballistic weapons or admit that Saddam Hussein has hoodwinked you. As one of them confessed helplessly, “Even if they open all the doors in Iraq for us and keep them open 24 hours a day, we won’t be able to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if it is not there.”

The orders seem to be that if the cat doesn’t exist, concoct “proof” that it does. There is no question of investigating whether or not Iraq is “in material breach” of disarmament agreements. Bush pronounced Saddam “Guilty” long before anyone had heard the evidence and announced that the “burden” of proving his innocence is on the accused. This perversion of justice recalls Henry VII’s tax extortionist, Richard Empson. If a nobleman spent too much, he was obviously rich and could afford to cough up. If he did not spend, it meant he was salting away his wealth and had to cough up. The strategy became notorious as Empson’s Fork. Commonly, it’s called heads I win, tails you lose.

It would be a laugh if, after all this, it turns out that Saddam really is making weapons of mass destruction and has pulled the wool over the inspectors’ eyes. Undoubtedly, that would be material breach of various international treaties that Iraq has signed, but the US has no god-given mission unilaterally to uphold their sanctity. For that matter, the no-fly zones arbitrarily imposed on northern and southern Iraq are of dubious legality and merit UN scrutiny.

Some feel that only the International Criminal Court can decide whether Saddam is a serial aggressor who encourages world terrorism while stockpiling mass-murder weapons. But since the US (like India) has wriggled out of that forum, the responsibility devolves on the UN, the “theatre of the absurd” that America has also done much to undermine. Annan’s statement is a reminder that the measure of UN legitimacy is not the degree of its compliance with the hawks in Washington. Its relevance depends on carrying out the collective will of UN members, even at the cost of offending the most powerful of them whose actions are clearly dictated by its domestic electoral agenda, economic concerns and political interests.

That alone explains why Bush threatens to annihilate Iraq while waffling about diplomacy in North Korea. According to US intelligence, it will take Iraq five years to make the bomb while North Korea already has two and could build five or six more in the next six months. The difference lies in oil. When Bush’s father rushed to Kuwait’s rescue, Admiral William J. Crowe, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, chuckled that the sheikhdom would not have been worth defending if it had exported bananas. Barren North Korea is not worth attacking.

With oil reserves that rival those of Russia, Saudi Arabia and Mexico, Iraq is a different kettle of fish altogether. We owe a debt of gratitude to the New York Times columnist William Safire for setting us clear about America’s real objective in seeking a “regime change” in Baghdad. If the UN is disobliging, he says, Bush will take on the task himself “with an ad hoc coalition of genuine allies.” No humbug about removing threats to world peace in this assessment of the expected outcome. Instead, the Anglo-American alliance is licking its chops over the prospective booty.

First, loyal Britain will oust truculent France as the chief European dealer in Iraqi oil and equipment. Second, Syria, suspected of selling Iraqi oil on the quiet, “would be frozen out”. Third, a grateful successor regime in Baghdad “under the tutelage and initial control of the victorious coalition” — read a Western puppet like the former Hashemite monarchy — would reward the US and Britain with guaranteed fuel and lucrative oil contracts. The new rulers will also have to concede Turkey’s demand for a cut of the royalties from the Kirkuk oilfields (the original reason why Britain prised Iraq out of the Ottoman empire) and repudiate Saddam’s $ 8 billion debt to Russia.

Thus, America’s friends would be rewarded and foes punished. Vladimir Putin’s nose will be put further out of joint when the US and Britain manipulate to push down oil prices by investing heavily to improve Iraq’s drilling and refining capacity. Increased production from an Iraq that is outside the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries will force panicky Saudi princes to cut prices in a desperate bid to hold market share. The industrialized (and, incidentally, developing) nations will benefit, Japan will be rejuvenated, and Russia, now wholly dependent on oil revenues, will be forced to its knees.

Hence the formidable mobilization in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Turkey, Israel, Diego Garcia, the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. Some 60,000 American troops, 400 aircraft, at least four battle groups of warships and a fleet of B-2 stealth bombers are poised for action. Saddam Hussein’s disobligingness is the only obstacle to the success of this grand strategy. He just will not hand over the evidence that would confirm his death warrant.

There is “zilch” evidence according to one of the inspectors. “We haven’t found an iota of concealed material yet,” he confessed. Baghdad has followed up its open-door policy, its 12,000-page report and list of more than 500 scientists by inviting Hans Blix for further discussions. Annan suggests an interim report before January 27.

He also thinks Iraq is cooperative. Bush clearly doesn’t. The difference between the two positions may not save Saddam. But, at least, it assures the rest of us that the UN is alive and well. The ballast it provides is all the more essential in a unipolar world. Any military action against its wishes would be the real crime against humanity.

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