George W. Bush: Will the UN become irrelevant?

By Chris McCarthy

To assume this regime’s good faith is to bet the lives of millions and the peace of the world in a reckless gamble, and this is a risk we must not take.

President George W. Bush, 12 September 2002

By the autumn of 2002 the drumbeat to war with Iraq was nearing its crescendo; military preparations were well under way, ultimatums had been issued, and sabres rattled with meaningful intent. Faint hopes remained that a diplomatic solution could be found but the momentum towards military action, spearheaded by America, was gathering a seemingly unstoppable pace.

After convening a meeting of the national security team at Camp David in September 2002, President George W. Bush agreed to seek a further UN resolution calling for Saddam Hussein to readmit weapons inspectors. The president’s patience with Saddam’s intransigence was being stretched wafer-thin but he was persuaded that international support was important to the effective execution of any military plan.

The outcome of the vote, however, would not be the final arbiter on the decision to go to war. Bush’s position was clear: if Saddam did not come clean about his weapons, there would be war, irrespective of any further UN resolution. “I don’t want to go to war,” Bush told British Prime Minister Tony Blair at dinner that evening, “but I will do it.” The stage was set and the stakes were high, not only for those directly affected or involved with any military action, but for the credibility of the UN. President Bush was not going to New York to plead his case but to lay down a challenge:

The United Nations was born in the hope that survived a world war, the hope of a world moving toward justice, escaping old patterns of conflict and fear…we’ve dedicated ourselves to standards of human dignity shared by all and to a system of security defended by all. Today, these standards and this security are challenged.

After reminding his audience of the UN’s founding tenant, that the world “must never again be destroyed by the will and wickedness of any man”, Bush proceeds to build the case against Saddam, expounding first on the threat he faces to his own people. Employing emotive language to reinforce his argument, Bush stresses the human cost to Iraqis of continued delay:

Wives are tortured in front of their husbands; children in the presence of their parents; and all of these horrors concealed from the world by the apparatus of a totalitarian state. By refusing to comply with his own agreements, he bears full guilt for the hunger and misery of innocent Iraqi citizens.

Saddam was not only a credible threat to his own people, expanded Bush, but to the stability of the broader region and the security of Western nations: Saddam was a “grave and gathering danger” and to suggest otherwise was to “hope against the evidence.” The evidence, Bush argued, could be traced back as far as 1991 when Iraq broke UN resolutions promising to return all Kuwaiti prisoners after the first Gulf War. In flagrant disregard of the authority of the UN, a litany of broken pledges followed, and stretched  until the present day, over Iraq’s chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs:

The conduct of the Iraqi regime is a threat to the authority of the United Nations and a threat to peace…Are Security Council resolutions to be honored and enforced or cast aside without consequence? Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding or will it be irrelevant?

The speech was a direct, stark, and forceful challenge. It was also an honest admission of US intentions: “Delegates to the General Assembly, we have been more than patient.” By coming to the UN President Bush was demonstrating his respect and deference to the institution but as Commander-In-Chief responsible for the security of U.S. citizens he could no longer tolerate the continued threat of Saddam Hussein. The resolution was passed by a unanimous vote in November; Saddam submitted his report on 7 December; Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched on 20 March 2003.

We must choose between a world of fear and a world of progress. We cannot stand by and do nothing while dangers gather. We must stand up for our security and for the permanent rights and the hopes of mankind.


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