Saddam Hussein's reign of terror is about to end. He will go quickly, but not alone: in a parting irony he will take the United Nations down with him.
Well, not the whole United Nations. The ‘good works' part will survive, the low-risk peace-keeping bureaucracies will remain, the looming chatterbox on the Hudson will continue to bleat. What will die in Iraq is the fantasy of the United Nations as the foundation of a new world order.
As we sift the debris of the war to liberate Iraq, it will be important to preserve, the better to understand, the intellectual wreckage of the liberal conceit of safety through international law administered by international institutions.
As free Iraqis document the quarter-century nightmare of Saddam's rule, as we hear from the survivors able to speak from their own soil for the first time, let us not forget who was for this war and who was not, who held that the moral authority of the international community was enshrined in a plea for more time for inspectors, and who marched against ‘regime change'. In the spirit of postwar reconciliation that diplomats are always eager to engender, we must not reconcile the timid, blighted notion that world order requires us to recoil before rogue states that terrorise their own citizens and menace ours.
A few days ago Shirley Williams argued on television against a coalition of the willing using force to liberate Iraq. Decent, thoughtful and high-minded — like many of the millions who have marched against military action — she must surely have been moved into opposition by an argument so convincing that it overpowered the obvious moral case for removing Saddam's regime.
No, for Baroness Williams (and many others), the thumb on the scale of judgment about this war is the idea that only the UN Security Council can legitimise the use of force. It matters not if troops are used only to enforce the UN's own demands. A willing coalition of liberal democracies isn't good enough. If any institution or coalition other than the UN Security Council uses force, even as a last resort, ‘anarchy', rather than international law, would prevail, destroying any hope for world order.
This is a dangerously wrong idea, an idea that leads inexorably to handing great moral — and even existential politico-military decisions — to the likes of Syria, Cameroon, Angola, Russia, China and France.
When challenged with the argument that if a policy is right with the approbation of the Security Council, how can it be wrong just because communist China or Russia or France or a gaggle of minor dictatorships withhold their assent, she fell back on the primacy of ‘order' versus ‘anarchy'.
But is this right? Is the United Nations Security Council the institution most capable of ensuring order and saving us from anarchy? History would suggest not. The United Nations arose from the ashes of a war that the League of Nations was unable to avert. The League was simply not up to confronting Italy in Abyssinia, much less — had it survived that debacle — to taking on Nazi Germany.
In the heady aftermath of the Allied victory in the second world war, the hope that security could be made collective was reposed in the United Nations Security Council — with abject results. During the Cold War the Security Council was hopelessly paralysed. The Soviet empire was wrestled to the ground, and Eastern Europe liberated, not by the United Nations but by the mother of all coalitions, Nato. Apart from minor skirmishes and sporadic peace-keeping missions, the only case of the Security Council acting in a serious matter affecting world order during the Cold War was its use of force to halt the North's invasion of South Korea — and that was only possible because the Soviets had boycotted the Security Council and were not in the chamber to cast their veto. It was a mistake they did not make again. With war looming, the UN withdrew from the Middle East, leaving Israel to defend itself in 1967 and again in 1973.
Facing Milosevic's multiple aggressions, the UN could not stop the Balkan wars or even protect its victims. Remember Sarajevo? Remember Srebrenica? It took a coalition of the willing to save Bosnia from extinction. And when the war was over, peace was made in Dayton, Ohio, not in the United Nations. The rescue of Muslims in Kosovo was not a UN action: their cause never gained Security Council approval. The United Kingdom, not the United Nations, saved the Falklands.
This new century now challenges the hopes for a new world order in new ways. We will not defeat or even contain fanatical terror unless we can carry the war to the territories from which it is launched. This will sometimes require that we use force against states that harbour terrorists, as we did in destroying the Taleban regime in Afghanistan.
The most dangerous of these states are those that also possess weapons of mass destruction, the chemical, biological and nuclear weapons that can kill not hundreds or thousands but hundreds of thousands. Iraq is one such state, but there are others. Whatever hope there is that they can be persuaded to withdraw support or sanctuary from terrorists rests on the certainty and effectiveness with which they are confronted. The chronic failure of the Security Council to enforce its own resolutions — 17 of them with respect to Iraq, the most recent, 1441, a resolution of last resort — is unmistakable: it is simply not up to the task.
We are left with coalitions of the willing. Far from disparaging them as a threat to a new world order, we should recognise that they are, by default, the best hope for that order, and the true alternative to the anarchy of the abject failure of the United Nations.