LIKE his predecessor, President Clinton has already found casual references to the United Nations to be handy at times.
Asked about recent United States actions in Iraq, Mr. Clinton has taken up his predecessor's mantra: We must "insure compliance with UN Security Council resolutions." That phrase usually completes a sentence that begins with something like, "We carried out these bombing runs today in order to...," or "We feel it is necessary to strictly maintain the sanctions because...." Some, however, are beginning to notice that the White House waves the UN flag only when it is perceived to serve US policy to do so. W hen it does not, as in the case of Israel's deportation of Palestinians from the occupied territories, one hears very little about the sanctity of Security Council resolutions.
The problem with this sort of narrow, partisan use of the UN is that it diminishes the authority of the institution itself; that authority is fragile, as it is. In Cambodia, UN peacekeepers are kidnapped, and the agreement under which their presence is maintained is slipping away. In Angola the secretary-general's special representative is accused of partisanship by the government and the opposition, and UN vehicles are targeted for attacks.
In former Yugoslavia, a Bosnian official is summarily executed while under protection in a UN convoy. In Somalia, the secretary-general himself is attacked with rocks and bottles at the UN headquarters in Mogadishu during a recent "peacekeeping" mission.
The US is the only remaining superpower, and thus if he wishes, Clinton will probably be able to hammer through the Security Council resolutions that cloak essentially American operations in the UN flag. To do so, however, is to risk making the UN appear to be a western - or worse, an American - controlled organization at a time when numerous national and regional conflicts desperately require the presence, mediation, and judicious use of force by an organization that all sides accept as impartial.
Now comes the new US Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, who publicly equates the overthrow of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein with Iraq's "compliance with the UN resolutions." There are already doubts in the international community about the legality of the no-fly zone that the US and its allies have established over both north and south Iraq. But at least that dictum can be said to be related in some way to the enforcement of UN Security Council Resolution 6158, which enjoined the government of Iraq to cease i ts attacks upon its Shiite population in the south and the Kurds in the north. Not surprizingly, Mr. Aspin did indicate just which Security Council resolution mandates that "Saddam Hussein must go."
IT may indeed be US policy to replace the Iraqi leader, to determine for the people of that country who their president will or will not be. That is the habit, if not the prerogative, of a superpower. But even President Bush did not contend that Saddam's ouster was mandated by his reading of one or another of the Gulf war UN resolutions.
The administration would do well to pause before squandering the moral authority of the UN by such manifestly narrow constructions. A UN Security Council that is widely seen as an extension of US foreign policy, rather than the arbiter and enforcer of the principles of the UN Charter, may later be unable to command consensus and authority when, to borrow a phrase from Clinton's inaugural address, "the conscience of the world community" is defied.
The alternative to UN intervention, at a time when regional diplomacy (i.e., intervention by regional organizations) is failing in crisis after crisis, is for the US to butt into one family fight after another, in small conflicts that may have religious or ethnic or historical overtones that US intervention will only inflame. It is a thankless, dangerous, and usually unproductive task; any local police officer will tell you that his least favorite job is stepping into domestic quarrels.
Using up the United Nations may be convenient for the new administration, but in the end the White House will regret doing it.