President Bush stands ready to attack Iraq even without the approval of the United Nations Security Council. So far, three permanent Council members Russia, China, and France threaten to veto the US request for the UN to authorize the use of force in eliminating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Britain, the fifth veto-wielding power, has already decided to enlist in a possible US campaign.
But if it comes to that, Mr. Bush will first need a stamp of moral legitimacy from other nations if he is to avoid setting a potentially dangerous precedent for any nation to launch a preemptive war.
Congress will likely give Mr. Bush a go-ahead in coming days to use force against Iraq. After the Sept. 11 attacks, few American politicians want to oppose a president who seeks to eliminate a terrorist-sponsoring regime with a track record of using weapons of mass destruction. That political position by most members of Congress is particularly true just before an election.
But approval from Congress is not enough for many Americans and others around the world who believe the definition of a "just war" would not allow American aggression against a sovereign nation such as Iraq that may pose only a remote danger, and especially when alternatives to such a war are possible.
Debate in the Senate, before it votes on a war resolution, will likely focus on whether the United States should wait for the UN to give its approval first. While the Bush administration certainly has practical reasons to gain the approval of other countries such as assistance in conducting the war or in running a post-war Iraq that doesn't necessarily provide a moral legitimacy. While the US could "go it alone," that's a costly and messy venture, and morally suspect.
Many of the 190 countries in the UN are not democracies, and many have less than commendable records on human rights. The UN, most of the time, serves to balance the interests of nations. Its decisions don't always reflect moral legitimacy for action.
Yet many nations attach far more importance to the UN than do Americans. They see it as a necessary check on the immense power of the sole superpower. The UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, reflected that view when he spoke before Bush in the UN General Assembly last month. He subtly warned the US president that there is no alternative to the UN: "When states decide to use force to deal with broader threats to international peace and security, there is no substitute for the unique legitimacy provided by the United Nations."
Bush, however, cleverly pointed out that Saddam Hussein has undercut the very multilateral legitimacy that Mr. Annan claims for the UN by defying 16 Security Council resolutions over a decade. And the president hints at a UN substitute in what he calls a "coalition of the willing," or those nations that see a threat to international peace and will join the US in war. Bush warned that the UN could become as irrelevant as did the League of Nations in the 1930s if it doesn't deal with threats to international order.
Bush is probably not acting out of pure self-defense in threatening Iraq. Rather he may honestly believe in a new kind of liberal internationalism that would build on what Woodrow Wilson proposed after World War I. If so, he'll have to find the right kind of moral allies that he now seems unable to find at the UN.
President Clinton relied more on NATO than the UN in rallying support for US-led intervention in Yugoslavia during the 1990s. That's mainly because NATO countries are principled democracies.
Multilateral approval for war doesn't always mean only UN approval. But merely gathering up a group of nations to approve a war doesn't make the war just. Rather, the most moral nations and those tend to be full and open democracies carry the most moral legitimacy.
For all its faults, the UN may still be the best legitimatizing authority to apply impartial justice around the world through its approval of war. The US has a long way to go to show it can be impartial in administering global justice. While it is largely a principled nation, its immense powers make other nations fear domination.
The US does have the unity, means, and purpose that the UN lacks to act on global dangers. But can it ever find moral allies outside the UN? That's a difficult task for Bush, if he pursues a path to war.