BY taking sides in the Gulf conflict, the United Nations has forfeited its usual neutral role as a negotiator of disputes. ``The UN can't be ... an authorizer of war and at the same time be a mediator,'' saysRichard Gardner, professor of international law at Columbia University.
Yet UN experts agree that the UN is sure to play a key role in any final settlement by providing peacekeeping forces to monitor a cease-fire and troop withdrawal. Contingency planning for that has been under way here for several months. The UN is likely to be involved in the postwar reconstruction of Kuwait and future arms-control efforts in the region.
Also, the world body may yet play an important diplomatic role in reaching cease-fire terms through the good offices of UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar.
Although Iraqi president Saddam Hussein now berates the UN as a ``US puppet,'' in the 1980s he appealed repeatedly to the Security Council to negotiate a cease-fire to the Iran-Iraq war. It is likely he would still rather turn to the UN than the US in any effort to end the Gulf conflict.
Though founded to prevent war, the UN in this case had no opportunity to stop Iraq's swift takeover of Kuwait. By siding with Kuwait, the UN acted on a second key mission: to oppose aggression. UN experts say the organization's failure to condemn Iraq's move into Iran in 1980 on the same grounds was shortsighted and may have led Mr. Hussein to think he could get away with it again.
Right up to the Jan. 15 deadline the UN set for Iraq to withdraw unconditionally from Kuwait, the world body's New York headquarters was the scene of an intensive flurry of diplomatic efforts.
But now the mood at the UN is comparatively somber, although a few nations - Algeria, the Soviet Union, and India - are still trying to float individual proposals. The few delegates who are here hover close to TV sets. Mr. P'erez de Cu'ellar, who made two trips to the Gulf to try to persuade Iraq to withdraw, has said it is not the time for diplomacy. ``I have done my best,'' he says.
Still, his last minute appeal to Hussein, coupled with a personal promise to make every effort to see that the Arab-Israeli conflict is addressed comprehensively, is one UN initiative still on the table. ``That appeal remains a basis for possible action,'' says Francois Giuliani, spokesman for P'erez de Cu'ellar.
Though bound by the terms of 12 UN Security Council resolutions, the UN Secretary-General has some leeway under the charter to be what Charles William Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy magazine, describes as an independent voice for the international community as well as the ``obedient servant'' of the UN majority.
Experts concede that the dash and vigor with which that second hat is worn varies enormously between one secretary-general and another. John Ruggie, director of the University of California's Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, says that P'erez de Cu'ellar properly stayed within the limits of his authority, yet reached beyond the scope of Council resolutions, in his pledge to try to convene a conference.
Yet John Lawrence Hargrove, executive director of the American Society of International Law, argues that neither the UN leader nor the Council can really negotiate in the Gulf case. To do so, he says, would violate a fundamental principle of the existing international system by which unlawful force may not be used to get concessions in return for ending force.
Such limits, say a number of UN experts, may make it more likely that the next olive branch will be extended by an Arab nation - Jordan's King Hussein has already called for a cease-fire - or by a respected individual mediator such as former US president Jimmy Carter or a Nobel Prize winner.
The Gulf war is not a UN war in the same sense that it was in UN efforts to stop North Korea's advances southward in 1950. Though the US also supplied the majority of troops in that fight and a US commander was at the helm, all forces were under UN command. In the Gulf situation, they are not. The US, which is in charge of the multinational coalition but working outside of the UN, did not want to yield any of its authority on the battlefront. In the Gulf crisis, the Security Council did not even specifically authorize use of force, a move that probably would have drawn a veto from China.
Some UN experts argue that the US, which so carefully sought the UN umbrella of authorization in other respects, forfeited several key advantages by keeping the military reins. The University of California's Mr. Ruggie says the US decision to keep military control was a ``grave miscalculation'' which greatly diminishes the UN's overall role in resolving the crisis.
Disadvantages in his view are both political and economic. The UN would have had to levy dues to support troops under its command. ``We wouldn't have had the spectacle of American officials flying around the world with hat in hand,'' Ruggie says. Also, a UN force might have drawn more participants, including the Soviet Union, and provided more durable cement for holding the coalition together. ``It would have made it virtually impossible to turn the conflict into an Arab vs. the West affair,'' Ruggie says.
Americans are ``justifiably'' upset that US troops are doing most of the fighting and will probably take most of the casualties in the Gulf, notes Columbia's Professor Gardner. Yet to change that equation, he says, the US must be willing to share decision-making and to put forces under a UN command. It is an issue future US presidents must examine very carefully, he says. ``Americans want it both ways - a minority share of the responsibility but the whole say in running the operation.''
Some UN experts, including Alfred Rubin, a professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, say that a UN command of allied forces in the Gulf situation might well have meant no military operation at all since enthusiasm was far from universal. ``I think the US managed the politics of the UN extraordinarily well and got all the authority it could have ... ''
When the UN sends multinational peacekeeping forces to the Gulf, it should also give very careful consideration to limiting arms in the region, says Edward Luck, president of the United Nations Association of the USA, Inc.
The two issues have been treated separately by the UN but are closely related. When Iraq, for instance, had UN peacekeeping forces on its border with Iran, Mr. Luck notes that Baghdad continued to acquire arms on a massive scale and was free to ``make mischief'' on its other borders with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Needed, he says, are mechanisms with ``real teeth'' that provide for ``very deep and intrusive'' cuts in the level of arms in the region.
``It's not enough to throw in some peacekeeping forces along the border - we've got to prevent arms from being acquired for a new round of conflicts.'' Luck says.