Unilateral Power -- By Any Other Name

Ever since the U.N. Security Council adopted its resolution about Iraq on Nov. 8, American politicians and journalists have been hailing the unanimous vote as a huge victory for international cooperation instead of unilateral action.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was close to ecstatic. "For a brief, shining moment last Friday," he wrote, "the world didn't seem like such a crazy place." The United Nations had proven its worth by proving its value to Washington. Among the benefits: "The Bush team discovered that the best way to legitimize its overwhelming might, in a war of choice, was not by simply imposing it, but by channeling it through the U.N."

But if the United Nations, serving as a conduit of American power, is now worthwhile because it offers the best way for the United States to "legitimize its overwhelming might," how different is that from unilateralism?

Behind all the media euphemisms and diplomat-speak, a cold hard reality about Resolution 1441 is already history: The resolution was fashioned to provide important fig leaves for domestic politics and foreign governments. President Bush and Britain's Tony Blair needed U.N. cover for the war that they're so eager to launch.

To get the Good War-Making Seal of Approval from the United Nations, the Bush administration handed out major plums while flexing Uncle Sam's muscles. You wouldn't know key pertinent facts from the drooling coverage that has saturated American news outlets.

"Backroom deals with France and Russia regarding oil contracts in a postwar Iraq were a big part of the picture," Phyllis Bennis writes in The Nation. "And the impoverished nation of Mauritius emerged as the latest poster child for U.S. pressure at the U.N. The ambassador, Jagdish Koonjul, was recalled by his government for failing to support the original U.S. draft resolution on Iraq. Why? Because Mauritius receives significant U.S. aid, and the African Growth and Opportunity Act requires that a recipient of U.S. assistance 'does not engage in activities that undermine U.S. national security or foreign policy interests.'"

The Mauritius episode tracked with broader patterns. InterPress Service reported that nations on the Security Council "voted under heavy diplomatic and economic pressure from the United States." As recipients of aid from Washington, non-permanent members of the Council "were seemingly aware of the fact that in 1990 the United States almost overnight cut about $70 million in aid to Yemen immediately following its negative vote against a U.S.-sponsored Security Council resolution to militarily oust Iraq from Kuwait."

In the British magazine The New Statesman, author John Pilger has recalled some sordid details of that pre-Gulf-War object lesson in superpower payback. "Minutes after Yemen voted against the resolution to attack Iraq, a senior American diplomat told the Yemeni ambassador: 'That was the most expensive No vote you ever cast.' Within three days, a U.S. aid program of $70 million to one of the world's poorest countries was stopped. Yemen suddenly had problems with the World Bank and the IMF; and 800,000 Yemeni workers were expelled from Saudi Arabia."

Back then, Yemen was not the only impoverished country to feel the fury of an imperial democracy scorned. In Pilger's words: "When the United States sought another resolution to blockade Iraq, two new members of the Security Council were duly coerced. Ecuador was warned by the U.S. ambassador in Quito about the 'devastating economic consequences' of a No vote. Zimbabwe was threatened with new IMF conditions for its debt."

Fast forward a dozen years: During the autumn of 2002, the U.S. government has compounded the wallop of its prodigious carrots and sticks by pointedly reserving the right to do whatever it wants. And, clearly, it wants to go to war.

Two days after the Security Council resolution passed 15-0, White House chief of staff Andrew Card appeared on NBC and said: "The U.N. can meet and discuss, but we don't need their permission" before launching a military attack. Meanwhile, on CNN, the Secretary of State had the same message. "If he [Saddam Hussein] doesn't comply this time, we'll ask the U.N. to give authorization for all necessary means," Colin Powell declared, "and if the U.N. is not willing to do that, the United States, with like-minded nations, will go and disarm him forcefully."

Such proclamations by top U.S. officials blend in with the dominant media scenery. You're not supposed to notice the substantial ironies and breathtaking hypocrisies.

Norman Solomon writes a syndicated column on media and politics.

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