In a Washington Post story today, reporter Scott Wilson writes this:
Bill Clinton was criticized for standing by during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and waiting for years to use force in the Balkans. He finally did so in Kosovo without a U.N. Security Council resolution, a case that is being examined by European countries and the Obama administration as they decide how to proceed in Libya.
George W. Bush took that unilateral approach even further following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The Bush administration failed to secure a Security Council resolution before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and generally found international institutions more confining than useful in addressing America’s post-Sept. 11 problems.
Here’s the problem for Mr. Wilson: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Tenth Edition) defines unilateral as “done or undertaken by one person or party” (emphasis added). The reality is that the United States went to war against Iraq with the support of many nations: the United Kingdom, Italy, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, the Netherlands, Norway, El Salvador, and 17 other countries that committed troops to Iraq. In fact, the coalition that liberated Iraq ranks among the largest war coalitions ever. So the charge of a “unilateral approach” is transparently false.
As for the UN’s not sanctioning the war to liberate Iraq: it would have been better to have the support of the UN than not. But no responsible country can allow the UN to veto military action that serves the nation’s security interests. Bear in mind, too, that of all the wars fought since the creation of the UN — and the figure is in excess of 100 — only two have been officially sanctioned: Korea in 1950 and the first Gulf War in 1990. And the situation with Korea was an anomaly: the Soviets were boycotting the Security Council at the time; otherwise, the Soviets would have issued a veto. This means that only one war in history — the first Gulf War — has had the unqualified backing of the UN.
Failing to gain the support of the United Nations is not the same as unilateralism — unless you’re a Washington Post reporter.