The United Nations War on Iraq in 1991

A United Nations War?

Before 2nd August 1990 the United Nations was a delusory ideal.  What is it going to be now?

Erskine Childers the Third (son of the late President, grandson of the British military writer and Irish gun-runner and anti-Treatyite) served for over twenty years in the United Nations apparatus. He saw from the inside how the United States has manipulated the situation ever since August 2nd for the purpose of contriving the War which was finally launched on January 16th, and he described it in an article, published in the Irish Times on February 9th. He writes that, though “the UN is dedicated to ‘saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ … “, in the present instance of a peaceful resolution of the Kuwait issue being actively sought, “it was deliberately prevented. ” He continued:

“Within 48 hours of Iraqi forces beginning to cross into Kuwait, King Hussein of Jordan had secured Iraq’s agreement to halt, and readiness to withdraw, if its long disdained (and by no means illegitimate) complaints against Kuwait were at last brought to negotiation and arbitration through an emergency Arab summit.

“That was to take place at Jeddah two days later. Iraq made only one condition: that there be no further condemnatory statements pending the Jeddah meeting … This initiative was promptly nullified by condemnation from Washington and Cairo. By miraculous coincidence a U.S. $10.3 billion Egyptian debt was forgiven. Baghdad now assumed war was being prepared.”

Childers then proceeds to argue that, even leaving that aspect of the matter aside, the procedures followed, or not followed, invalidate the war in the Gulf from being a United Nations war. He lists the provisions of Articles 42, 44, 45, 46. And he comments:

“Not one element of these provisions has been observed Without any UN warrant whatsoever, yet claiming to be ‘acting under the UN’, Operation Desert Storm is using the greatest high-explosive force ever assembled against any country-already five times the force of the Hiroshima atomic bomb”

– and that was in the first fortnight.

He sees the refusal of linkage of the Kuwait resolution with earlier, unimplemented, Security Council resolutions as reinforcing “suspicion that the US and its key Western allies had intended war all along”.

Childers’ view of the politics of the matter is accurate.

It has been evident since the first week in August that American and Britain, probably having lured Saddam Hussein into Kuwait by diplomacy, were not going to let him withdraw without a war.

Childers takes the reason to be oil. I could never see that oil was more than an excuse, or a means. In a pamphlet published within a fortnight of the occupation of Kuwait, I suggested that American self-sufficiency in oil meant that, if it threw the Gulf into turmoil, it would have its more efficient economic rivals, Japan and Germany, by the short and curlies. That has been amply borne out. At first America caused the price of oil to go up and down like a yo-yo. And then, having demonstrated its power, it ensured a low stable price for oil when the war began. The Germans and Japanese, who would probably be opposing the War if they were economically independent, are so vulnerable to oil blackmail that they have had to declare their support for the War and even to pay for much of it.

And the reason for the War is certainly not admiration for poor, plucky little Kuwait. I cannot imagine any European or American who knows the “Kuwaiti nation” having any other feeling for it than contempt. There has been much talk of “evil” since last August. I don’t pretend to know what evil is. But I would say that one of the most repulsive forms of humanity in being was to be found in the monstrous paradise of Kuwait.

The reason for the War is to demonstrate United States power to every part of the world, now that America has won the conflict for world hegemony called the Cold War. And Britain joined in so enthusiastically because it found it could no longer play its traditional “balance of power” game against Europe, and was having severe existential problems as a consequence: and because, without a major diversion from domestic affairs, the Tories seemed certain to lose the next election.

The crisis is about the New World Order, and secondarily, it is about messing up European development. But the affair has been dragged on for so long, and the war military approach of trading off Iraqi civilians against American soldiers has delayed the decisive battle for so long, that the ruling circle in Russia seems to have been jolted back into a sense of reality about the way of the world-or, what amounts to the same thing, a ruling circle has been reconstituted an the process of disintegration is being stopped

If Bush had joined battle last August, and had accepted a degree of casualties appropriate to the business of establishing mastery of the world, he would probably have found the world at his feet, at least for a while. Nine months later the result may be very different.

Erskine Childers is, however, entirely mistaken when he says this is not a United Nations War because certain procedures were not observed. What’s the point in citing Articles, if there is no competent authority to cite them to? The Security Council in the UN Charter, like Parliament in the English Constitution, is sovereign. It cannot be in breach of itself. Any argument that it is in breach of the Charter is a mere debating point, because there is not within the structure of the United Nations anybody authorised to judge the actions of the Security Council.

It was not by oversight that America and Russia made the Security Council supreme. The Charter was drafted in America, and no American politician could fail to see what was not being provided for in the UN Charter, because it is what is provided for in the US Constitution – and in the Irish Constitution, for that matter. It would have been a simple matter to give the International Court the authority to decide, on appeal from a member of the General Assembly, whether the Security Council was acting in breach of the Charter. But the UN was deliberately constructed in such a way that there is no appeal from the Security Council. Therefore, whatever is authorised by the Security Council is authorised by the United Nations. And there could have been no real doubt three months ago that the Security Council was giving carte blanche to the United States ( or to “Kuwait and its allies”) to make war as it pleased against Iraq. The resolution was drafted in a way that gave infinite scope to expansion by interpretation. If restriction had been intended, the wording would have been different.

One might make the debating point that the Resolution authorising war is being interpreted perversely. But there is no body empowered to make a ruling to that effect. And all concerned knew very well what the functional rules of the United Nations are.

The only real surprise in the affair is that France allowed the thing to be done like this. Gaullism ended last August. That is to say, France ceased to exist as an independent force in world affairs last August. Does that mean that the only resource for its self-respect is to ensure rapid political development of the EC?

Brendan Clifford Irish Political Review March 1991


This article is one of six that appeared in Irish Political Review in 1991, at the time of the Gulf War.  It was also republished in July 2014, in Issue 15-16 of Problems magazine.

Irish Political Review is a magazine which has been in existence in 1986. It was a follow-on from the Irish Communist.

You can find more at the Problems page on the Labour Affairs website.[1]  A PDF of the whole magazine is available there.