Adolf Hitler taught the world a terrible lesson, but when he was at last put away, in 1945, it was widely believed that the lesson had been learned. Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, the most innovative part of that document, sets forth a formula for dealing with aggression and with aggressive, ruthless dictators. Briefly, the Security Council determines the existence of an act of aggression. It then prescribes nonforceful measures—cutting off economic relations and means of communication, the severance of diplomatic relations, and other measures that constitute sanctions. If sanctions fail, the Council orders enforcement action with air, sea, and land forces provided by the member states, under a command designated by the Council.
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 provided a textbook opportunity for trying out this plan of action. With the end of the cold war, the Security Council was united as never before. Saddam Hussein’s acts, as outrageous as they were brutal, threatened the security of a strategically sensitive region and the source of much of the world’s oil. The Council’s actions, in strong contrast to its failure to act ten years earlier when Saddam had invaded Iran, were exemplary and prompt. It unanimously denounced the aggression; it imposed sanctions; and it gave clear indications that nothing short of withdrawal from Kuwait would do. Since four of the Council’s five permanent members—Britain, France, Russia, and the United States—had continued to support Iraq throughout the 1980s in spite of its aggression against Iran, the appalling internal atrocities of Saddam’s regime, and his widespread use of chemical weapons both externally and internally, this action was a striking volte-face.
Saddam Hussein refused to withdraw, and early in 1991 Operation Desert Storm, a powerful air assault followed by an equally ambitious ground operation, achieved the liberation of Kuwait and the humiliating defeat of Iraq’s army, although not the destruction of its best units, the Republican Guards. The Desert Storm forces did not pursue the enemy to Baghdad or try to oust the dictator.
Instead, the Security Council propounded, in its Resolution 687, the “mother of all resolutions,” the conditions for a cease-fire, imposing harsh terms on Iraq as a condition for lifting the sanctions. These included the payment of debts and compensation, the return of prisoners, and, most important, the elimination, under international inspection, of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, chemical, and biological—as well as the missiles that could carry such weapons. The Council set up a special commission (UNSCOM) to carry out the inspections that would show that Iraq neither harbored such weapons nor was building them. Both the members of the Security Council and Saddam Hussein apparently believed that this process would take just a few months—the Security Council members because they had no idea of how important such weapons were to Saddam Hussein, and Saddam because he was confident that he could hoodwink the UN…
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