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American Scholars Debate US Unilateralism, Role of UN - 2003-04-09

Scholars at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based research organization, Tuesday debated the question of American unilateralism, specifically the pre-emptive U.S. military action against Iraq taken without the endorsement of the U.N. Security Council.

James Steinberg, the director of foreign policy studies at Brookings, says the U.S. military action against Iraq may be justified because Iraq flagrantly defied Security Council demands for disarmament. But Mr. Steinberg, who was a foreign policy advisor to President Clinton, says there are risks for acting alone.

"While you can argue that the United States has kind of blown the whole international system open by acting unilaterally, the question is who was going to stand up and act on behalf of the Council's own resolutions?" he asks. "On both sides, there are some real risks that have to be repaired if we're going to think of alternatives to having the United States feel like it is the only actor that is capable of acting, and therefore will act regardless of what others think."

Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says she wants to see just how large a role will the United Nations play in rebuilding Iraq. She says some policymakers inside the Bush administration are skeptical about the United Nations.

"[They say] You see this was all a waste of time [the Security Council debate]," she said. "The U.N. should just be a giant NGO (non-governmental organization) that delivers food and water and blankets. And everything else that is serious should just be done by the U.S., etc."

James Steinberg says both the Bush administration and the United Nations mishandled the pre-Iraq war debate.

"No one is covered with a lot of glory in this entire episode," he said. "There is no question about the risks of the unilateral action that the Bush administration has taken. On the other hand, the U.N. dealings with the disarmament of Iraq over the last 12 years has also not been an endorsement about the effectiveness of the Security Council."