Media Guide: How To View The United Nations

by Norman Solomon

Dissident Voice

October 4, 2002



News coverage of the United Nations gets confusing sometimes. Is the U.N. a vital institution or a dysfunctional relic? Are its Security Council resolutions profoundly important for international relations -- or beside the point because global leadership must now come from the world's only superpower?


These days, we keep hearing that the United States will need to launch a full-scale attack on Iraq because Saddam Hussein has violated U.N. Security Council resolutions -- at the same time that we're told the U.S. government must reserve the right to take military action unilaterally if the Security Council fails to make appropriate decisions about Iraq.


To clarify the situation, here are three basic guidelines for understanding how to think in sync with America's leading politicians and pundits:


*  The U.N. resolutions approved by the five permanent members of the Security Council are hugely important, and worthy of enforcement with massive military force, if the White House says so. Otherwise, the resolutions have little or no significance, and they certainly can't be allowed to interfere with the flow of American economic, military and diplomatic support to any of Washington's allies.


Today, several countries are continuing to ignore large numbers of resolutions approved by the U.N. Security Council since the early 1990s. Morocco remains in violation of more than a dozen such resolutions. So does Israel. And Turkey continues to violate quite a few. But top officials in Rabat, Jerusalem and Ankara aren't expecting ultimatums from Washington anytime soon.


*  Some U.N. resolutions are sacred. Others are superfluous.


To cut through the media blather about Security Council resolutions that have been approved in past years, just keep this in mind: In the world according to American news media, the president of the United States has Midas-like powers in relation to those U.N. resolutions. When he confers his holy touch upon one, it turns into a golden rule that must be enforced. When he chooses not to bless other U.N. resolutions, they have no value.


*  The United Nations can be extremely "relevant" or "irrelevant," depending on the circumstances.


When the U.N. serves as a useful instrument of U.S. foreign policy, it is a vital world body taking responsibility for the future and reaffirming its transcendent institutional vision. When the U.N. balks at serving as a useful instrument of U.S. foreign policy, its irrelevance is so obvious that it risks collapsing into the dustbin of history while the USA proceeds to stride the globe like the superpower colossus that it truly is.


"There's a lot of lofty rhetoric here in Washington about the U.N.," says Erik Leaver of the Institute for Policy Studies. Pretty words now function as window-dressing for imminent war-making. While the president claims the right to violently enforce U.N. Security Council resolutions, Leaver adds, "there are almost 100 current Security Council resolutions that are being ignored, in addition to the 12 or so resolutions that Iraq is ignoring. What the U.S. is saying here is that it has the right to determine which Security Council resolutions are relevant and which are not."


Leaver, a researcher with the Foreign Policy In Focus project (, is outside the usual media box when he brings up a key question: "If the U.S. takes military action using the cover of the United Nations, what is to prevent other countries from launching their own military attacks in the name of enforcement of U.N. resolutions -- against Turkey in Cyprus, or Morocco in Western Sahara, or Israel in Palestine? This is precisely the reason why the doctrine of pre-emptive force is a dangerous policy for the United States to pursue."


When Leaver maintains that "we can't uphold the U.N. at one moment and then discard it the next," he's up against powerful media spin that hails such hypocrisy as a mark of great American leadership on the world stage.


During an Oct. 2 news conference, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer didn't miss a beat when he tried to explain how the United States could justify blocking implementation of the most recent Security Council resolution about U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq. Fleischer said that the U.S. government's task could be accomplished with "logic" and "diplomacy."


From the vantage point of Washington's reigning politicians and most of the journalists who cover them, it's quite proper to treat the United Nations as a tool for U.S. diplomacy -- war by another means, useful till it's time for the bloody real thing.


Norman Solomon's latest book is The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media. His syndicated column focuses on media and politics. Email: