The Sept. 12 speech by US President George W. Bush to the United Nations left the futures of two regimes in doubt.
One of them, of course, is that of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The other is the UN itself.
Bush made the right move in calling on the UN Security Council to enforce resolutions Hussein has flouted for a decade.
And he made the right move in assuring the council that if it doesn't act, the US might do so anyway.
Bush properly has appealed to the international body that exists to deal with menaces such as the Iraqi president. His overture grows out of concern for the security of the US and its interests abroad, including the safety of allies within missile range of Baghdad.
Will that concern inspire the UN to act? Maybe not.
Two permanent members of the UN Security Council, France and Russia, resist military action against Iraq.
To France, Iraq is more of an investment opportunity than a security threat. To Russia, it's a longstanding ally and major debtor.
If only one of them hews to its economic interests and exercises its prerogative as a council member, the UN won't deploy anything other than words against Hussein.
That would be no tragedy. It would be standard procedure.
So what happens if the US and?probably?others strike against Hussein without the Security Council's blessing?
First there will be a messy power struggle in Iraq, over which the UN will be called upon to keep peace.
Then there will be messy questions about UN authority.
The humbling nature of those questions would be healthy for the UN and for international governance in general.
No one in the US had the chance to vote for or against the French and Russian officials keen to protect alliances and business interests in Iraq. No one in France or Russia had the chance to vote for US representatives motivated by perceptions of imminent peril.
Authority of multinational governments has inherent limits, renewed attention to which, however it comes about, will be good for the governed.
(Online Sept. 13, 2002; author's e-mail: [email protected])