Paul deLespinasse: Could Bishop Tutu have headed off the Iraq War?

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  • Desmond Tutu
    Desmond Tutu
    South African churchman, politician, archbishop, Nobel Prize winner (1931–2021)
  • Kofi Annan
    Kofi Annan
    7th Secretary-General of the United Nations (1938-2018)

The recent death of Bishop Desmond Tutu reminded me of some 2003 events. Shortly before the U.S. invaded Iraq, I had written an article explaining how UN Secretary General Kofi Annan could prevent us from attacking. Some readers tried to get Bishop Tutu to convey this idea to Annan.

The United States had asked Annan to withdraw the UN's weapons inspectors from Iraq so they would not be harmed when our forces attacked. I suggested that Annan refuse to withdraw them unless the UN Security Council ordered him to do it, an order which would have been vetoed by Russia, China, or perhaps even France.

President Bush stands March 17, 2003, in the White House Cross Hall after addressing the nation on his ultimatum to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Bush gave Saddam Hussein a 48-hour deadline to flee Iraq or face a U.S.-led invasion. J. Scott Applewhite | Associated Press
President Bush stands March 17, 2003, in the White House Cross Hall after addressing the nation on his ultimatum to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Bush gave Saddam Hussein a 48-hour deadline to flee Iraq or face a U.S.-led invasion. J. Scott Applewhite | Associated Press

Imperiling the UN inspectors would have been a public relations nightmare for President George W. Bush, hopefully forcing him to forget about invading.

The decision would have increased the weapons inspectors' clout over Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. As long as inspectors remained, they would protect Iraq from an American attack, but if not allowed to do their work, they would leave.

The decision would have greatly enhanced the Secretary General's power. Until then, the veto power enjoyed by the five permanent members of the Security Council (U.S., Great Britain, France, Russia, and China) had been a limit on the power of the United Nations.

Paul deLespinasse
Paul deLespinasse

By assuming the power to act on behalf of the human race unless the Security Council tells him he cannot, the Secretary General would make the veto work to increase his own power, and thus the power of the United Nations.

I didn't come up with this idea for turning the UN's leader into a "Machiavelli for peace" on the spur of the moment, having invited one of my outstanding students at Adrian College to explore this possibility in a major paper back in the 1960s. But 2003 seemed like a great time to put the idea into practice!

My article about how the Secretary General could head off the war was rejected by the newspapers to which I sent it. But it came out on March 11 — a week before the invasion — in a major on-line publication, generating considerable excitement.

Over 400 emails poured in from readers asking for Kofi Annan's email address so they could send him my idea. Of course if I had that address, I would have sent it to him myself. (The U.S. Postal Service would have been too slow.)

I had already checked with Stan Caine, then president of Adrian College, who had been Annan's undergraduate classmate at Macalaster College. Unfortunately, they had lost touch and Stan did not have the Secretary General's email address.

Even if I had written to Annan, he probably wouldn't have seen my idea. Famous people have staff protecting them from inundation by unsolicited communications.

I had turned my proposal into an article , hoping someone influential enough to have Mr. Annan's ear might read it and take it to him in person. Alas, it was not to be.

But I later found out that we had come close. Some Methodist ministers in the Seattle area planned to contact Bishop Tutu, who was coming to the U.S. soon, and ask him to bring my proposal to Kofi Annan. The famous bishop could easily have gotten an audience with Annan.

Unfortunately, Tutu changed his plans and didn't come to the U.S.

The Secretary General couldn't consider an idea that didn't reach him. And so the Iraq war began, killing hundreds of thousands Iraqis, and costing the U.S. an estimated $1.9 trillion, 4,431 deaths, and nearly 32,000 wounded in action.

Bishop Tutu couldn't have known the possible consequences of his decision — for whatever reasons — not to visit the U.S. But this episode illustrates how hard it is to influence world-scale events and how close some of us may have come to doing exactly that.

— Paul F. deLespinasse is professor emeritus of political science and computer science at Adrian College. He can be reached at pdeles@proaxis.com.

This article originally appeared on The Holland Sentinel: Paul deLespinasse: Could Bishop Tutu have headed off the Iraq War?

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