War and the quest for serenity

Posted: Mar 18, 2003 12:00 AM

"As I sat in my place, listening to the speeches, a very strong sense of calm came over me, after the intense passions and excitements of the last few days. I felt a serenity of mind and was conscious of a kind of uplifted detachment from human and personal affairs."
-- Winston S. Churchill, The Gathering Storm [buy book]

When the House of Commons met on Sept. 4, 1939, years of indecision and ambivalence about the issues of war and peace were behind at last. Great Britain was at war with Germany. Where, on the eve of battle, might "serenity of mind" be sought and found? In knowledge, in certainty. Rather than "Which way do we go?" it was, finally, "This way we go."

Clarity had come to town, as Churchill was far from alone in noticing with quiet approval. Doubt and intellectual anxiety were gone. People knew where they stood and what they had to do.

With the conclusion of the Azores summit and President Bush's address to the nation and the world, clarity -- in the context of how we will deal with Saddam Hussein -- makes a return appearance. Long weeks of intramural wrangling with supposed allies who should know better -- and likely do -- have spread dismay and division. Thick fog has enshrouded life. It starts now to lift. We begin to see again, and not through a glass darkly, either.

One thing to be made belatedly clear is the question of the relationship in this world between relatively "bad" nations (think Iraq, as presently misgoverned) and comparatively "good" ones (think, if you dare, the United States).

A world committed to the ideals of "pluralism" and "non-judgmentalism" shrinks from the task of thinking categorically. President Bush's uncompromising condemnations of Saddam have invited the anger, and especially the contempt, of moral relativists, chiefly on the left. A number of these folk dumbly, crassly liken Bush to Hitler -- that other famous non-relativist.

History, assuming anyone reads it these days, teaches that good and evil co-exist poorly, the latter having a tendency -- unless convincingly deterred -- to shove around the former. France and Britain's unwillingness to deter Italy and Germany, when deterrence would have been easy, made final confrontation necessary, when it was hard and agonizing. French perversity is starting to get repetitious.

A second matter becoming clearer is the question of what responsibility a "superpower" may expect to exercise without begging permission. "Oh, please let us protect our own people!" American and British leaders are expected to plead thus? And what about all the others endangered by Saddam, not least the Iraqis?

The "coalition of the willing" disagrees emphatically that thumb twiddling affords the best remedy after a dozen years of waiting on Saddam to do as he promised.

The ditherings and obstructionism of the United Nations these past months yield evidence that the United Nations is next to useless. A large organization is precisely as sensible and moral as are its members. In the case of the present U.N. membership -- acutely, in the case of the Security Council's membership -- that means not very sensible, not very moral.

Another matter it's nice to be clear about is who your friends are -- and aren't. We have learned a lot, much of it uncomplimentary, about France's, Germany's and Russia's present leaders -- and even about Mexico's and Turkey's. Far more encouraging is what we are learning about the present leadership of Britain and Spain, and about the Eastern Europeans, who with their deep experience of tyranny, have weighed in solidly against it. That there might actually be, in Donald Rumsfeld's formulation, an "old Europe" and a "new Europe" is a proposition that deserves some chewing over.

Anyhow, what President Bush has called "a moment of truth for the world" is here at last. Out goes Saddam -- one way or another. Who once would have thought it could take so long? Who outside the coalition of the unwilling is unready to rejoice?