The Iraq debate

Posted: Sep 20, 2002 12:00 AM
The vice president, followed by the administration A Team and echoing the president, argues that we must remove from power an irrational dictator who has a history of aggression and mass murder, is driven by hatred of America and is developing weapons of mass destruction that could kill millions of Americans in a day. The Democrats respond with public skepticism, a raised eyebrow and the charge that the administration has yet to ``make the case.'' Then, on Sept. 12, the president goes to the United Nations and argues that this same dictator must be brought to heel in order to vindicate some Security Council resolutions and thus rescue the U.N. from irrelevance. The Democrats swoon. ``Great speech,'' they say. ``Why didn't you say that in the first place? Count us in.'' When the case for war is made purely in terms of American national interest--in terms of the safety, security and very lives of American citizens--chins are pulled as the Democrats think it over. But when the case is the abstraction of being the good international citizen and strengthening the House of Kofi, the Democrats are ready to parachute into Baghdad. This hierarchy of values is bizarre, but not new. Liberal internationalism--the foreign policy school of the modern Democratic Party (and of American liberalism more generally)--is deeply suspicious of actions taken for reasons of naked national interest. After all, this is the party that in the last decade voted overwhelmingly against the Gulf War, where vital American interests were at stake (among them, keeping the world's largest reservoir of oil out of the hands of a hostile dictator), while supporting humanitarian military interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, places with only the remotest connection to American security interests. This is all sweet and nice. And highly, flatteringly moral. But is this the way to decide when to risk the lives of brave young Americans? This fawning over the president's rescue-the-U.N. rationale is not just sentimental, it is illogical. Assume--big assumption--that the U.N. does act and passes a resolution magnanimously allowing Americans to fight and die in Iraq. How does that rescue the U.N. from irrelevance? Under a feckless U.S. administration that allowed things to drift, the U.N. sat on its hands through the '90s and did nothing. If not for this American president who threatens to invade on his own if he has to, the U.N. would still be doing nothing. The U.N. is irrelevant one way or the other. It is acting now only because of American pressure. It will go back to sleep tomorrow when America eases that pressure. And what is the moral logic underlying the Democrats' demand for U.N. sanction? The country's top Democrat, Sen. Tom Daschle, said that U.N. support ``will be a central factor in how quickly the Congress acts. If the international community supports it, if we can get the information we've been seeking, then I think we can move to a (Senate) resolution.'' Daschle's insistence on the centrality of a U.N. stamp of approval is puzzling. How does this work? In what way does the approval of the Security Council confer moral legitimacy on this enterprise? Perhaps Daschle can explain how the blessing of the butchers of Tiananmen Square, who hold the Chinese seat on the Security Council, lends moral authority to an invasion of Iraq. Or the support of the Kremlin, whose central interest in Iraq is the $8 billion that it owes Russia. Or the French. There can be no Security Council approval without them. Does Daschle imagine that their approval will hinge on humanitarian calculations? If the French come on board it will be because they see an Anglo-American train headed for Baghdad, and they don't want to be left at the station. The last time the Middle East was carved up was 1916, when a couple of British and French civil servants, a Mr. Sykes and a Mr. Picot, drew lines on a map of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Among other goodies, France got Syria and Lebanon. Britain got Iraq. The French might not relish being shut out of Iraq a second time. My point is not to blame France or China or Russia for acting in their national interests. That's what nations do. That's what nations' leaders are supposed to do. My point is to express wonder at Americans who find it unseemly to act in the name of their own national interests and who cannot see the logical absurdity of granting moral legitimacy to American action only if it earns the approval of the Security Council--approval granted or withheld on the most cynical grounds of self-interest.