Beware 'consensus leadership'

Posted: Aug 27, 2002 12:00 AM
There has been a subtle change in the unsolicited advice George W. Bush is receiving from prominent figures concerned that he is determined to lead the Nation to war against Iraq. The current fashion is to agree that Saddam Hussein's misrule and his megalomaniacal pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) should be ended. But only, Mr. Bush is now being told, if he can secure the permission of the so-called "international community," or at least our key allies. This argument was framed most recently by yet another of Bush 43's father's officials, former Secretary of State James Baker, on the op.ed. page of last Sunday's New York Times. Reduced to its essence, in that essay Mr. Baker recognizes that Saddam must go and that U.S. military action will be required to accomplish that goal. He insists, however, that the President first has to try to get a new UN Security Council resolution requiring Iraq to accept new inspections "anywhere, anytime" before he undertakes the liberation of the long-suffering Iraqi people. This amounts to what Margaret Thatcher once famously derided (about the time she was warning Bush pére and his advisors against "going wobbly" over Iraq in 1990) as the impossibility of "leadership by consensus." She recognized that, on matters of surpassing importance, the United States has to lead by providing direction and initiative, around which a broader or narrower consensus will ultimately form -- not try to get everyone else to agree in advance to do what it believes must be done. We know in advance that the Baker diplomatic gambit would be a fool's errand, adding obstacles not clearing them away. Ever since the end of the Gulf War, the UN Security Council has been ever-less-willing to support intrusive inspections in Iraq. This was hardly surprising since at least three of the permanent, veto-wielding Council members (France, Russia and China) were anxious to curry favor with Saddam Hussein -- especially if they could frustrate American policy in the process. Under present circumstances, an effort to secure from the UN what would amount to a casus belli with Iraq is more likely to produce further evidence of international opposition to U.S. action there, and intensify the multilateralists' contention that we lack the authority to undertake such action. In truth, this is but the latest manifestation of a struggle that has been going on since the end of the Cold War. Foreign governments, particularly the unfriendly ones (which has in recent years included a number of our allies), have striven to establish via treaties, "international norms" and other devices, means of constraining the American "hyperpower." This sentiment enjoys considerable currency as well among the Vietnam generation of the U.S. security policy elite. During the Bush 41 administration, when Mr. Baker, Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger were last in office, Washington frequently acceded to such pressure. Usually, it claimed that doing so was necessary to: fashion multinational coalitions (so as to prosecute Operation Desert Storm), maintain "stability" (for example, to preserve the "territorial integrity" of Yugoslavia) and advance fatuous arms control objectives (notably, "ridding the world of chemical weapons.") The American foreign policy establishment embraced the idea that diminishing U.S. sovereignty in these and other ways was an unavoidable, if not actually a desirable, component of forging a "New World Order." During its eight years in office, the Clinton team greatly exacerbated this trend. It became practically axiomatic in the 1990s that the United States could not, and certainly should not, consider doing anything internationally without a UN mandate. A series of "global" agreements -- governing everything from climate change to nuclear tests to war crimes -- were consummated with active U.S. involvement and with manifest disregard for American sovereignty and constitutional processes. Over time, the Nation inexorably became hamstrung like Gulliver, both by myriad institutionalized constraints and obligations and by the logic that the United States was just another country, one whose vote and influence in multinational councils should count no more than any others'. Since taking office, President Bush has confronted this syndrome time and again. To his great credit -- and to the outraged howls of self-described "internationalists," he has repeatedly acted to reassert our national sovereignty and to restore our ability to act unilaterally. He has renounced the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and "unsigned" the International Criminal Court treaty. He has also withdrawn the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, clearing the way at last for the accelerated deployment of missile defense systems -- including at sea, a highly promising option about which Mr. Bush was briefed last week in Crawford. The party line from the foreign policy establishment types at home and abroad is that such behavior constitutes damnable "unilateralism." The putative fear is that America will revert to isolationism. The real concern, however, is very different -- namely, that the United States will appreciate that it is able to act alone where it must, and that it may just have the will to do so. The truth of the matter is that the world is a safer place, not only for American interests but for those of freedom-loving people elsewhere, when the United States has the military, economic and political power to engage unilaterally where necessary and is led by an individual who is willing competently to exercise such power. And, contrary to the critics' assertions, when President Bush does that on behalf of the people of Iraq and our vital interest in putting Saddam Hussein and his WMD programs out of business, he will enjoy the support of the majority of Americans and the gratitude of untold millions elsewhere around the globe.