WASHINGTON--War precipitates clarity as well as confusion, and the war against Iraq already has clarified this: The United Nations is not a good idea badly implemented, it is a bad idea.
For France, and for the U.N. through which France magnifies its own significance, the objective of disarming Iraq, if ever seriously held, has been superseded by the objective of frustrating America. And for America, the imperative of disarming Iraq will soon be supplanted by the imperative of insulating U.S. sovereignty from U.N. hubris.
Certain political phrases become, through mindless repetition, cant that bewitches the intelligence. One such phrase is ``the international community,'' which is oxymoronic because ``community'' denotes unity based on shared political interests and cultural values. And beware of political entities absurdly named. Just as the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire, the U.N. is a disunited collection of regimes, many of which do not represent the nations they govern.
The U.N. is premodern because it is unaccountable and irresponsible: It claims power not legitimized by the recurring consent of periodically consulted constituencies of the governed. Inebriated by self-approval, the U.N. is grounded in neither democratic consent nor territorial responsibilities, nor independent fiscal means, nor the material means of enforcing its judgments.
The U.N. should contemplate the prudence required of the U.S. Supreme Court. The court's power flows from the public's deference, which depends on the court accepting a limited role amid powerful political forces. The court has occasionally imperiled its authority by overreaching, as when it tried to settle the slavery controversy with the Dred Scott decision, and when it tried to stem powerful political tides by finding constitutional infirmities in major New Deal measures. France, by attempting to lasso the American locomotive with the cobwebs of U.N. procedures, has emboldened Iraq and made war inevitable, much as the Dred Scott decision lit the fuse of war.
France wants to use the U.N. to acquire derivative dignity in a ``multipolar'' world with blocs of nations comparable to America in economic vigor, military power and political will. France evidently believes such blocs can be summoned into existence because their existence would be convenient. Remember the joke about the economist trapped at the bottom of a well. ``No problem,'' he thinks. ``I'll assume a ladder.''
France would be well-advised to avoid the subject of other potential powers. With India already the most populous democracy and soon to be the most populous nation, with its population growing more in a week than the entire European Union's grows in a year, why exactly is France (population 60 million) a permanent member of the Security Council? What of the largest Latin American nation (Brazil, 176 million), or the largest East Asian democracy (Japan, 127 million), or the largest Islamic nation (Indonesia, 231 million)?
Reverence for the U.N. translates into resistance to change. Liberals eager to be the definers of true conservatism say that once liberal institutions have been put in place it is unconservative not to conserve the institutions.
But it is reactionary, not conservative, to preserve the status quo of NATO 15 years after the end of the Cold War. Or of the U.N. Security Council, which is a snapshot of 1945 delusions and compromises. Both, liberals seem to believe, are of undiminished utility and authority. Actually, both call to mind Churchill's story of the man who received a telegram saying his mother-in-law had died and asking for instructions. The man wired back: ``Embalm, cremate, bury at sea. Take no chances.''
Liberals, who call conservative hostility to the U.N. ``radical,'' disregard the recklessness, and the incoherence, of the U.N.'s new presumption. The U.N., a collection of regimes of less than uniform legitimacy, has anointed itself the sole arbiter of what are legitimate military actions. And it has claimed a duty to leash the only nation that has the power to enforce U.N. resolutions. How long will that nation's public be willing to pay one-quarter of the U.N.'s bills?
It is a measure of the intellectual vertigo into which the U.N. has plunged ``the international community'' that America, which is going to war to enforce Resolution 1441, is said to be doing so ``in defiance of the U.N.'' The war will be followed by a presidential election in which all candidates must answer this: ``Do you believe that any use of U.S. military power lacks legitimacy unless approved by France, Russia and China?'' The Republican candidate has already answered.