Jewish World Review Sept. 18, 2002 / 12 Tishrei, 5763

Terry Eastland

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A relevant presidency--and irrelevant U.N? | In his address last week to the U.N. General Assembly, President Bush reviewed in detail how Iraq, as he put it, "has answered a decade of U.N. demands with a decade of defiance." Whereupon he asked, "Are Security Council resolutions to be honored and enforced, or cast aside without consequence? Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding [to secure the world against threats to peace like Saddam Hussein], or will it be irrelevant?"

Mr. Bush made clear that the United States would act alone against Iraq, should the United Nations punt. He didn't say, but could have, that the United States would indeed be "relevant" to the Iraqi question. And, of course, he didn't say that the reason the United States would be relevant lay in his very relevant presidency.

Which raises the question: Just what makes a presidency relevant?

The office necessarily matters. Put it this way: You can't be president without it. Bear in mind that, while we often take the office for granted, it wasn't part of the government under the Articles of Confederation. It didn't exist. Thank the Framers for creating it and putting it in the Constitution.

From time to time, we have reminders of what the Framers did in providing for the presidency. In 1995, thrust on the defensive by the newly elected Republican Congress, Bill Clinton was asked by a reporter about his "relevance." He replied that "the president is relevant" because "the Constitution gives me relevance." Indeed so.

Of course, the times during which presidents serve aren't created equal. Circumstances can affect opportunities for the exercise of power -- and thus for relevance. Even while still in office, Mr. Clinton, in a characteristic display of narcissism, lamented his lack of opportunity for presidential greatness, which is to say for relevance. His complaint was against the cards history dealt him -- for example, that he wasn't given a depression to take on or a war to fight.

Sept. 11, 2001, occurred when it did -- not quite nine months into the Bush presidency. Sept. 11 made Mr. Bush a war president, since it summoned him to use his power to defend the nation. Sept. 11 would have done the same for Al Gore, had he been elected.

But no one can know how Mr. Gore or someone else might have responded to Sept. 11. We only know how Mr. Bush responded. That is why, to answer what makes a presidency relevant, you have to ask what a particular president has done in a certain situation.

Mr. Bush said what he did at the United Nations because of the choices he made starting a year ago. Another president, particularly one of "multilateralist" instincts like Mr. Gore or Mr. Clinton, might have chosen much differently.

Another president might have decided to target al-Qaeda and leave it at that. But Mr. Bush decided it also was necessary to challenge terrorist groups more generally. And he decided to take on nations that support terrorists. With another president, the Taliban still might be in power and al-Qaeda not disrupted to the extent it has been.

Another president also might not have identified as especially dangerous those nations possessing or seeking weapons of mass destruction, such as Iraq. Nor have asserted America's right to take pre-emptive action against a belligerent nation like Iraq -- "before it is too late." Nor gone to the United Nations and dared suggest that by failing to stand against Iraq it would descend into irrelevance.

Agree or not with Mr. Bush's decisions, it is unimaginable that a reporter might ask about the relevance of his presidency. There is nothing "shrinking" about it. Mr. Bush has taken on a task bigger than any since the Cold War, and he is challenging the world to join him.

As he said last week, "We cannot stand by and do nothing while dangers gather. We must stand up for security and for the permanent rights and the hopes of mankind. By heritage and by choice, the United States of America will make that stand. And, delegates to the United Nations, you have the power to make that stand, as well."

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JWR contributor Terry Eastland is is publisher of The Weekly Standard.Comment by clicking here.

09/10/02: Ashcroft's obtuse judicial statement
09/04/02: The Education Gadfly stings again
08/28/02: So then let the president declare war
08/21/02: Will Bush finally 'fix' affirmative action once and for all?
08/06/02: President must take up cause of Egyptian democracy warrior
07/31/02: With each war, civil liberties are curtailed less

© 2002, Terry Eastland