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Jewish World Review Sept. 23, 2002 / 18 Tishrei, 5763

Michael Barone

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Taking the U.N. seriously |
George W. Bush, in his September 12 speech, like Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his years as ambassador, did the United Nations the favor of taking it seriously. "We created the United Nations Security Council, so that, unlike the League of Nations, our deliberations would be more than talk," Bush said. Today the "standards of human dignity shared by all" and the "system of security defended by all" are "challenged" by an "outlaw regime," "exactly the kind of aggressive threat the United Nations was born to confront." Bush then recounted how Iraq's aggression against Kuwait was condemned by the U.N. "To suspend hostilities, to spare himself, Iraq's dictator accepted a series of commitments."

Then, in 13 fact-filled paragraphs, Bush described how Saddam Hussein had failed to keep those commitments. His words are reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt's recital of Japan's perfidy on Dec. 8, 1941- repetitive, even a bit boring. But the point is made. We are talking about evil people doing evil things.

Bush has been accused by critics in Europe and the United States of "unilateralism"-America acting on its own in disregard of "multilateral" institutions. Here is his answer: "We want the resolutions of the world's most important multilateral body to be enforced. And right now those resolutions are being unilaterally subverted by Iraq." The burden of proof is not on the United States, seeking action. It is on those who counsel inaction. "The Security Council resolutions will be enforced-the just demands of peace and security will be met-or action will be unavoidable."

In other words, if the U.N. doesn't act, the United States will. And the U.N. will be shown to be as weak and irrelevant as the League of Nations. Or as Tony Blair told the antiwar Trades Union Congress in Blackpool, England, September 10, "the U.N. must be the way to resolve the threat from Saddam, not avoid it." You get multilateralism by threatening unilateralism.

China's veto. The votes that matter are those of the five permanent members of the Security Council. Britain is with us. France's and Russia's interests in Iraq are mercenary; they want to make money there. If they're convinced we'll act-and no one doubts the United States can defeat Saddam Hussein militarily-they'll want to be on our side. China has little interest in Iraq but does have a serious diplomatic asset in its Security Council veto. A lone veto followed by unilateral U.S. action would devalue that asset. China is unlikely to want that. You get U.N. action by threatening to take action without the U.N.

Bush's critics in the United States decry the "confusion" sown by conflicting statements from administration officials, with Colin Powell talking hopefully about U.N. inspections in Iraq and Donald Rumsfeld dismissing any inspections as useless. But that "confusion" has enabled Bush to maintain the threat of unilateral action while seeking multilateral approval in earnest. It's obviously at least marginally helpful to get allies and multilateral approval. But it's more important to make it clear you will act in any case.

Similarly, Bush used the language of human dignity and freedom to make his case. Rhetoric in international organizations tends to depict the United States as callous and greedy and heedless of human rights-look at the recent summit in Johannesburg, South Africa. Bush turned the tables by describing the vicious acts of the Iraqi regime. He called for democracy and human rights in the Muslim world. "The people of Iraq can shake off their captivity. They can one day join a democratic Afghanistan and a democratic Palestine, inspiring reforms throughout the Muslim world."

That, of course, is the last thing the leaders of most Arab states want, including some who pose as our friends (Saudi delegates winced at Bush's words). But they can hardly say so in public. America is taking the high ground and calling on the United Nations to join us.

Next the president will call on Congress. Some Democrats are talking about weeks of debates or delaying a vote until next year. Bush isn't likely to let them get away with that. Many politicians ask what is new. But this is not a legal case in which we are bound to precedent absent new evidence. Bush's point is that Saddam Hussein has been dangerous already for too long. We did not go into Iraq in the winter because we were busy in Afghanistan, in the spring because of shortages of precision weapons, in the summer because it was too hot. Now it is fall.

Let's roll.

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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone