Tuesday, February 25, 2003
Andrew Sullivan thinks Bush "can't lose" at the UN, and only France can. Bush is going forward with war regardless, and is giving the UN a chance to remain relevant. Assuming we win the war fairly quickly, if we managed to bring a second resolution then we'll have strengthened our ally Blair at home and strengthened the UN as a vehicle for the Pax Americana. And if we didn't get a second resolution, then we'll have established the Pax Americana anyhow and removed the UN as a future obstacle.
Richard Holbrooke sees things rather differently. By going for a second resolution, Bush and Blair have actually undermined their case. They had sufficient warrant to attack Saddam without another resolution. Now, having gone for one, if they don't get one it will appear that the US and UK have flouted the will of the "international community." This will be much worse than Kossovo, where the UN didn't opine at all. It will effectively destroy the system of international security that the US built after WWII. We would have been far better going alone than setting ourselves up for rejection by the UN.
Of course, it's always possible that Saddam is so stupid that he effectively provokes the French into coming around. But assuming he isn't, I think Holbrooke - the only Democrat around with foreign policy credibility, and the token Democrat Bush should have hired (or tried to hire), rather than Underperformin' Norman Minetta - has the better argument. But I still think he's wrong, because he's missing the main point. The difference between Kossovo and Iraq isn't that in the first case we ignored the UN and in the second we sought its approval. It's that in the first case we had NATO firmly with us and in the second we don't.
What would have happened, after all, had America pushed ahead with war without trying to get the UN's blessing? How would it have helped our international position to have the French and Germans denouncing us, Tony Blair in serious domestic trouble (and possibly unable to support us as strongly), and so forth because of American unilateralism? What, precisely, is Richard Holbrooke's counterfactual that he would prefer to the Bush Administration's actual conduct of diplomacy since the passage of 1441 (which Holbrooke calls "masterful")?
Here's the only plausible scenario I can paint. Posit that France and Germany are not actually averse to war but are averse to declaring their support for war. Posit that they want to be immune from terrorist reprisals, bolster their commercial relationships with anti-American regimes, and avoid domestic unrest, but that they are not actively trying to "contain" America. Posit, in other words, that they are behaving like pussilanimous parasites on American power rather than actual adversaries. I think that's a plausible interpretation of their behavior.
By going to the UN, then, we put France (and Germany) in a bind. They want to allow the US to do what it wants while being able to publicly say that they are appalled. But we are making them declare their real feelings. We are making them pay a price: either explicitly side with the US, and take the consequences in terms of terrorist retaliation and popular anger, or explicitly oppose the US, and take the consequences in terms of American diplomatic retaliation, enervation of a UN Security Council that currently magnifies their influence beyond its natural dimensions, and weakening of their alliances with America. By saying, in effect, "you're either with us or with the terrorists" we have forced them to make a choice that they badly didn't want to make.
What's the cost for us? Well, if Holbrooke is right and having the UN is better than not having one, and operating in apparent defiance of it is worse for us diplomatically than operating outside of it, then there's a real cost for us if Franco-Germany don't ultimately back down. We'll beat Iraq, but at the cost of the Western alliance. Perhaps it would have been better to ignore the UN, let France and Germany be appalled at us for doing so, but let any breach with the US remain rhetorical.
But this presumes that keeping the Atlantic Alliance operational on paper is worth having it become worthless in practice. In Kossovo, NATO acted in concert against a dangerous dictator without UN approval because they knew the Russians would veto any action. We had no reason to expect cooperation from the Russians, and we didn't really change our relations by ignoring them. Similarly, we didn't test the UN, and arguably preserved the tissue of UN authority by ignoring that authority in practice. (This is presuming that preserving that tissue is a good thing, which is far from clear.) But we're supposedly allies with France and Germany. We have every reason to expect that they will work with us in good faith. If their objective was not to do so, then what is the point of the Atlantic Alliance? What is the advantage to the US government of letting France have their cake and eat it, too? Aren't we better served by making them choose, even if the result is that they choose unwisely?
I hope that's the considered view of the Administration, because if it isn't then they have indeed gotten us into a pickle. Because for France, the die is pretty much cast. This is not a bluff. Or, if it was a bluff, they are going to have to play the bluff out until they lose their shirts. Unless Saddam is so enormously stupid that he gives them a face-saving way to back America at the last minute, the French lose everything if they don't veto the resolution. They look like idiots, no one will believe anything they say ever again - everyone will join John Derbyshire in quoting Joan la Pucelle from Henry VI: Done like a Frenchman — turn and turn again. They can't do it. If this is a game of chicken, neither of us will swerve and our Hummer is going to flatten their Peugeot like a souffle in a rhino stampede (or something).
They say you should never back the other guy against the wall; always leave him a way out. Well, we haven't left the French any way out. Is that good for the US? I don't know. But if not, we shouldn't have put them where they are.