Light in the Tunnel
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN - Nov 13, 2002For a brief, shining moment last Friday, the world didn't seem like such a crazy place. When all 15 members of the U.N. Security Council, including Syria, raised their hands in favor of a U.N. demand that Iraq submit to unrestricted inspections of its weapons arsenal or else face "serious consequences," it was the first hopeful moment I've felt since 9/11.
It was the first time since then that the world community seemed to be ready to overcome all of its cultural, religious and strategic differences to impose a global norm — that a country that raped its neighbor and defied U.N. demands that it give up its weapons of mass destruction not be allowed to get away with it. In a year in which the "I-hate-you" virus has been loosed around the globe, and everyone is either mad at everyone else or telling everyone else to go to his corner — "Muslims, go to your corner"; "Jews, go to your corner"; "Christians, go to your corner" — one could savor a momentary countertrend.
How did it happen? Well, the short answer is that we learned something surprising this past week — that in the world of a single, dominant superpower, the U.N. Security Council becomes even more important, not less. France, Russia and China discovered that the most effective way to balance America's overwhelming might was not by defying that power outright, but by channeling it through the U.N. And the Bush team discovered that the best way to legitimize its overwhelming might — in a war of choice — was not by simply imposing it, but by channeling it through the U.N.
In other words, "to the extent that the world wants to balance American power, without being against America, countries need to make it worth America's while to go through the U.N., by producing a credible resolution," said the Mideast expert Stephen P. Cohen. "And to the extent that America wants to take on what it alone defines as the axis of evil, but not have to act alone, it needs to go through the U.N. as well."
Without the Security Council, we would have to exercise power nakedly — something Americans are ready to do in a war of self-defense (Afghanistan), but not in a war of choice (Iraq). And without the Security Council, others would have to balance our power nakedly, something they are ready to do in self-defense, but reluctant to do in a war of choice.
The superhawks complain that President Bush made a mistake going through the U.N., because now he'll never be able to use force if Saddam remains defiant or has hidden his weapons. Not only is this wrong, but Mr. Bush had no choice — not because he had to please the Eurowimps, but because he had to please the American and British people.
The American public told Karl Rove, and the British public told Tony Blair, that Iraq was a war of choice, and while it may be a legitimate choice, they did not want to fight it without the cover of the U.N. and the support of its key member states. Because there is no war in Iraq that does not end up with a long-term occupation and nation-building, and that can't be effectively pursued alone or under an exclusively U.S. umbrella. Mr. Rove, Mr. Blair and Colin Powell communicated that to Mr. Bush — who then balanced a threat to go it alone with a diplomatic effort to avoid having to do so.
As I said, all this made for a pretty good weekend (unless you're Saddam). But will it last? That depends entirely on the U.N.'s ability to see this resolution through. Countries could vote in favor of the Iraq resolution for all kinds of reasons: some powers were seeking balance; Syria was buying life insurance. But to stand together to actually implement a credible inspections resolution — and to endorse the use of force if Saddam resists — the parties actually have to believe in it. The Americans have to be prepared to actually stand down if Saddam really complies, and the Europeans and the Arabs actually have to be prepared to stand up — or more likely, stand out of America's way — if he doesn't.
What an improbable moment. There must be some larger forces driving it: The American administration most skeptical of the U.N. ends up breathing a whole new life into the organization. And the countries most worried about American unilateralism — France, Russia, China and a nation that just barely missed making the short list for the axis of evil, Syria — end up legitimizing an American threat, if not the American use of force.
I wonder what will happen next weekend.