U.N. Never Held a Cure

Frederick W. Kagan is a military historian and the co-author of "While America Sleeps."

The Bush administration's attempt to rally international support behind a war against Iraq has been a dismal failure. Not only did it fail to obtain a U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force, but the months-long effort to do so has driven a deep wedge between the U.S. and some of its principal allies, and it called forth a large and well-organized international antiwar movement.

Cries from editorial pages and international capitals declare that the administration did not make a good enough case for war. Yet the fundamental elements of that case -- that Iraq has, in violation of United Nations resolutions, maintained a massive banned-weapons program and has systematically delayed and obstructed efforts to disarm it -- have not been successfully challenged. Even the French say only that inspections would work if given a chance, not that they had actually worked yet.

The problem is not in the administration's case, or even in the specific tactics of its diplomacy. It is something much more basic: We should never have agreed to reactivating a failed U.N.-sponsored inspections process as a means of building support for military action. The effort to do so reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the international system.

Saddam Hussein has had no intention of disarming. He has made that abundantly clear. The problem is that for the last several months it has not been Hussein on trial, but President Bush. Although the charges against the Iraqi dictator were clear and supported by strong evidence, he has not been required by the court of world opinion to prove his innocence. Instead, Bush has been required to prove, again and again, that Hussein is guilty. Each revelation has been dismissed as failing to meet the "smoking gun" standard.

Those in the Bush administration who have counseled against acting without international support have mistaken the nature of international organizations. Although the U.N. and other groups play an important role in defining international norms, they cannot be relied upon to enforce those norms -- even when they have clearly been violated. The U.N. Security Council cannot function as an impartial jury for the simple reason that its members are not impartial. Yet the Bush administration has been asked to prosecute Iraq before just such a prejudiced jury. When states that have financial relationships with Iraq reject the president's evidence, they insist it is because America has failed to make its case. But it's hard to imagine a case they would accept.

As former National Security Council Persian Gulf Director Kenneth Pollack and others have shown, past U.N. sanctions restricting Iraq's oil exports have ended up giving Hussein a powerful diplomatic weapon. Since his Baath regime controls all oil exports under the U.N.'s oil-for-food program, Hussein has been able to offer exclusive deals to would-be partners in his efforts to undermine the sanctions program. France and Russia have both benefited directly from this deal-making in recent years -- a factor that can't be ignored when examining French and Russian policies toward Iraq.

European opposition to our war against Iraq is not based solely on the material benefits that some Europeans have received from Hussein's regime. It also stems from important geopolitical realities. France, Germany and Russia are not directly threatened by Iraq. Since the United States attacked that country in 1991 and now stands in Hussein's way on such issues as sanctions and weapons, America is the Iraqi dictator's primary enemy, and his energies are directed toward harming us. He has shown that he appreciates the help he has received from some of our European allies. He will surely do nothing to damage relationships with those countries as long as they continue to support him. They accordingly have no interest in Hussein's removal and see no threat in his continued reign. They all see an opportunity, however, in opposing the U.S. Russia wishes to be a world power, as it was when it was part of the Soviet Union. To challenge the American war against Iraq is to challenge America, to be a real player on the international scene again, to win a diplomatic victory where military, economic, social, and other sorts of victories are impossible dreams.

For France, the close adherence of Britain to America's policies has presented an opportunity for a larger role within Europe. By opposing the war on Iraq, by preventing NATO from participating in an alliance, by preventing a U.N. resolution supporting force, French leaders hope to isolate Britain within the European Union and offer Europeans an alternative to what they see as American "domination."

The situation in Germany is much simpler. Gerhard Schroeder was losing a close campaign and needed to rally support. He chose an anti-American and antiwar program because it promised to bring out the radical left in his country, which turns out to have been just barely enough to get him elected.

Much attention has been devoted in recent weeks to Bush's motives in pressing for an Iraq war now. It is critical to scrutinize the motives of other world leaders just as carefully. They do not simply receive proposals for international action impartially and consider them solely on their merits. Rather, they evaluate such proposals based on whether they will advance the interests of their states. In this case, France, Germany and Russia are pursuing extremely selfish policies while claiming to be acting out of noble and altruistic motives -- which is perfectly normal behavior for states and could have been predicted last fall when the decision to take this path was made.

The irony is that the Bush administration has been pursuing a policy geared to the interest of the broader international community. Iraq has refused to comply with the mandates that the community laid out over the last 12 years. Because some members of the community now oppose how Bush intends to enforce international norms does not change the fact that he is acting to enforce those norms.

The administration's mistake in seeking international support for this war was in failing to realize that crucial foundations for that support weren't in place. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 created support for the first Gulf War. Sept. 11 brought similar support for the war in Afghanistan. This time, however, there has been no clear-cut event compelling immediate action. The French, Germans and Russians certainly understand that Hussein has demonstrated contempt for international norms and poses a danger to world peace. But without an outrageous act on his part that would demand action, they have chosen to conduct business as usual, calculating their interests and looking for opportunities to advance them.

What are the lessons here? Unilateral action is sometimes necessary to secure American interests and safety. International support can never be the measure of an action's virtue or baseness; most of the time it reveals only the degree to which other major powers see an action as being in their interests. In the end, the U.N. and similar organizations are primarily valuable for their ability to establish, rather than to enforce, international norms. That is something that only the United States -- and other responsible states who care to join us -- seem willing to do. Does this assertion fly in the face of the Wilsonian idealism underlying the foundation of the U.N.? Absolutely. But so does the willingness of that body to rally behind the defense of a vicious, mass-murdering tyrant bent on developing hideous weapons.

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