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Monday, February 3, 2003

Buehrens on Iraq today.

"The resolutions of the United Nations must be enforced," wrote John Buehrens, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, when Iraq defied the U.N. and a U.S. president threatened to go to war. And Buehrens added: "In my judgment, the consequences of diplomatic failure will belong squarely with Saddam Hussein. . . ."

When Buehrens wrote this letter in February 1998, he framed his support for a military strike against Iraq in terms of the legitimacy of the United Nations itself: "The failure of the UN's predecessor, The League of Nations, was a direct result of its failure to enforce its resolutions against aggressive dictators and terrorist regimes." If Saddam Hussein could violate with impunity not only the terms of the 1991 cease-fire but the inspections regime set up by the U.N. to monitor his compliance, what really was the purpose of the United Nations? If the U.N. could not enforce its own laws, who would? At issue was the international community's willingness to take responsibility for international order.

In many respects, the situation today is the same. The United Nations has failed to make Iraq comply with the disarmament it agreed to at the end of the 1991 Gulf war, and as awful as the sanctions have been for the people of Iraq, it is still true that Saddam Hussein is the one to blame. (There are some, like Scott Ritter, who say that Iraq has disarmed — but when Iraq has consistently lied about its programs and thwarted efforts to verify its disarmament, one can only doubt Saddam's intentions. Hans Blix's report makes this much clear: Saddam is not committed to disarmament.)

And the United Nations seems remarkably uninterested in enforcing Security Council resolutions. If the legitimacy of the United Nations was in question in 1998, today President Bush is disarmingly explicit in his threat to go after Iraq alone. As Serge Schemann puts it in Sunday's New York Times, Bush's message is: "Either you're with us, or you're irrelevant." As unpleasant as the prospect is, the U.N. is being forced to ask whether it wants to enforce its rules, or whether it wants the United States to enforce rules of its own devising.

Buehrens's characterization of Iraq's predicament is also still valid: "The crisis in Iraq seems to me like a police hostage crisis. Saddam Hussein holds innocent men, women and children within his country, along with weapons of mass destruction dangerous not only to them, but to the entire neighborhood and to the world community." Everything in this statement is still true.

But Buehrens now vigorously opposes war against Iraq. What has changed? For one thing, the humanitarian consequences of a war to bring down Iraq's government will be appalling — even if U.S. war plans follow the "clean" plan leaked to the New York Times this weekend rather than the "shock and awe" scenario (leaked earlier) that could involve obliterating Bagdad on the first day. (Thanks to Dan Kennedy for raising the alarm on this plan.) Buehrens and most other religious leaders say the human cost is simply too high.

But there is a second reason: Buehrens supported President Clinton's threat to go to war against Iraq because the U.S. explicitly characterized its goal as enforcing international law. President Bush, on the other hand, openly mocks the United Nations. Bush insists on treating Iraq as a threat to American security — a shrewd political move domestically, but one that has alienated popular sentiment in allied nations that cannot be seen simply to endorse U.S. goals. Countries that could endorse a more carefully assembled international alliance through the U.N. cannot enthusiastically join an American "posse." The difference is not in whether international order depends on U.S. military power — it does — but on whether the U.S. believes it can achieve its goals without the legitimacy of international law. In the long run, it can't.

The tragedy of our predicament is that until American liberals come up with a foreign policy that not only offers greater domestic security but also improved international cooperation — in other words, until the Democrats find a presidential candidate who can beat Bush on foreign policy — nothing stands in the way of Bush's misguided unilateralism. If Gore had become president, we might very well be considering war with Iraq as part of the war on terror — but the explicit goals of the campaign would be much more like those that Buehrens supported in 1998.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 3 February 2003 at 9:12 AM

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