At his Azorean press conference on Sunday, President Bush announced a "moment of truth" had arrived as a result of the U.N.'s inability to disarm Saddam Hussein. This welcome statement suggests Mr. Bush and the U.S. government have also arrived at another critical juncture: a moment for truth.
Specifically, there is an urgent need for clarity about the true nature of the United Nations and the inadvisability of investing in it superior moral authority, let alone of allowing it to define the legitimacy or illegitimacy of actions undertaken pursuant to the U.S. Constitution in furtherance of our national security.
Such clarity is in order for various reasons. For one thing, it bears on one of the most topical questions of the day: the costs associated with the coming conflict. While many estimates have been offered of the combat- and postwar-related price tags, the highest cost of all will likely be that associated with, as it is put euphemistically, "the U.N. process."
Unfortunately, the U.N.-related costs have not been confined to the unseemly haggling with various putative allies and Third World nations aimed at securing their votes for an 18th Security Council resolution concerning Iraq. The spectacle of the greatest power in the world being reduced to begging the likes of Guinea and Angola for support has demeaned this nation even as it shows the true, unsavory character of a "world body" governed by parochial interests, not some higher virtue.
The real cost, however, of indulging in the notion that only the U.N. can provide legitimacy to U.S. military actions may be measured in lives unnecessarily lost — American and allied, as well as Iraqi — in the coming conflict.
Thanks to "the U.N. process," we are witnessing the longest telegraphed-punch in history. The months of warning thus afforded Saddam Hussein have been used by the Iraqi despot to ready myriad destructive defensive measures. As a result, he may be able to blow up Iraq's oil fields and other infrastructure, create mass casualties and foster humanitarian crises with which the liberators will have to contend, and for which they may well be blamed.
Worse yet, the U.N. process' essential incompatibility with even tactical (let alone strategic) surprise may invite Saddam to seize the remaining hours granted for diplomacy and the extraction of U.N. personnel from Iraq to attack pre-emptively. The targets could be our forces in the region, his neighbors or us here at home. If such attacks involve use of his weapons of mass destruction, the losses could be staggering.
And for what? What has been gained by subordinating U.S. national security decisionmaking and actions to the dictates of the U.N. Security Council?
Some will say we accomplished a signal victory when, after investing months and considerable American political (and other) capital, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1441 last November. Yet, France and others who have assiduously sought for 12 years to protect Saddam from U.S. and/or U.N. action, insist that without a further mandate, military action would be — in the words of the French foreign minister — "illegal."
Alas, unless forcefully contested with the truth, this assertion is likely to have considerable resonance around the world — at least until the war is won in Iraq.
It behooves Mr. Bush and other American and world leaders, therefore, to challenge the view held by many mobilized during these long months of wrangling at the United Nations, to the effect that the U.N.'s principal role is to serve as a check on American power. Regrettably, since this view is shared by not a few U.N. member nations and virtually all of its bureaucrats, it seems unlikely this attempt to create a useful "world body" or "international community" will succeed in dealing with the real security challenges of the 21st century — in particular, terrorist-sponsoring and proliferating regimes — any more than the League of Nations did in the last one.
For this reason, it is of some concern that President Bush signaled last Sunday his continuing desire to work with the United Nations, even if it remains unwilling to reauthorize the enforcement of its previous resolutions. He pledged that the U.S. would pursue additional initiatives to enlist the U.N. in the process of rebuilding and administering a post-Saddam Iraq.
This may be little more than a way to share some of the postwar financial burdens and/or to make clear the United States' disinterest in establishing a colonial or imperial role in Iraq. On the other hand, if the president wants the U.N. to do much more than help with the acquisition and distribution of food, medicines and other forms of humanitarian relief, Washington may be entrusting the future of Iraq to an international organization no more likely to succeed in consolidating this opportunity for freedom than it was in creating that opportunity in the first place.
This is, indeed, a moment of truth. Mr. Bush has courageously brought the nation to the point of liberating Iraq. He must now take the steps necessary to accomplish this vital task without further delay. As he informs our countrymen of his decision to do so, he must also tell the truth about the United Nations. Most especially, he must serve notice that our future support for and involvement in that organization depends upon an appreciation that the legitimacy of our security decisionmaking and conduct rests on the processes ordered by our Constitution, not those of a corrupt and feckless U.N.