There was nothing new in President Bush’s speech today to the United Nations General Assembly. No new evidence that Iraq’s nuclear program is close to producing a bomb; no new proof that Iraq is closely connected to terrorists who have attacked or might attack the United States; no new explanation of why, in the face of our ability to annihilate the Iraqi regime, that regime would use a nuclear weapon against us if it had one.
What’s new is the setting in which Bush presented his case. Arrayed around him were dozens of diplomats in suits and headphones. They looked gravely concerned. They stared intently at Bush as though trying to see what madness lay behind his eyes. In the acuteness of their attention, you could read the question on everyone’s mind: How can we satisfy this man? What must we offer him to persuade him not to do his worst?
For the diplomats and their heads of state back home, it isn’t a new question. They have asked and answered it many times before—about Saddam Hussein. He has been the troublemaker, the man requiring constant attention and negotiation, the man who might do something reckless if he were left unhappy. Now another cowboy is riding into town, less crazy but with much bigger guns: the president of the United States. This was his message to the General Assembly: If you don’t want an imminent American invasion of Iraq, make me an offer.
By itself, Bush’s case has never made sense. The pretext on which he initially justified war with Iraq—a link between the Iraqi regime and the Sept. 11 plot—has collapsed. Bush has followed that up with countless other insincere arguments. “Al-Qaida terrorists escaped from Afghanistan and are known to be in Iraq,” Bush charged today, ignoring the fact that according to his own aides, al-Qaida terrorists have scattered to many other Muslim countries in similar numbers. In Iraq, children are tortured “in the presence of their parents,” Bush complained, as though the torture of children in other countries in the absence of their parents were less atrocious.
Bush’s most compelling indictment of Iraq—the danger posed by its nuclear program—has never been substantiated. Those who anticipated that he would deliver a bombshell today about that nuclear program got a dud instead. Saddam has tried to buy aluminum tubes, said Bush, evidently unable to show that Saddam had managed to buy the tubes, much less do anything with them. Saddam could build a nuke within a year if he acquired enough material for it, said Bush, evidently unable to show that Saddam had the material or a reliable way to get it. Saddam has met many times with his nuclear scientists, demonstrating “his continued appetite for these weapons,” said Bush, as though the same appetite couldn’t be attributed to numerous other heads of state. Never has Bush explained where else his doctrine of pre-empting the acquisition of nuclear weapons—much less chemical or biological weapons—would apply.
But when introduced into a larger context—the conflict between Saddam and the U.N.—Bush’s belligerence becomes logical and salutary. Saddam’s history with the U.N. is a joke. As Bush amply detailed today, Saddam has betrayed pledge after pledge, circumvented sanction after sanction, and defied warning after warning from the U.N. Security Council. No one on the council other than the United States and Britain has lifted a military finger to punish him. Always there is a new round of talks with Saddam’s latest designated liar, exploring under what conditions Saddam might agree to honor the conditions he agreed to in the last round of talks. By now nearly everyone has forgotten that the alternative Saddam avoided by making his initial promises in 1991 was military destruction. By any logical standard, that’s the alternative to which U.N. must now turn.
You don’t have to be a hawk to reach this conclusion. You just have to recognize that if the U.N. won’t enforce war-ending agreements about nuclear proliferation, it will never be able to stop any war or enforce any agreement. Sheer power will rule everywhere.
For years, the U.N. has avoided this unpleasant duty, preferring negotiations. Hawks have rightly called this a policy of appeasement. But complaining about appeasement is as impotent as appeasement itself. The more effective remedy is to give the appeaser someone new to appease: yourself. That’s the beautiful, if accidental, logic of Bush’s war preparations. “The purposes of the United States should not be doubted,” he warned the U.N. diplomats today. “The Security Council resolutions will be enforced—the just demands of peace and security will be met—or action will be unavoidable.”
Before Bush spoke, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan addressed the General Assembly, pleading for patience with the U.N. The media interpreted Annan’s remarks as a setback to Bush. They are mistaken. Absent Bush’s looming threat, Annan would never have delivered his plea. “I appeal to all who have influence with Iraq’s leaders to impress on them the vital importance of accepting the weapons inspections,” said Annan. “This is the indispensable first step towards assuring the world (read: the U.S.) that all Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction have indeed been eliminated.” Annan concluded: “If Iraq’s defiance continues, the Security Council must face its responsibilities.”
If you think that an American invasion of Iraq is unwise and that the world would be better off with unfettered U.N. weapons inspections backed by the serious threat of force, you’re probably right. But if you get what you want, thank Bush.