Press Box

Mushy Multilateralism

When will the New York Times make up its mind on Iraq?

A decade ago, the New York Times editorial page editor Jack Rosenthal banned his writers from using the words should and must. Rosenthal claimed his “silly, stupid rule had a magical effect” on editorial writers, forcing them to rely on logic, not assertion, to persuade readers. Rosenthal told George magazine’s Timothy Noah that if he didn’t ban the words, he risked running editorials tainted by “this foot stomping, childish petulance. …. ‘You must, by God, because we said so, and we’re the fucking New York Times.’ ”

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The you-must-by-God-because-we-said-sostyle of argumentation returned to the page when Howell Raines replaced Rosenthal in 1993 and thrives under the current regime, headed by Gail Collins. Rattling around in the Sunday’s Times wishy-washy, 1,800-word editorial about the United States and Iraq—”Power and Leadership: The Real Meaning of Iraq“—”should” and “must” create the illusion the paper has staked a position. The editorialists write (emphasis added):

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This week the United Nations should tell Mr. Hussein he must let the inspectors watch him get rid of his missiles immediately, or outside forces will do it for him, with the support of the international community. …It seems clear to us that the United Nations should enforce its own orders and make Iraq disarm, even if that requires force.

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Yes, yes, everybody—even the majority of anti-war protesters—believes Saddam “should” let the inspectors watch him dismantle his Al-Samoud 2 missiles. Practically everybody believes the United Nations “should” enforce its orders and make Iraq disarm. And an almost universal consensus holds that U.N. blue-helmet force is warranted.

But what if the United Nations doesn’t do what the Times thinks it “should” or “must” do? The nation’s most prestigious newspaper takes a powder, retreating from the insistent voice—in which it advises the Bush administration to provide world “leadership” with its “power”—to a pathetically passive tone. “But in the end, sometime in March, the United States may have to decide whether it should do the job on its own,” the editorial allows.

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OK, but when the United States approaches that Rubicon, does the Times recommend we cross it? Not precisely. If this editorial were a football game, the zebras would penalize the Times for delay of game. Avoiding the question, the editorial goes scenario shopping in the case of a U.S.-only strike. We might enjoy instant victory; the uncovering of a massive “we-told-you-so” WMD cache; a biochem counterattack by the Iraqis; torched oil fields; or several simultaneous civil wars among the region’s ethnic multitudes. U.S.-only intervention might even recruit more angry Muslims to the al-Qaida cause, this extraordinarily jejune sentence proclaims (emphasis added):

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And just as the American military’s presence in Saudi Arabia during the gulf war precipitated the growth of Al Qaeda and Sept. 11, the long-term occupation of Iraq will create resentment in the Muslim world that could lead to more, not less, terrorism.

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Precipitated, as in hastened the occurrence of or caused? Surely the Times edit page doesn’t think the United States brought 9/11 on itself by basing soldiers in Saudi Arabia; that the United States would be safer without a military presence in the region; or that we should withdraw so Iraq can plunder at will. Defensible positions all, of course. If the Times thinks so, it should say so.

I get the sense that the Times editorialists—like the waffling Democratic candidates for president—are content to run down the clock until a U.S.-only invasion forces them to support the war now that it’s engaged. Indeed, in the paragraphs that follow, the editorial once more declares the many risks of invasion (including success!) are acceptable, if and only if the international community endorses U.S. action. Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. presaged the murky multilateralism of his editorialists two weeks ago while speaking at the University of Kansas. “We really haven’t made up our minds” about a U.S. strike, Sulzberger said. “What we have made up our minds about is unilateralism vs. multilateralism. We are fully for multilateralism.”

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The debate, of course, isn’t between unilateralism and multilateralism. For one thing, multilateralism wouldn’t even exist if unilateralism—U.S. saber-rattling—hadn’t prodded it into existence. If unilateralism croaks tomorrow, multilateralism goes with it. The question is, if multilateralism doesn’t work, what would the New York Times have us do? Your guess is as good as mine.

The Economist understands the debate much better. In its Feb. 20 editorial, “Why War Would Be Justified,” the magazine cuts the Gordian knot with clarifying language that seems beyond the Times. The debate is “essentially, about who decides” when and how to topple Iraq. Rather than pondering possible disaster and victory scenarios, the Economist makes an urgent case for ending the suffering caused by the containment policies of the last 12 years: 1) The Iraq sanctions haven’t hurt Saddam, but they’ve shortened the lives of perhaps 360,000 children; 2) the inspectors will probably never find the biochem and nuclear programs the Iraqi defectors have told them about. The magazine drains the mush and writes:

Now, it would be wise to secure support for its threat through the UN, both to make the war less risky and to make the post-war peace more likely to be durable. But, in the end, the reality remains: if Mr Hussein refuses to disarm, it would be right to go to war. Saddamned, perhaps, if you do; but Saddamned, also, if you don’t.

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