The West’s Favorite Fantasy

Why do we put so much faith in the myth of multilateralism?

It is a peculiar feature of contemporary American political discourse that so many analysts and opinion-makers believe that the “international community” must come to a kind of broad consensus to solve our problems in the Middle East, even if the commentators themselves disagree about what it is we should all agree on.

For instance, David Brooks despairs that, while the Beslan massacre should have removed any lingering doubts about the nature of the enemy, many across the world still “don’t want to confront this horror.” Even three years after 9/11, Brooks writes, there aren’t enough of us who recognize that “[t]his death cult has no reason and is beyond negotiation.”

Other writers augur some good in the bloody spectacles of Islamist violence and hope that our reluctant allies might yet fight alongside us in the Iraq campaign. Andrew Sullivan wonders if the capture of two French journalists will mark a turning point: “If the Jihadists take the war to France now, we may get the Western unity that has so far eluded us. And that can only be a good thing.”

True, the force of world opinion tends to consider European and American lives more valuable than Arab, African, Asian, or even Israeli lives, but the ransoming of two Frenchmen is not going to alter their country’s position on Iraq. As one analyst explains, Arab and Muslim terrorist groups and rogue states have been targeting France for so long that Paris has plenty of experience with variously tolerating, accommodating, bribing, and vanquishing militants. But just because Chirac believes that the Iraq campaign is not part of Paris’ war on terror—and a number of liberal Arab journalists argue that French “neutrality” has only made matters worse on both fronts—that doesn’t mean it’s not part of ours.

The American public’s fear of walking alone through the valley of jihadist death is by no means irrational. By making multilateral concord the keystone of his foreign policy, John Kerry has found a receptive audience. Many voters seem to agree that without multilateral cover, not only is the war in Iraq exposed as “illegitimate,” but we are also more vulnerable to terrorist acts. After all, if we don’t follow the advice of others, they’ll be less likely to share intelligence with us.

That’s doubtful. The bulk of the intelligence that countries share is passed by institutions and individuals whose relationships are largely independent of intergovernmental politics. Unless we’re at war with the French, for instance, their intelligence services and ours will obtain and share useful information, because there are personal as well as institutional histories at work. And at the international political level, the consequences of not sharing intelligence are catastrophic. What European leader would risk his career, reputation, and the lives of many innocent people by withholding valuable information from the United States just because he felt upstaged by a heavy-handed Donald Rumsfeld or thought George W. Bush was gauche?

So, it would be exceedingly difficult to shake some of the foundations of multilateralism that have been well-established over the years. On the other hand, it is almost impossible to build enduring, all-purpose coalitions to face the current threat. Even if all the parties targeted for jihad wanted to act in perfect accord, we can’t. Each country has both its own history, which Islamists seem never to forget, and also its own domestic issues, which world leaders can never ignore.

Imagine if French intelligence services had not been able to prevent the Islamist attack planned for the 1998 soccer World Cup. How would President Jacques Chirac have responded had 3,000 fans been killed while attending Les Bleus’ thrilling final against Brazil in Paris?

At the time, there were jihadist bases in Afghanistan. Maybe Chirac would have dispatched French troops to take down the Taliban and round up the Arab Afghans. But what if intelligence reports had suggested that the attacks were tied to Algerian groups? (And indeed, Algerian jihadists had conducted many operations in France during the mid-’90s.) Certainly, Chirac would have pursued them across Europe, but would he have taken the fight to the Algerian desert? Given Algeria’s civil war at the time and its historical relationship with France, the country’s regime couldn’t very well afford to sacrifice its tenuous hold on power by letting French troops scour the country for Muslims who had killed Frenchmen. But with several million increasingly fearful and angry French voters on his hands, could Chirac have afforded to take the Algerian government at its word when it promised to round up the usual suspects?

What kind of role would the United States have played? Let’s remember that this was not Sept. 12, 2001, but the summer of 1998, when President Clinton was caught in a domestic scandal that led to his impeachment. When al-Qaida did attack two U.S. Embassies in Africa that summer, Clinton merely sent a warning shot across Bin Laden’s bow. Nonetheless, firing cruise missiles at an Afghanistan camp and the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan, led to charges that Clinton was “wagging the dog” to deflect attention from Monicagate. After all, few at the time recognized global terrorism as our fight, even after 224 people, including 12 Americans, died in the embassy bombings. So, U.S. troops would probably have joined a NATO operation in Afghanistan, but Clinton’s domestic problems would have complicated matters immensely. It’s hard to see why or how the U.S. president could have signed on for any larger maneuvers in Algeria. Nevertheless, the absence of U.S. troops would not have made France’s battle “illegitimate.”

Multilateralism is a nice idea, but in the end it’s a very rarified and not especially useful one. It is the intellectual product of a comfortable and generally well-intentioned West that, as it turns out, maybe isn’t fearful enough for its own existence. The Bush administration has been taken to task for letting the mission determine the coalition, rather than the other way around. But that is how history, especially military history, usually works. If it were otherwise—if coalitions determined missions—the United States might never have launched the D-Day invasion. It didn’t matter whether we found the Soviet cause just or Stalin a noble ally; the purpose of Operation Overlord was to open up a second front to defeat the Nazis.

Of course, a large part of history entails facing the consequences of our coalitions. We are often reminded that the terrorists who reduced the World Trade Center towers and their inhabitants to dust were drawn from the same CIA-sponsored warriors who brought the Soviet Union to its knees. Americans know as well as anyone, then, that it is rude to talk about “blowback” in the wake of a massacre; nevertheless, it is a fact that throughout much of the Cold War, the former Soviet Union sponsored the Arab terrorist organizations whose early designs provided the model for the Beslan massacre.

But in the long run, what’s much more costly than our alliances of convenience are the coalitions that exist only in the abstract rather than reality. We knew 30 years ago that the Western nations that had created the idea of “the international community” had neither the stomach nor the will to fight global terrorism as one, even if that war was directed against them all. In November 1974, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat addressed the U.N. General Assembly brandishing a gun holster (he’d been convinced to leave his pistol outside the hall) and warned, “Don’t let this olive branch fall from my hand.”

As Barry Rubin writes in his biography of Arafat, “To bin Ladin’s assistant, [Abu Ubeid el-] Qurashi, a quarter-century later, ‘the best proof’ of terrorism’s value as a strategy was that Arafat was an honored guest at the UN General Assembly just eighteen months after his men gunned down athletes at the Olympic games.”

If we’re still looking for root causes of Sept. 11, Arafat’s coming-out party in the inner sanctum of multilateralism is one of them. The Western caretakers of the international community signaled then that since they could not comprehend the actions and read the intentions of men like Arafat, neither could they protect us from them. For his part, Arafat knew that if 11 members of the Israeli Olympics delegation could be executed on television and he was allowed to walk away, then the guardians of world order were weakest when they let the coalition determine the mission. After three decades of consensus-building that has rationalized terrorist violence as legitimate resistance, the butchering of hundreds of children at Beslan is not beyond reason. It is the logical result of accepting our enemy’s description of the world as legitimate.

What Bin Laden and the rest are doing is the work Arafat made possible. At the United Nations, he laughed in the faces of the high priests of international accord and mocked their idols—world peace, safety in numbers, international agreement, and multilateral action. It’s time we acknowledged that these were always false gods.