Let us stipulate that Saddam Hussein is a scumbag. He has run a brutal and murderous dictatorship, repressed significant numbers of his people, sought to develop weapons of mass destruction, invaded a neighbor, used chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians and Iranians, and defied various UN resolutions. Delivering his Big Speech at the UN on Thursday morning, President George W. Bush covered Saddam’s infamy in detail (without noting, by the way, how the Reagan-Bush administration in the 1980s provided Saddam with assistance while he was using chemical weapons during his war against Iran). The President cited the numerous times the UN Security Council has declared Iraq in breach of resolutions ordering it to rid itself of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles. But Bush presented no heretofore unknown information about the threat posed by Iraq. And he offered no specific proposals on how to deal with the threat–real or hyped. He was making a case for despising Hussein (as if that was needed). But his case for war against Iraq remained vague. His message was, either you do something, or I will. That is, Bush said nothing new.
The speech was a lecture. Claiming he desired a United Nations that is “effective…and successful,” Bush tried to guilt-trip the General Assembly into accepting his hardline approach. He argued the UN must do so in order to be taken seriously: “All the world now faces a test, and the United Nations a difficult and defining moment. Are Security Council resolutions to be honored and enforced, or cast aside without consequence? Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?” Worrying about the strength and credibility of the UN is a new position for the Bush administration, which has repeatedly ignored or opposed consensus positions of the UN, such as its support for an international criminal court. (A partial list of these instances appears in the preceding column; click on the link below.)
But Bush signaled that actually he, too, held no true respect for the UN. For in the nut-graph (as a newspaper editor would call it) of his speech, Bush declared that if the UN decides his particular course of confrontation with Iraq–whatever that might entail–is not appropriate, he is willing to defy the body and move against Iraq on his own. “We will work with the UN Security Council for the necessary resolutions,” he said. “But the purposes of the United States should not be doubted. The Security Council’s resolutions will be enforced–the just demands of peace and security will be met–or action will be unavoidable. And a regime that has lost its legitimacy will lose its power.” In keeping with his with-us-or-against-us approach to foreign policy, he was telling the UN that its standing depends upon on whether it agrees with him.
Bush mentioned nothing about any effort to revive aggressive and robust weapons inspections in Iraq, nothing about possible stricter sanctions, nothing about military options shy of those designed to achieve regime change (such as strikes against Iraq’s suspected WMD facilities, should there be proof these sites present a danger). Bush was dismissive of all paths but war. “We’ve been more than patient,” he remarked. “We’ve tried sanctions. We’ve tried the carrot of oil for food, and the stick of coalition military strikes.'” And none of it, he suggested, has worked. So the question hovers, what does Bush expect the UN to do? The only alternative he seems willing to accept is a war to remove Saddam.
Nor did Bush discuss the challenge of what would come after such an event–other than a new Iraq that “can one day join a democratic Afghanistan and a democratic Palestine.” (No word from Bush on the prospects of a “democratic” Saudi Arabia or a “democratic” Jordan.) And he praised his administration’s actions in Afghanistan. But the post-war scene there remains a mess, and even Republicans on Capitol Hill have griped that the United States has not done enough in terms of providing security and assistance to that fractured (and fractious) nation. Present-day Afghanistan–which may be an improvement for many Afghans over the time of the Taliban–is hardly a good sales-pitch for war against Iraq.
As far as the public knows, Bush so far has failed to persuade any head of state–but Britain’s Tony Blair–that war against Saddam is necessary at this point. He hasn’t even won over key advisers to his dad, including former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. His UN address brought nothing fresh to the podium. Bush was not leading; he was pushing.