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Multilateralist Cowards

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The biggest bunch of cowards in the U.S. Congress are the multilateralists. These are the ones who say that the Bush administration should not escalate the 10-year-old war against Iraq without the support of the United Nations.

What makes them cowards is not their skittishness about having the United States go it alone against Saddam Hussein. It’s their seeking refuge in multilateralism so they don’t have to oppose the war forthrightly, as they should. They were afraid of going into the fall election with an “antiwar” brand on their hides. How pathetic.

This can be the only explanation for their behavior because their position is otherwise incoherent. If, as they say, they believe Saddam is a threat to the American people and if most nations oppose the U.S. escalation, then why not support unilateral action? It makes no sense to agree with President Bush that Iraq poses an imminent mortal danger to the United States, but then oppose any defensive action until other governments agree to go along. If you grant the president’s premises, then his conclusion follows. (The problem is in the premises.)

But the multilateralist position begins to make sense if it is a stalling tactic by Democrats who don’t want to appear to be anti-war. If a Republican accuses a Democrat of being for peace, he can protest, “No! I am not. I just believe that we have an obligation to work through the United Nations.” He thus can have it both ways, appearing to favor war while helping to delay and maybe avert it.

It might even work for a while. But it is still cowardly.

It would be refreshing to see a Democrat say what needs to be said: that the war is a phony from top to bottom. Saddam Hussein is weaker today than he was in 1990 and poses no threat to the American people. He had nothing to do with 9/11. Even if he is trying to get biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, the only practical reasons for doing so are to enhance his prestige as the leader of the Arab world and deter attacks from the nuclear-armed Israel and United States. It would be senseless for him to spend millions of dollars on weapons, only to see his entire country — weapons, oil, and himself included — destroyed the moment he used one of them against us or Israel. He may be a ruthless killer, but he shows no signs of being suicidal. And the idea that he’d give one of those weapons to religious fanatics who despise him is absurd; it goes against everything we know and have observed about the secular Hussein, beginning when he was our trusted, enlightened, and brutal ally in the 1980s.

The point is that the unilateralist-multilateralist debate is a fraud. Escalating the war would be criminal whether Mr. Bush goes it alone (with Prime Minister Blair) or with a coalition. If every country in the world favored the coming assault, the United States should refuse to participate.

The wrong cannot be made right by majority vote — especially when the votes are cast by safely ensconced politicians who will pay no price for their recklessness.a

Democrats, this is hardly the time for ducking the big questions. The Bush administration has shown an unprecedented willingness to deceive the American people, using every base rhetorical device to keep them scared and ignorant. This president makes his predecessor look like a paragon of candor, for while Mr. Clinton butchered the English language to hide a tawdry fling with a young intern, Mr. Bush and his brain trust do it so he can escalate a war that will kill many innocent people. Decent people will prefer the former.

Knocking off Saddam Hussein — if that’s still the objective; Mr. Bush and his press secretary can’t seem to agree — is something a segment of the political elite has wanted since long before 9/11. The Bush administration has an agenda for the Middle East having to do with oil and Israel; and Saddam, although once useful in that mission, has now outlived his usefulness. So it’s time for him to go.

No, it’s not a noble reason, but that’s the kind of thing wars are launched over.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.