Colin Powell had put himself through one of the priciest ventures in adult education as he was sandbagged last week by the French, and discovered that his scheme of working through the United Nations was not only a path leading nowhere, but a path leading off course. By working through the U.N., the administration made the media and the public suggestible to the notion that the problem hinged on the elusive matter of “inspections” and disarmament. But the problem is the regime itself in Iraq and its deep involvement in the network of terror aimed at the United States. And by seeking a coalition, a multilateral project, Powell helped to build the sentiment, now ascending in the polls, that we may not defend our own country without the endorsement of the U.N., with its collection of exotic despotisms, and so-called “allies” who have nursed an hostility to us.
It is about time then to deliver the Sam Spade version of the State of the Union Address as it bears on Iraq. Or at least a variant on the version done by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. It was not a gesture merely of machismo when Bogart said to Mary Astor (in a paraphrase) that when your partner is killed, you’re expected to do something about. It doesn’t matter, he went on, whether you particularly like him or not; you’re expected to do something about it.
The variant for the president would probably run in this way:
Have our friends in Europe and the U.N. forgotten? It was our people who were assaulted and killed on September 11. Our country, our people, remain distinctly the target of terror, not only on our own soil, but wherever Americans find themselves, in Kuwait, Yemen, or other points abroad. And when our people are assaulted, we are the ones who are expected to do something about it. The support of our friends would be much appreciated, but the withdrawal of their support cannot diminish our responsibility to act. We have given the United Nations the chance to respect its own mandates, but the fact that certain states in Europe are backing away — that they are reluctant to face up to the mandates they themselves voted — cannot bar this country from what we ourselves need to do to protect ourselves. And it cannot displace the authority of those officers who bear a direct, elective responsibility to the people whose lives have been endangered.
The American people brought to the world something new under the sun in that Novus Ordo Seclorum — that new order for the ages: What was altogether new in the world was the claimed right of human beings to govern themselves, under a government drawing its powers from “the consent of the governed.” In that vein, one of the most summoning lines in the American Revolution was that our lives and freedoms simply could not be secure if the protection of our people was placed in the hands of people who bore no elective responsibility to the American people. Their interests would not always be ours. We could not expect the British ruling class to sacrifice their own economic interests, or even the lives of people closer to them, for the sake of defending our interests and our lives. Have we forgotten — or even worse, overthrown — the first principle that came out the American Revolution and the grounds of our own freedom? But we are asked precisely now to forget when we are asked to place the security of the country, not in the hands of officers who are directly accountable to the American people, but in the hands of governments that bear no responsibility for our safety or well-being. The question can be submitted to a candid world: Can we count on the French and the Germans to have our interests always at heart; to forego their own business with Iraq or their connections in the Middle East, for the sake of protecting the lives and interests of our people? What binds them to our people in the way they are bound to the interests of their own? And that speaks for the parliamentary republics in the United Nations. It makes even less sense that officers elected in America should seek permission to defend the American people from governments that do not depend in the least, for their power, on the consent of their own people. Voices have sprung up insisting that we go to war only with the consent of the United Nations. And we may rightly ask, If there is a case for defending the American people, why should that case be any less compelling if it doesn’t gain the assent of despotisms in Asia and the Middle East?
The case for bringing down the regime in Iraq depends most critically on the linkage to September 11, and not merely on the adventures of Hans Blix and his crew, affecting to do “inspections.” As Professor Angelo Codevilla has noted, the world knew that, in response to September 11, the American president could launch a few missiles, in the way that President Clinton responded to earlier attacks by launching missiles. The question though was whether anything would change in the landscape of the Middle East; whether there would be a serious price paid by any of the regimes that supplied and harbored the terrorists, providing them with passports and legal cover. After September 11, the world must know that it cannot be business as usual. Someone will have to pay, or the lives of Americans would be treated cheaply — treated as so many theatrical props — if the American government did not convey this grave lesson: The people who conspired and encouraged the targeting of Americans are in danger now of losing their regimes and their lives.
And of those regimes, none stands out, as a graver danger than the regime in Iraq. With a cadre of engineers, that regime has undertaken work on nuclear weapons. It has accumulated a vast store of biological weapons, which runs beyond any plausible use confined to the battlefield. Such weapons are not accumulated without purpose, and the purpose of these weapons is to intimidate. It is to blackmail or threaten, especially with toxins deployed in the United States, by willing agents, readily available. The same weapons, in another state, may suggest an entirely different purpose, but with the regime under Saddam Hussein, we simply cannot count on there being any moral inhibitions, or legal restraints, on their use. If we are to counter that “axis of evil,” a strike at Iraq would be a strike at a regime with a sophisticated economy and substantial resources. We would have the chance then to remove the most formidable threat, but with the vastest possibilities for redemption: A change in the regime in Iraq could set off a chain of moves elsewhere in the region, unsettling the old order, and bringing the current of democracy to the Islamic world. But at the same time, it will deliver the most sobering lesson: that it is fatally dangerous, for tyrants and regimes, to make a target of the American people.
So much might be said, perhaps in words slightly more tempered. As for Colin Powell and the U.N., the secretary might rework a line from Sidney Greenstreet in the same movie: “By Gad, sir, I do like to talk to [men who like] to talk. In order to be judicious one needs practice at it.” Long may he practice.
— Hadley Arkes is the Vaughan Fellow in the Madison Program at Princeton University. His most recent book is Natural Rights and the Right to Choose.