Has there ever been a more pathetic clarion call than the one the New York Times’s editorialists sounded yesterday? “More discussion is the only road that will get the world to the right outcome — concerted effort by a wide coalition of nations to force Saddam Hussein to give up his weapons of mass destruction,” said the Times. “We need another debate. Another struggle to make this the United Nations’s leadership moment.” Yes, that’s clearly the most important objective here. For this the Times needed to use up all its Sunday editorial space?
It’s only fair to note that the Times is aware of how weak it sounds, having prefaced its statement of its position with a confession that it is not “satisfying.” The statement is followed up with: “Right now, things don’t look promising for those of us who believe this is a war worth waging, but only with broad international support.” No kidding.
There is actually more good sense in this editorial than in most of those the paper has run to date on Iraq. It concedes that President Bush has good reason to make Iraq a priority, and it notes that the threat from North Korea can be seen as an argument for action in Iraq. But these redeeming characteristics are finally outweighed by where the Times winds up: “The test now is whether we will find a new way to exercise our power in which leadership, self-discipline and concern for the common good will outweigh our smaller impulses.” Smaller impulses? It’s a curious description of the desire to end the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime and liberate the people of Iraq from it — and the willingness to do it without all the allies one might with to have.
The Times continues, “An invasion of Iraq that is not supported by many traditional allies, or those powers that we need to be allied with in the best possible future. . . . is not going to make the rest of the world want to root for us to succeed. The real test of American leadership is only incidentally about Iraq. It is whether we will further split the world into squabbling camps, united only by their jealousy of our power, or use our influence to unite it around a shared vision of progress, human rights and mutual responsibility.”
Well, it would of course be nice for the whole world to cheer us on, although it is, perhaps, unwise to expect that the most powerful nation in the world could ever inspire that reaction. And no doubt different policies and rhetoric might have made the administration’s diplomatic job easier. But “progress” and “human rights” are more likely to follow the U.S. into Iraq than to come from more discussion at a U.N. that seems notably devoid of responsibility. The weight placed by the Times on lofty sentiment does make it seem as though its editorial policy toward Iraq is, indeed, “only incidentally about Iraq.”
A much smarter take on the war appeared the same day in the Washington Post. (But then, on what day is that not true?) Some conservatives may be annoyed at Richard Holbrooke’s declaration that the “failure to finish [Saddam Hussein] off in 1991 was one of the most significant errors in modern American history, no matter what the rationale offered for limiting Desert Storm to the liberation of Kuwait.” Some may think that this second-guessing comes poorly from a representative of a party that did not back the first Gulf War and would have protested mightily at its continuation past the liberation of Kuwait — let alone from a representative of the foreign-policy team of an administration that left every element of its Iraq policy weaker than it had found it.
What’s interesting about the op-ed is that Holbrooke criticizes the Anglo-American decision to seek a second U.N. resolution — and does so quite cogently. He adds a stinging comparison: “In a roughly similar situation, in 1999, the Clinton administration and our NATO allies decided to bomb Serbia (for 77 days) without even seeking U.N. approval, after it became clear that Russia would veto any proposal. This contrast with the supposedly muscular Bush administration is especially odd when one considers that Saddam Hussein is far worse than Slobodan Milosevic, and that Iraq has left a long trail of violated Security Council resolutions, while there were none on Kosovo.”
A prominent Democrat is criticizing Bush’s Iraq policy from the right (at the same time as he criticizes it from the left). Will other Democrats take up this charge? If so, it will be grimmer news for the president than anything that has happened in the polls.