Politics & Policy

Eliot Ness Meets The Security Council

Breaking out of the old-world rules.

Iraq’s efforts at obfuscation are so blatant that they border on comical. So why did Secretary of State Colin Powell have to reveal precious intelligence capabilities to convince the Security Council of the painfully obvious?

For those who were truly confused by the chorus demanding evidence against Saddam, Powell’s presentation was a useful exercise. Saddam could be testing his germ-ready unmanned aircraft over the Champs Elysees before the French found the evidence convincing. Evidently a master of understatement, French Foreign Minister Dominique De Villepin’s reaction to Powell was “[Iraq’s] cooperation still contains some gray areas.”

So let’s admit that the effort was not really about convincing recalcitrant countries of the facts, as if they cared. The more interesting question is, do we even want them to be convinced?

If I had to bet, there will be a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq and France will support it. The effect of this, as De Villepin said Wednesday, will be to “affirm at each stage the central role of the Security Council.” This may please the French, but should the rest of us be happy about it?

Either the U.S. goes in without further U.N. authorization, as Condoleezza Rice just stated it has the full right to do, or the U.N. blesses military action first. It is usually assumed that second is preferable.

In a narrow sense, this is true. A U.N. stamp of approval allows the U.S. to share responsibility for the aftermath of the war, and provides cover if something goes wrong. But it is not clear that it advances the bigger picture of which ousting Saddam should be but one part.

Saddam is a problem, but he is not the problem. The problem is architectural: The opportunity to fix Cold War distortions was squandered in the decade following the Soviet collapse.

For almost half a century, the world got used to a lot of bad behavior. Terrorism and other forms of international aggression were allowed to rise under the rubric of “liberation struggles.” Human rights were systematically quashed within the Soviet bloc, and the West lowered standards for its allies in blocking the expansion of communism. International organizations were bastardized beyond recognition by the Soviet/Arab bloc and its “non-aligned” allies. Nonproliferation treaties became a cover for rogue regimes building bombs.

September 11 was a product of this neglect. It was as if the West came to realize only after 9/11 that the mess outside its own neighborhood needed to be cleaned up. But wiping the graffiti off the walls and collecting the garbage is a somewhat fruitless struggle if the gangs that ruined the neighborhood are still running loose.

Currently, the U.N. acts more as a protector of international criminality than as the enforcer of the world order envisioned by its charter. The Security Council, if not quite in cahoots with the gang leaders, is like a police force that has long ago given up imposing something close to the rule of law.

In this context, the American decision to go to the Security Council for authorization was a bit of a non-sequitur: the collision of the order the U.S. is creating with the old order.

The war in Iraq is about smashing a particular gang, which will send a powerful message to the other gangs that the U.S. is no longer going to tolerate gang rule. If the U.S. is Eliot Ness, out to take on organized crime with a select band of Untouchables, the Security Council is the corrupt police establishment that can only look bad if America succeeds.

Ness knew that as big a prize as Al Capone was, the larger objective was to break the police corruption that allowed crime to flourish. And that is what he did, moving on to become chief of police in Cleveland, where he busted open a system riddled with cops on the take.

According to a history of Ness’s exploits, “The honest men on the police force took courage from Ness’s relentless pursuit of corruption” and started going after criminals themselves.

The American strategy, therefore, should not be so much to shame the Security Council members with the truth, but with actions that fly in the face of their capitulation to gang rule.

If this is the objective, it is not clear that Security Council authorization is a step in the right direction, because it places a veneer of legitimacy over a fundamentally corrupted system.

During the Korean War, as Max Abrahms noted in these pages, president Harry Truman had the same problem. When North Korea barreled across the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950, Truman brought the issue before the Security Council, which quickly passed a resolution calling for the aggressors to withdraw. But it took Truman¹s unilateral decision to move US forces into the area to shock the Council into passing a much stronger resolution, putting the threat of force behind its words.

The Truman case was a positive example of how the Security Council can be shamed into action, but also a negative example of what happens when nothing is done to change the corruption of the international system. In fact, periodically doing the right thing arguably preserves the rotten system rather than reforming it.

The only way to break this cycle is to break out of it. A complete break out would have been not to go for U.N. authorization in the first place, as happened in Afghanistan in 2001. It is too late for that, but it is not too late to at least deliberately skip a re-reauthoriziation that the U.S. has already said it does not need. A side benefit would be to deprive the French of a chance for a death-bed conversion to the allied cause. That alone is worth a smidgen of unilateralism.

Saul Singer is editorial-page editor of The Jerusalem Post. This piece first appeared in the Post and is reprinted with permission.