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The Last Emperor: One Thing Was Made Crystal Clear Yesterday: There Is No Other Authority Than America, No Law But US Law
13 September 2002
There he stood, this unlikely emperor of the world, telling the UN's 190 nations how it is going to be. The assembled nations may not be quite the toothless Roman senate of imperial times, but at the UN the hyperpower and its commander-in-chief are in control as never before: how could it be otherwise when the US army is the UN's only enforcer? This is, President Bush said, ©a difficult and defining moment© for the UN, a challenge that will show whether it has become ©irrelevant©. He pointed his silver-tongued gun with some delicacy and a certain noblesse oblige, but there was no doubt he was holding it to the UN's head: pass a resolution or be bypassed.
It was a fine and gracious speech that might have been borrowed from better presidents in better times. He spoke of a just and lasting peace for Palestine. He promised a surprise return by the US to Unesco. He spoke of the tragedy of world poverty, disease and suffering, of offering US aid, trade and healthcare. Earnest and uplifting, it was very like the speech he made soon after the twin towers attack last year. But how long ago that suddenly seemed. Back then the world tried hard to believe him, full of sympathy and hope that this earth-quake had indeed turned him internationalist. But this time belief was stretched beyond breaking. The skills of the best speech writer could not blot out the gulf between last year's rhetoric and the reality that followed.
Maybe it was the cut-away to Hamid Karzai in his green striped coat of many colors sitting in the chamber. It came as a sharp reminder of America's failure to invest in serious nation-building in Afghanistan, failure to send in enough troops to stop the old warlords seizing power again, the paucity of aid and the brazen carelessness once war was won. So Bush's conjured images of a postwar Iraq, peaceful and democratic, sounded like empty phantasms. War in Afghanistan to oust the Taliban was necessary - but so was investing in long-lasting security and prosperity if he wanted to prove how democracy wins over fundamentalist fury. From Kyoto and Johannesburg, to the ICC, steel tariffs, NMD and nuclear testing, too much has happened (or not happened) since last year's speech to take this one at face value.
Even so, good words are still preferable to bad ones. It was, after all, remarkable that the president was there in that chamber at all. A month ago the strident voices coming out of the White House would have none of it. The Rumsfeld/Cheney axis of war was in the ascendant, the UN was for wimps. The hawks would never have let their emperor stand there soliciting UN support in dulcet tones. It would be nice to believe that Tony Blair played some part in strengthening the arm of the Colin Powell internationalists who won the argument on the need for UN legitimacy. Sadly, he features hardly at all in US commentators' accounts of the internal Republican rows that finally brought Bush to the UN. For a very little influence, Blair has paid a frighteningly high price: the split with the rest of Europe, weakening his own influence by becoming Bush's tool, never again an independent honest broker. At home there is angry puzzlement among many more in his own party than the usual suspects. Was it worth so much damage? Only if in the end this war is successfully averted.
Even now, the drafters are working at a UN resolution to square (or fudge) the needs of the US war party with French and Russian hesitation. Deals are brokered, poor countries' arms are twisted with aid and trade while Russia may be allowed to kill a few more Chechens. But a deal there must be. The only ones who hope the UN fumbles are the Rumsfeld/Cheney warriors who want no straitjacket, no option for Saddam to avoid the war now sharpening its knives on his borders. Moving command headquarters from Florida to Qatar could hardly send a louder message: America wants war, America means war.
The only hope of avoiding it is that Saddam takes fright at a security council resolution with a firm time limit for the weapons inspectors to return - any time, any place or else, no run-around or obstruction. The message that the US means war has been conveyed to him forcefully by everyone who has his ear, including former weapons inspector Scott Ritter. The US saber is out of its scabbard: just let him look Cheney and Rumsfeld in the eye. The world will hold its breath and hope he blinks or, better still, that he is overthrown by others who see what's coming.
For those who supported the wars in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Sierra Leone, the enslaved peoples of Iraq are no less just a cause. Once legitimized by the UN and international law, there is no moral difference in the need to liberate Iraqis and relieve the potential threat Saddam poses to his neighbors. None would mourn his passing from power. The difference is pragmatic, not moral. There were very good reasons why Bush senior did not march on Baghdad in 1991, reasons that remain unchanged. Saddam's elite troops around Baghdad would inflict very heavy casualties. In his death throes, he would certainly use anthrax and nerve gases. Iraq might fall apart, with Shi'ite lands defecting to Iran, strengthening another vile regime, destabilizing others. If Afghanistan cannot hold US attention for one short year, how would far more complex Iraq be nurtured long term? Fermenting terror, recruiting generations of terrorists to come, the cure looks worse than the disease.
Curiously, the louder Bush and Blair call for an end to this villain, the less convincing it sounds. Why now? That remains the perplexing question. Containment works well: few observers think Saddam can launch anything under present no-fly, daily bombing pressure. What is Bush's obsession? It remains a mystery. It is not a vote-winner in the US where the danger looks not clear and present, but cloudy and distant. The risks are frightening and the costs staggering. Petrol prices rise while stock exchanges fall at the prospect. Oil say some, but if US companies want Saddam's oil, an oil-driven cynical administration could make peace not war and help themselves to fat contracts.
No, it appears to spring from a new ideology, a neo-conservative dream which Charles Krauthammer, guru of the right, calls the US's ©uniquely benign imperium©. Hyperpower is not enough unless it is exerted so forcefully that no state ever again challenges benign US authority. One thing was made crystal clear yesterday - there is no other source of authority but America, and that means there is no other law but US law. What the US wants, the UN had better solemnize with a suitable resolution - very like the Roman senate and one of its lesser god-emperors. But this is not the real America. A small cultish sect is battling for the ©imperium© within this bizarre administration, resisted by mainstream Republicans - so what is Tony Blair doing in there with them?