The Magazine

Game Over

From the March 24, 2003 issue: Now is no time to go wobbly.

Mar 24, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 27 • By DAVID BROOKS, FOR THE EDITORS
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LET'S SEE WHERE WE STAND. Over the past six months, while the United Nations has been debating the definition of words like "immediate" and "unconditional," the United States has deployed hundreds of thousands of troops around Iraq. It has done so smoothly, and without the terrorist counterattack that many feared.

The French effort to create a united European foreign policy opposed to U.S. policy has failed. French behavior has illustrated the divide between new and old Europe more clearly than anything Donald Rumsfeld could say. Central and Eastern Europeans now know who their natural allies are. The British governing class has absorbed a fresh lesson in French arrogance.

The U.N. has conspicuously failed to honor its own resolutions. President Bush challenged the body to finally give its judgments some weight. It has failed to do that, and the American public is well aware of this failure.

Domestically, public support for the president's policy remains strong. Clear majorities, including clear majorities of self-declared independent voters, support President Bush. Even among registered Democrats, there is a slight majority supporting regime change in Iraq.

All in all, this is not a terrible state of affairs. The president has remained resolute. Momentum to liberate Iraq continues to build. The situation has clarified, and history will allow clear judgments about which leaders and which institutions were up to the challenge posed by Saddam and which were not.

It's worth taking this step back to remind ourselves that things are still essentially on track, because over the past week it's been easy to feel distressed. The president, in his prime-time press conference, said he would put a second resolution on Iraq to a vote at the Security Council, regardless of the whip count. At the time, this decision seemed a blow for candor.

But then in the course of the ensuing days it all began to look like a backroom negotiation at the Chicago city council. The White House released photos of the president on the phone, pleading with nations such as Angola, as if that were supposed to impress anybody. Plans and counterplans were passed around, as if some diplomatic fudge could cover over the essential dispute. What had been intended as a let's-lay-our-cards-on-the-table moment became bogged down in diplomatic modality land. We learned once again that nobody spends a week in the belly of the United Nations and comes out looking clear and principled.

It was a bad exercise, generous (to Tony Blair) but inevitably futile. Still, it's over. The diplomatic dance of the past several days, and indeed the past months, will be soon forgotten. What matters is the underlying dispute that has shaped this issue from the beginning.

Over the past 12 years the United States has sought to disarm or depose Saddam--more forcefully since September 11 than before. Throughout that time, France and Russia have sought to undermine sanctions and fend off the ousting of Saddam. They opposed Clinton's efforts to bomb Saddam, just as they oppose Bush's push for regime change. Through the fog and verbiage, that is the essential confrontation. Events will show who was right, George W. Bush or Jacques Chirac.

We warned, when the administration first decided to take the U.N. route, that this could be a trap. In retrospect, things have gone better than we had any right to expect. Bush threw down a clear challenge before the body. Colin Powell was able to win unanimous support for Resolution 1441, which is a valuable document. The American people got to see their president giving a body he regards with skepticism a fair chance to confront Saddam. Many were impressed that Bush made the effort. They are less wary of his policy now than they were a few months ago.

It's possible to second-guess the U.N. venture in any number of ways. Maybe the United States should have walked away from the U.N. after Saddam's insulting weapons report in December. Maybe Bush should have anticipated that Russia would remain intransigent regardless of Bush's relationship with Putin. But second-guessing the last-minute diplomatic maneuvers leading up to a war is hardly a useful way to spend one's time.

What matters, and what ultimately sprang the U.N. trap, is American resolve. The administration simply wouldn't let up. It didn't matter how Hans Blix muddied the waters with his reports on this or that weapons system. Under the U.N. resolutions, it was up to Saddam to disarm, administration officials repeated ad nauseam, and he wasn't doing it. It was and is sheer relentlessness that has driven us to where we are today.

Which is ironic. We are in this situation because the first Bush administration was not relentless in its pursuit of Saddam Hussein. That is a mistake this Bush administration will not repeat.

--David Brooks, for the Editors