What You Should Think About the United Nations

November 17, 2007

“Negotiation in the classic diplomatic sense assumes parties more anxious to agree than to disagree.”

–Dean Acheson

There is a certain segment of the American public afflicted with strong negative feelings regarding the United Nations. Certainly it is not a perfect institution. Yet when one looks at its purpose and the context in which it operates, blanket hatred of the UN seems like a downright bizarre attitude to adopt. In fact, the general public of the United States sees the UN as a positive force bound by duty to do good in the world.

Yet there is a portion of the public as sure to feel their hearts race with hostility on hearing the phrase “United Nations” as Pavlov’s dogs would be to slobber at a particular light cue. In this case the conditioning is not a matter of being fed in conjunction with the cue. Rather the response in stimulated by the perverse satisfaction of embracing a bogus political orthodoxy. The organization had yet to spend a full decade in its present headquarters when a downright nutty group started rabble-rousing to promote American withdrawal from the strongest global organization dedicated to peaceful international relations.

A free society certainly can accommodate small numbers of survivalist storytellers dedicated to the hobbies of hoarding supplies and sitting around campfires swapping tales of big guvment’s evils. Alas, extremes of personal irresponsibility amongst media tycoons and people emulating journalists elevated the narratives of this fringe to a level where they influence the thinking of millions of American citizens. “Alas,” is an appropriate sentiment here, because a large number of those so misinformed are inclined to vote.

This is particularly problematic when the nation is divided over some sort of military misadventure. The domino theory was ridiculous on its face. If you see the United States as a society that honors traditions of personal liberty and will not yield to foreign oppression, then you have a solid basis for understanding that events in Viet Nam did not pose a real threat to American national security. Yet the sense of that threat motivated all manner of people to justify violence so extreme and remote. By word and deed they seemed unaware of just how much less fragile our nation actually is than such fears imply.

Today we also hear strains of, “we fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here.” Come to think of it, we hear precisely that language today. To be fair, Al Qaeda has actually attacked Americans on American soil. On the other hand, Al Qaeda was a ragtag militia of unpopular extremists in 2000. By October of 2001, they had become one of the most despised organizations on Earth. Little by little, their reputation in certain parts of the world has risen. More precipitously, the reputation of the United States government has fallen in many of those same parts of the world.

There are many aspects to study in this phenomenon. One crucial facet involves understanding American thinking regarding the United Nations. When it came time to take action against Afghanistan, there was hardly an unsupportive voice in the room. Whatever delegation might have represented the outgoing regime in Afghanistan, the General Assembly did nothing to protest what the world saw as a legitimate action taken by the United States in the aftermath of a surprise attack. By December of 2001, the UN had already put together a plan and made significant contributions in multiple areas of promoting stability in occupied Afghanistan.

All seemed well with U.S.-UN relations up until the foundations were being laid for the attack on Iraq. It would not be long before the quest for international validation would give way to an effort to invalidate the voices of old allies, never mind the United Nations itself. It began with some foot-dragging on weapons inspections. Aside from a scrap of paper in some obscure German intelligence file and obvious misinformation provided by an Iraqi defector notorious for his eagerness to provide his handlers with sensational information, no reason existed to believe Saddam Hussein was on the verge of creating any mushroom clouds.

In fairness, there was a time when Saddam Hussein had pursued some exotic weapons programs. So long as he deployed them against Iranian targets, the United States was not shy about supporting the tyrant’s use of chemical weapons. It was a fact that he tried to build a ridiculously large artillery piece, and he had long been fascinated with powerful weapons. Yet it was also a fact that he had a narcissistic personality coupled with a significant amount of real political savvy. He may have valued firepower, but one thing he valued orders of magnitude more was his own neck.

The long and bloody process of slipping a noose around that neck faced derailment when military deployments by the U.S. convinced Hussein to give UN weapons inspectors unfettered access to the whole of Iraq. With trained professionals snooping in all the right places (not to mention U.S. satellites tracking every suspicious movement along with a large amount of ordinary traffic in Iraq) it was only a matter of time before the truth got out. As it happened, the truth was that Iraq was not wasting scarce resources on counterproductive efforts to break the UN-imposed ban on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Some have argued that White House officials were so bereft of geopolitical acumen that they truly believed Saddam Hussein was supporting forbidden weapons programs. Doubt may be cast on this view by the speed and ferocity of the media campaign to discredit the United Nations. From the most predictable of cheap shots (“doesn’t Hans Blix look a lot like Mr. Magoo?”) to sweeping slander positioned neatly over kernels of truth (“doesn’t corruption in the Oil for Food Programme create a conflict of interest?”) these efforts were a veritable symphony of that dark art practiced by Messrs. Ailes and Rove.

French fries became “freedom fries” for a time, and eventually our nation would extend a much bigger middle finger to the international community by appointing John Bolton as U.S. Ambassador to the UN. In doing so our leaders (and their supporters) display a grasp of friendship just as warped as their grasp of prewar Iraq. Today some of these same Americans so hostile to the United Nations go so far as to say out loud, “if only someone was around to tell us this war was a bad idea before we got into it.” Adding a lousy grip on recent history to other tenuous grasps, they fail to recognize that traditional allies speaking out against The Coalition of the Willing were concerned friends willing to brave unmistakable pettiness from American political leaders in order to do what good friends do — offer words of warning to dissuade the pursuit of an obviously disastrous plan.

Yet pursue that plan is precisely what our nation did. Now that the United Nations is pulling climate change to the top of its own agenda, it is only natural that the same American voices assailing them in the past will do so in the near future. As it happens, the individuals and institutions at the heart of misinformation about the Iraqi threat to national security are also major providers of misinformation about the relationship between industrial emissions and global warming.

Given the choice between remaining devoted to pundits consistently (if not also hysterically) wrong about the great issues of our times or looking elsewhere for guidance, a substantial segment of the American population will stay the course, however wrong it may be. To be sure, the UN is not above all criticism. Yet can inadequate action in Darfur or corruption in prewar Baghdad really justify ignoring the facts about all the tremendous good accomplished by dozens of UN organizations gathering data, distributing humanitarian aid, and working to spread peace across the globe? If you have a passionate commitment to denying humanity’s role in ongoing climate change, ignoring the facts is just one of the side effects of the anger you are likely to feel on hearing or seeing the phrase “United Nations.”

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What You Should Think About Saddam Hussein

October 3, 2007

So here they come to annihilate what is left of this people and humiliate their Muslim neighbors.”

–Osama bin Laden
(in a 1998 fatwa, predicting the U.S. invasion of Iraq)

The executive branch, backed by overwhelming legislative majorities, rushed this nation into Operation Iraqi Freedom. At the time, American media utterly failed in fulfilling a civic duty to keep the public informed. There was no shortage of content addressing the issue. Alas, there was a near total failure to let that content be shaped by findings of fact. Wild speculation was presented as undisputed truth. Even obvious deceptions were presented as one of two equally valid opinions.

Unprovoked military aggression seemed insane to much of the rest of the world. Nations eager to provide strong support for operations in Afghanistan were openly critical of the effort to invade Iraq. The policy only seemed sane to the American public because of a crucial distortion where traditional journalism collapsed under the weight of “balance” defined by equal attention to hawk rhetoric and dove rhetoric. From shady sources to implausible assertions to outright lies, nothing was defined as out of bounds in some sort of perverse game to generate public support for a White House wet dream.

Now, to be perfectly fair, I have no idea what inspires George W. Bush’s nocturnal emissions. However, I do know that the motivation for war could not have been based on genuine concern about the “mushroom cloud” scenario. This is not a gut impulse or even a close call, but the obvious conclusion to be drawn from plenty of solid givens the politically astute ought to have already known.

Perhaps foremost among these givens was the nature of Saddam Hussein. He was a tyrant. He modeled himself after Joseph Stalin, which is every bit as evil as adopting Adolf Hitler as a role model. There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein was a very bad man. Yet did he have to go? Why him and not any of a dozen other tyrants? I certainly cannot defend tyranny, but Iraq should be near the bottom of a 2002 cost-benefit analysis conducted by anyone intent on picking places where liberty might be achieved through forced regime change.

The administration could plead incompetence by conceding something like “irrational exuberance” when it came to this extremely bloody pet project. Yet if there was an earnest desire to spread liberty, and it was merely misdirected by inept planning, then why provide generous financial support to the secret service of Uzbekistan? A totalitarian regime uninhibited in the use of medieval torture techniques, including executions by means of boiling oil, hardly seems like an ideal partner in global democratization efforts. If that alliance, as with kowtowing to Saudi royalty, is required by realpolitik; then how credible was this idealism regarding the creation of a power vacuum in Iraq?

It is true that Saddam Hussein was enamored with weapons of mass destruction. The architects of this war understood that point from historic deployments. A cynic would say that American consultants assisting with chemical weapons attacks during the Iran-Iraq war enabled Pentagon analysts to study those weapons without creating the diplomatic backlash that would result if American forces actually conducted the gassings. I would not go that far, but there is no denying that hostility toward Iran caused our nation to support battlefield utilization of chemical weapons that we ought to have harshly condemned.

When the tyrant turned the poison on his own people, it was no longer possible to remain so supportive without losing face on the world stage. It would not be until the invasion of Kuwait that Saddam Hussein would become known as an enemy of the United States. Still, a prior strong working relationship was undermined by the atrocity at Halabja.

Of course, there was much more to this man’s personality than his fascination with horrific weaponry. Any informed and competent analyst intent on honest work product would have noted that, above all else, Saddam Hussein was a survivor. Many public figures in the Middle East have good reason to fear assassins, but only Hussein went to such extraordinary lengths to deal with that situation. He maintained a substantial corp of body doubles, all selected for a natural resemblance, then carved by expert plastic surgeons to better resemble their security-conscious employer. That is just one example of the many elaborate schemes actually implemented to insure his survival in time of trouble.

Hindsight seems to validate so much criticism of the war in Iraq. Yet it was never invalid as foresight. We know now from taxicab tales and the infamous “spider hole” that Saddam Hussein was indeed a self-preservationist of the first order. We knew that going into the war for all manner of reasons, including his willingness to let weapons inspectors travel unfettered throughout Iraq.

Credible allegations held that Western spies infiltrated UN weapons inspection teams. Then there is the affront to sovereignty — how many other nations would let foreigners go anywhere, anytime, unannounced in the name of compliance with UN mandates? Could you imagine the American reaction if somehow the world came to call for unfettered inspections of our WMD stockpiles?

The fact that he complied in principle with the call for a new round of inspections reveals that his pride as a head of state, never mind his quirky fascination with exotic weaponry, took a back seat to personal survival. He may have been a megalomaniac with other psychological disorders, but he was still sane enough to think that “let the inspectors in or we’ll invade” meant that letting the inspectors in would avert an American-led invasion.

Somehow, collectively, our nation failed to exhibit even that level of mental health. From distortions implying a dangerous level of non-compliance to Dick Cheney’s outright lies about a working relationship between the Hussein regime and Al Qaeda, almost no major media outlets had the courage to challenge propaganda points. On a good day, blatant deceptions about the level of menace posed by Iraq were still presented as valid opinions . . . one of “two sides to the story.”

Sometimes there really aren’t two sides to a story. Oceans are mostly water. If someone with a different political mindset than me contends that oceans are mostly vodka, that would not create a legitimate controversy. The right way for news and information media to cover that dispute would be to point out that the vodka theory is demonstrably wrong and the water theory is confirmed by countless credible observations. The fact that a man with a secret underground lair and a cyborg heart told the nation that Saddam Hussein worked with Al Qaeda — that is a great reason to do exposés on Vice Presidential dishonesty. It does nothing to justify pieces lending credence to Dick Cheney’s bizarre assertions.

Yet even today, his body long grown cold, the pro-war machine continues to slander Saddam Hussein. Fred Thompson has taken it upon himself to tug at those strings of misguided fear, still useful for controlling all those gullible patriots who were so certain the administration was accurate in its public assessment of the threat posed by prewar Baghdad.

Yes, Saddam Hussein was a very bad man. However, he was a very bad man who was very much in love with the idea of staying in his own skin. His narcissism would never allow WMD development to take precedence over personal security. Anyone anywhere near the Presidency who still doesn’t get that point is far too inept a judge of human character to manage a small business, never mind a modern superpower.

So, what should you think about Saddam Hussein? As an individual his life is a case study in irony. He clearly deserved as harsh a punishment as any human authority is fit to dish out, yet his ultimate fate seems to have been sealed for all the wrong reasons. For so much of his life he was the epitome of villainous, yet in the end he died no differently than would any hero of a conquered nation.

Like other heads of state in power today, some collaborating contentedly with the U.S. government, Saddam Hussein was a monster who tormented his own people ruthlessly. Yet like those other tyrants, he was also in no way a threat to the American people. Perhaps, after stripping away the misinformation about WMD programs and terrorism, there remained some sort of case for pursuing regime change in Iraq.

If so, nothing about that case justified putting Afghanistan on the proverbial back burner or diverting assets away from efforts to neutralize the original Al Qaeda. In a century so far dominated by tragically misguided national priorities, stoking public hatred toward Saddam Hussein proved an effective way to make the American public less rational and thus, temporarily, more supportive of a bold move to take our foreign policy headlong in the direction of historic folly.