A political cartoon in Sunday's Washington Post shows the word "unilateralism" written in sand with Uncle Sam asking: "Do you think this would make a good foundation" for U.S. foreign policy? And there you have the judgment of the left-of-center Establishment: Unilateralism, they assert, is very bad policy. And President Bush is - you guessed it - a unilateralist.
Don't be too quick to buy either of these propositions.
To start, there is nothing "unilateral" about U.S. foreign policy today, least of all in regard to Iraq. The current conflict, as everyone should recall, has its roots in 1990 when Saddam Hussein attempted to swallow Kuwait, along with every last drop of its oil. President George H.W. Bush assembled a coalition of nations that, with explicit U.N. Security Council approval, drove Saddam back to Baghdad. (By the way, that was an exceptional event: The Security Council has given its approval for the use of force on only one other occasion, the Korean War - and then only because the Soviet Union was boycotting and therefore did not exercise its veto.)
Having accomplished the mission, the U.S.-led coalition decided not to dislodge Saddam, not to make him pay for his aggression or for his crimes against humanity including, for example, his mass slaughter of Iraqi Kurds and Shi'ites.
No peace treaty was signed, but there was a ceasefire - contingent on Saddam agreeing to conditions. Among them: He was never again to commit mass murder or otherwise brutalize the Iraqi people, and he would surrender his weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
Saddam agreed to the conditions - then proceeded to flout them. He also expressed his gratitude for the leniency shown him by attempting to assassinate President Bush in 1993. In response, the U.N. issued more resolutions and imposed economic sanctions on Iraq. None of which stopped Saddam from doing whatever he chose; none of which stopped Saddam from preparing for the next battle in the epic struggle that, he declared, had begun in 1990 but was far from over.
In the aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush recognized that Saddam would have to be stopped, one way or another. For an American leader to continue to turn a blind eye to an anti-America megalomaniac developing WMD, he realized, would be irresponsible. He understood, too, that when Saddam got ready to deploy those WMD, terrorists would provide a handy - and hands-off - delivery system.
That Saddam has conspired with terrorists for years is not in doubt. The CIA has documented Saddam's terrorist training camp at Salman Pak, southeast of Baghdad, complete with an airplane fuselage in which hijackers learn their trade. Terrorist mastermind Abu Nidal called Baghdad home for years. Saddam has been a generous investor in Hamas and similar organizations. And in testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on February 11, CIA director George Tenet stated plainly: "Iraq has in the past provided training in document forgery and bomb-making to al Qaeda. It also provided training in poisons and gasses to two al Qaeda associates."
U.N. Resolution 1441, painstakingly negotiated by Secretary of State Colin Powell, unambiguously gave Saddam one "final opportunity" to surrender his WMD. Saddam chose not to avail himself of that opportunity.
It's true that France and Russia then decided to undermine 1441 and the 16 other resolutions passed since the suspension of the Gulf War. They did so for several reasons, not least that they have been making good money selling weapons to Saddam in flagrant violation of UN prohibitions they claim to support.
So President Bush assembled a "coalition of the willing" - about 40 nations that support toppling Saddam, destroying his WMD and liberating the Iraqi people.
Whatever you want to call all that, it's hardly "unilateral." But even if it were, what would be the alternative? Presumably it would be a "multilateralism" construed to mean not a coalition of like-minded nations acting in concert - as in the present conflict - but rather America granting to the U.N. Security Council the exclusive power to legitimize the use of force.
Does anyone really think that Jacques Chirac, Vladimir Putin and presumably also the rulers of such micro-states as Guinea and Cameroon should have the right to grant or deny the United States permission to send its troops to defend its vital security interests or to stop egregious violations of human rights? We know where such multilateralism leads. It leads to Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia and Rwanda where U.N. fecklessness has been responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent victims.
Anyone who believes that such multilateralism should serve as the foundation for America's foreign policy in this dangerous age is living ...well, in a cartoon.