The Senate debate on Iraq boils down to this: Whom do you trust less—President Bush or the United Nations?
Nobody's putting it that way, of course. Democrats don't want to show disrespect to the president, and Republicans don't want to show disrespect to our allies. But if you scrape away the pomp and platitudes, that's the question that drives the debate.
Here's the key paragraph of the war resolution senators have been discussing: "The President is authorized to use all means that he determines to be appropriate, including force, in order to enforce the United Nations Security Council Resolutions [previously passed against Iraq], defend the national security interests of the United States against the threat posed by Iraq, and restore international peace and security in the region."
Opponents of the resolution, such as Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., and Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., say it's premature to authorize the use of force before diplomatic alternatives have been exhausted. They propose either to defer Senate action until the United Nations acts or to authorize force only "pursuant to a resolution of the United Nations Security Council … adopted after the enactment of this joint resolution." If the Security Council does nothing, they argue, Bush can come back to Congress with his war resolution, and they'll pass it.
Proponents of the resolution, such as Sens. John Warner, R-Va., Wayne Allard, R-Colo., and Evan Bayh, D-Ind., reply that the United Nations won't get tough on Iraq unless the United States applies firm pressure. In their view, this requires unity between Bush and Congress. Several of these senators met with Secretary of State Colin Powell during a break in the debate Tuesday. When they returned, they told colleagues that according to Powell, U.S. diplomats at the United Nations wanted a strong resolution from Congress to use as leverage in negotiations with other members of the Security Council.
Proponents object to giving the United Nations a "veto" over U.S. military operations. In principle, this is an assertion of sovereignty. In practice, it's code for the weak-kneed corruption of Russia, China, and France—veto-bearing members of the Security Council who constantly bend over backward to avoid enforcing the council's resolutions against Iraq. As Allard noted Tuesday, all three countries have commercial deals with Iraq that are being blocked by U.N. sanctions.
Over the past four days, I've seen many liberal senators speak high-mindedly of the legitimacy that only the "international community" can confer on an enforcement action in Iraq. I have yet to see one senator explain why France, China, or Russia, given their past and present heel-dragging, can be counted on to take or support such action. So why do these senators prefer to wait for multilateral intervention? Not because they trust the Security Council but because they don't trust the president.
Imagine that you live in a neighborhood infested with juvenile delinquents. The cops are too lazy and cowardly to take on the delinquents. One day, your uncle, who lives down the block, comes to you and asks for your gun. He says he just wants to point it at one of the kids, maybe fire a shot or two over the kid's head. Maybe then the cops will realize that if they don't round up the kids, the neighborhood will dissolve into vigilante mayhem. You offer the gun to your uncle but ask him not to remove the safety. He says that isn't good enough. He wants the safety off.
How much do you trust your uncle? Are you more afraid that the cops won't protect you from the delinquents or that your uncle will start shooting kids? Do you hand over the gun?
Opponents of the war resolution are afraid to give Bush the gun. They call his use-of-force resolution a "blank check." They try to frame this objection in general terms, noting the constitutional role of the Senate in constraining the president. On Wednesday, Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., compared Bush's resolution to the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution that led to the Vietnam War. But Leahy added, "I'm not suggesting the administration is trying to mislead the Congress about Iraq."
Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, came closest to expressing open suspicion of Bush. In remarks Wednesday, he declared that the administration's public posture about Iraqi links to al-Qaida "contradicts the briefings we [senators] have received from various agencies." He concluded, "Let us not overreact or get tricked." Tricked by whom? By the administration. Bush says he needs the resolution to scare the Security Council into disarming Iraq. But give him the resolution, and he'll go to war. Give your uncle the gun, and he'll start shooting.
Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut senator who ran against Bush on the 2000 Democratic presidential ticket, refuses to doubt Bush to this extent. Congress must authorize the president to use "the force that he determines to be necessary and appropriate," Lieberman argued Wednesday. If Saddam Hussein dismantled his weapons of mass destruction and permitted unrestricted weapons inspections, said Lieberman, "it's hard to imagine" that Bush would attack Iraq anyway over other offenses such as Saddam's domestic repression.
Which side is right? I'm less confident in the administration's judgment than Lieberman is, but I'm more confident in the administration's ethics than Feingold is. And I don't trust the French, Russian, or Chinese governments to do anything to Iraq that interferes with their commercial or political interests. I'd give Bush the gun. We'll find out Thursday how many senators have reached the same conclusion.