Multilateralism is a nice idea, but in the end it's a very rarified and not especially useful one. It is the intellectual product of a comfortable and generally well-intentioned West that, as it turns out, maybe isn't fearful enough for its own existence. The Bush administration has been taken to task for letting the mission determine the coalition, rather than the other way around. But that is how history, especially military history, usually works. If it were otherwise—if coalitions determined missions—the United States might never have launched the D-Day invasion. It didn't matter whether we found the Soviet cause just or Stalin a noble ally; the purpose of Operation Overlord was to open up a second front to defeat the Nazis.
Of course, a large part of history entails facing the consequences of our coalitions. We are often reminded that the terrorists who reduced the World Trade Center towers and their inhabitants to dust were drawn from the same CIA-sponsored warriors who brought the Soviet Union to its knees. Americans know as well as anyone, then, that it is rude to talk about "blowback" in the wake of a massacre; nevertheless, it is a fact that throughout much of the Cold War, the former Soviet Union sponsored the Arab terrorist organizations whose early designs provided the model for the Beslan massacre.
But in the long run, what's much more costly than our alliances of convenience are the coalitions that exist only in the abstract rather than reality. We knew 30 years ago that the Western nations that had created the idea of "the international community" had neither the stomach nor the will to fight global terrorism as one, even if that war was directed against them all. In November 1974, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat addressed the U.N. General Assembly brandishing a gun holster (he'd been convinced to leave his pistol outside the hall) and warned, "Don't let this olive branch fall from my hand."
As Barry Rubin writes in his biography of Arafat, "To bin Ladin's assistant, [Abu Ubeid el-] Qurashi, a quarter-century later, 'the best proof' of terrorism's value as a strategy was that Arafat was an honored guest at the UN General Assembly just eighteen months after his men gunned down athletes at the Olympic games."
If we're still looking for root causes of Sept. 11, Arafat's coming-out party in the inner sanctum of multilateralism is one of them. The Western caretakers of the international community signaled then that since they could not comprehend the actions and read the intentions of men like Arafat, neither could they protect us from them. For his part, Arafat knew that if 11 members of the Israeli Olympics delegation could be executed on television and he was allowed to walk away, then the guardians of world order were weakest when they let the coalition determine the mission. After three decades of consensus-building that has rationalized terrorist violence as legitimate resistance, the butchering of hundreds of children at Beslan is not beyond reason. It is the logical result of accepting our enemy's description of the world as legitimate.
What Bin Laden and the rest are doing is the work Arafat made possible. At the United Nations, he laughed in the faces of the high priests of international accord and mocked their idols—world peace, safety in numbers, international agreement, and multilateral action. It's time we acknowledged that these were always false gods.