The Limits of Unilateralism

Published February 04, 2005, issue of February 04, 2005.
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President Bush and his allies have a right to claim last Sunday’s election in Iraq as a moral victory. The willingness of millions of Iraqis to defy terrorist threats and line up to vote is a testament to the power of the human spirit. After decades of tyranny, Iraqis were given an opportunity to vote on their future, and they braved bombs and bullets to do so.

To be sure, one election does not guarantee a stable Iraqi democracy. Iraqis must still pick their way through a veritable minefield of challenges — Shi’ite majoritarianism, Kurdish separatism and an ongoing insurgency — before they or anyone around them can sleep soundly. Nonetheless, the election offers a glimmer of hope, the first in nearly two years, that there will yet be a decent ending to that sorry mess.

It would be a serious mistake, however, if the administration were to read the news as a vindication of its Iraq policy and present it as a template for confronting future crises. America went to war in 2003 in the face of overwhelming opposition from across the community of nations. The result of our unilateral action was the chasm of mistrust and alienation that now divides us from our global partners, both traditional allies such as France and Canada and newer ones such as Russia. That alienation did not disappear last Sunday. In some cases, such as Russia, the gulf actually seems to be widening.

America’s isolation creates a dangerous vacuum just as we face a series of newer crises. The world is less stable than it was two years ago, not more so. In global hot spots from Iran to Sudan to North Korea, troubles loom that call for a strong, unified response from the world community. For those words to have meaning, America must lead.

For the last four years, the president and his administration have interpreted global leadership as an exercise in peevishness, bullying and unilateral use of force. Europeans, led by France and Germany, have responded with a mischievous unilateralism of their own, trying to counter American power rather than tame it.

The dysfunction reached its pinnacle in Iraq, where America invaded without meaningful international backing, with no clear motive and no well-considered plan. Over the months the fighting there has led to growing anger in the Muslim world, further isolating America on the world stage. Rogue states like Iran and North Korea, emboldened by our dilemma, have speeded up their efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, hoping to immunize themselves from a similar invasion. Efforts by Europeans and others to negotiate solutions to the nuclear threats are hobbled by Washington’s seeming inability to cooperate where it doesn’t call the shots.

At the same time, ironically, our ability to act unilaterally — as we should if all else truly fails — is undercut by the continuing warfare in Iraq, which ties down American troops and saps our military resources.

All these weaknesses have come to a head in Sudan, where pro-government forces are waging a campaign of mass murder against farmers in the western province of Darfur. Until now, Washington has honorably taken the lead in pressing for international action to stop the horror. Last fall the administration formally recognized the atrocities as a case of genocide, and has been pressing the United Nations since then for a response.

This week the U.N. came back with a report on Sudan that dealt a double blow to America’s position. First, the report — while detailing extensive “crimes against humanity” — rejected the American definition of the Sudanese atrocities as a case of genocide under international law. Second, it recommended that suspected Sudanese war criminals be referred to the newly formed International Criminal Court for prosecution. America opposes the international court, fearing it could become a political tool against our soldiers.

Washington has responded to the U.N. report with a lame reiteration of its previous positions: insisting that Sudan’s actions are indeed “genocide,” and calling for creation of a special international tribunal to try the perpetrators. The American plan would be modeled on the Rwandan genocide tribunal — something that experts say would delay action by at least a year.

Tellingly, Washington is also calling for international troops to put some muscle behind the African Union’s undermanned monitoring force. But our government isn’t offering to supply the soldiers. We want the U.N. to do it. We’re tapped out.

Action is urgently needed in Sudan. What’s called for is a firm mixture of legal threats and military action. America, as the world’s essential power, must lead the way, but it must lead in a way that others will follow.

Whatever lessons one chooses to learn from Iraq this week, we’ve used up our unilateral options. This time, what’s needed is cooperative action by the world community. And that’s something that can’t be obtained at gunpoint.

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