The threat of irrelevance


Two weeks ago, thousands of people gathered in New York City to protest a potential war with Iraq. I, too was in Manhattan, although at the time of the protest I was much too engrossed in a Syracuse University basketball game to take notice of outside events. However, I did read about the protest in the New York Times, and noticed an interesting quote by President Bush. In response to the massive protests against the war, W. commented, “democracy is a beautiful thing” and then went on to leave little doubt that the massive protests had not changed his views one iota.

I would imagine that the President would agree that in the United States, everyone has the right to express their point of view. However, American citizens (and even American presidents) do not have the right to have that point of view implemented as a governing policy. As the Rolling Stones have often sung, “you can’t always get what you want.”

At the same time, the fact that you don’t get what you want doesn’t give you the right to go ahead and do what you want anyway. If you’re going to partake in a system such as democracy, you have to play by the rules, even when they go against you. Take Inauguration Day as an example: After the 2000 election, George W. Bush was sworn in as President even though slightly more than half of the country (out of those who voted) had voted for someone else. Yet he was sworn in as president without any sort of violent opposition. Even though many Americans had not voted for him, there was a tacit acceptance of his victory as well as the method by which the “old” executive hands over power to the president-elect. Unlike some other countries, our elections have never been settled by whose supporters were quicker on the draw.

To bring this point to more recent events, some officials in the Bush Administration as well as some supporters of military action in Iraq have lost sight of the fact that even if you’re the biggest, toughest country on the globe, you can’t always get what you want. In joining the United Nations, the United States entered into a system of global relations that had its own rules and regulations. The U.N. was designed in part to act as a check on the aggressiveness of its members so that, for example, Iraq can’t simply wake up one morning and decide to add Kuwait to its territory or Germany can’t decide that it was ready to give taking over the Western Hemisphere another shot. The rest of the member nations would band together and make it clear that such actions would not be tolerated by the world community.

However, if the U.N. is going to have rules, then they have to apply to all the members, not just those who are “unpopular.” If the United States wants to be a member of the United Nations, then like it or not, it has to play by the U.N.’s rules. There has been much rhetoric making reference to the potential “irrelevance” of the U.N. if it refuses to authorize force against Iraq. For the U.S. to label the institution “irrelevant” on the basis of its refusal to do exactly what the U.S. wants is basically infantile behavior. I understand the argument that the U.N. is practically allowing Iraq to flaunt its noncompliance with U.N. regulations, but I don’t agree that the U.S. can or should take this matter into its own hands. If the United States, a U.N. member, goes to the institution seeking support for military action, doesn’t get it and takes action anyway, then the U.N. will have lost a lot of its relevance; but that would be because of the conduct of United States, not that of France or Germany. While the United States will not permit the rest of the world to dictate its foreign policy, it has to realize that the situation in Iraq involves more than just the U.S. versus Saddam Hussein. The interests of many nations are at stake, which is why the matter is before the Security Council. Once the United States goes to the U.N. and asks for approval, it has to accept the possibility that approval might not be granted.

Perhaps military conflict will disarm Iraq. Perhaps, by some sheer act of god, Iraq will disarm peacefully. Whatever happens, it’s important to keep an eye toward the post-conflict future. There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein must be disarmed of any weapons of mass destruction he possesses. The only question is: At what cost? Certainly Iraq will not be the last conflict facing the world. President Bush must determine whether it is really worth permanently weakening the United Nations and severely damaging relations with former allies primarily so that he can get what he wants?

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