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The President's speech to the UN about Iraq played some interesting logical games with the concept of multilateralism.

It seems he'd finally found a reasonable rationale for attacking Iraq (though one wonders about a decision-making process that picks a policy then goes looking for a rationale). "Saddam sponsored al Qaida," an early favorite, fell apart because of the complete lack of evidence for the connection beyond a scrap of hearsay about Mohammed Atta meeting with an Iraqi official, coupled with bin Laden's professed hatred for Hussein. "He's going to nuke us" played well at home, but there was still the nagging question of why, after a decade of not showing any agression beyond his borders, he was suddenly a pressing threat. Further, neither rationale explained why it was ok for the US to take care of the problem alone.

At the UN, Bush found a third rationale which he hoped would resonate with his multilateralist critics: Saddam has defied the UN. The UN must therefore assert its authority by enforcing its rule. He drew on the principle -- the key to international governance -- which states "members of the UN must do what the UN says." So far, so good.

Then, in a sneaky sort of move, Bush reverses the logic. He declared that, to defend the validity of its principle, the UN must allow the US to go after Hussein. He recognizes that "what UN members do" must match up with "what the UN says" in both the case of Iraq and the case of the US. However, in the case of Iraq, the logic runs in one direction -- IF the UN says to let weapons inspectors in, THEN the member must allow weapons inspectors in. The burden is on the member to make the two things match up. But in the case of US intervention, he reverses it -- IF the member invades, THEN the UN must say it can. He's putting the burden of reconciling UN resolutions and member actions on the UN, and threatening that the UN's principle will be weakened otherwise. This also puts Bush in the paradoxical situation that invading Iraq without UN approval would invalidate the very principle that furnished the rationale for invading in the first place.

Certainly Bush is right that the UN's legitimacy will be weakened if it does not enforce its resolutions regarding Iraq (though its failure to enforce other resolutions, such as those regarding Israel and Palestine, call into question how strong that legitimacy was in the first place). But there are other, better ways than simply giving in to America's pressure to "authorize us or else."


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