Chris Preble: Troubling News


I’m so depressed.
I learned of yesterday’s big news when I picked up the paper this morning. I kept reading, and reading again. Then I actually purchased a different newspaper while at the airport, in the hopes that there could be some positive way to spin what had happened.
How did I miss this story when it broke yesterday? I was traveling across southern Minnesota to visit my wife’s family, with two children sleeping (most of the time) in the back seat. I didn’t want to wake them, and the radio coverage isn’t that good anyway, so I didn’t turn it on for most of the day. On the return trip, I listened to the Twins game, but the volume was low, so I didn’t hear that much.
When we rolled into our hotel at 10:30 pm, after almost nine hours in the car, I was content to collapse in my room. I turned on the television for a few minutes, but didn’t pay much attention.
You can imagine my shock, then, when I saw the lead story in the USA Today with that big color photo. I kept asking myself: How could he do this? How could Rafael Palmeiro have been caught using steroids? How could a player that I have come to adore, the quiet star of my beloved Baltimore Orioles…
What’s that?
Oh, that story? You mean the one below the fold, the one about Bush using a recess appointment to get John Bolton into the United Nations?
Well, here’s the thing. Notwithstanding the fact that Steve and I agree more than we disagree, and notwithstanding the fact that we have worked together trying to forge a sane consensus on U.S. foreign policy for over two years, Steve has been unable to convince me that John Bolton at the UN posed a threat to U.S. security. (See, for example, “Missing the Point on the Bolton Debate.”)
Sure, sure, I know. Bolton does not have the temperament to be UN ambassador. I don’t think he should have been confirmed as dog catcher, personally, given his long record of miscalculation and threat exaggeration, and his continued belief that “shaking the stick” is the most effective form of diplomacy. As for his abusive treatment of subordinates, and a general surly disposition, I’m sure that the same could be said for a lot of people in Washington.
I have never been particularly interested in this story, even though I get paid every day to think about foreign policy. But I am in good company. The American public was not particularly interested in this story, for the same reason that many Americans are not particularly supportive of the UN as an institution. (37 percent approval according to Rasmussen; 61 percent in a recent Gallup poll say that the “United Nations is doing a bad job.” (Available to Gallup subscribers.)
I think the blame for this lies in large measure at the feet of the people who would wish it otherwise, who believe that the United Nations is and should be a key component of a broader international system, one based on the rule of law and not the rule of the jungle.
Although most Americans have not been following this story very closely, UN aficionados might argue that the public should care, because the alternative is so much, much worse.
Oh, but I do care, passionately, about security. I tremble at the thought of the horrific world that my children may inherit. But I’m just not convinced that an international system loosely based on concepts of international law will be all that more secure than one based on the balance of power.
If you are skeptical, and yet somehow still reading this “tough love” post consider this: saying that Americans should care about the United Nations is a bit like saying that Iran and North Korea should care about compliance with the NPT. International law and treaty constraints work just until a nation feels itself threatened, and then they frequently fly out the window.
And please don’t cluck, cluck at me, saying that a Democratic administration would never think about demeaning the prestige of the UN by sending an ambassador who had failed to receive Senate confirmation. The Clinton administration showed its disdain for the institution of the UN when it circumvented the world body twice in a matter of six months, first to launch air strikes against Iraq (Desert Fox) and then to launch a war against Serbia. The Clinton administration never sought a UN resolution because they knew that they would not receive Security Council endorsement of such actions.
Then, as now, the story is about power. With respect to Bolton’s nomination, the Republicans have the power. The Democrats don’t. We don’t have a winner-take-all society here in the United States, and we are blessed with a tradition of liberal government, meaning that the majority doesn’t have the right to systematically disenfranchise the people who happened to vote for the other person. But Bush’s decision to circumvent the Senate reveals his calculation that he will not pay a political price for having engaged in such behavior.
The broader UN story is also about power. The United States has it. Few other states do, although some are trying to catch up. And those who can’t possibly catch up are developing the one true trump card, one stronger than anything that can be deployed in a domestic context: a nuclear weapon.
So those who are appalled by the Bolton recess-appointment (myself included) must persuade our fellow Americans why the foreign policy vision represented by John Bolton and the current administration makes us all less rather than more secure.
More on that tomorrow. (Provided Steve doesn’t pull the plug on me after only one day.)
Chris Preble