Multitlateral myth building

Wall Street Journal Editorial:

John McCain gave a major foreign policy address in Los Angeles Wednesday, and if his intention was to convey a subtle message about what distinguishes him from the current White House occupant, he seems to have succeeded -- at least with the press.

The presumptive Republican nominee spoke of the need for a "new global compact" based on "mutual respect and trust," of adding "luster to America's image in the world," and of "paying a 'decent respect to the opinions of mankind.'" The media played it all up as an attempt to distance himself from the "unilateral" President Bush, although the Arizona Republican never used that word.

We fully understand why Mr. McCain feels the need to show that his Administration would not simply be a third Bush term. But with Mr. Bush's days in office nearing an end, it's worth blowing apart the myth of the "go it alone" Presidency. The truth is that, with a couple of exceptions, he's been the model of a modern multilateralist.

Mr. Bush came under early fire after announcing that the U.S. would reject the Kyoto Protocol. Of course, the U.S. had never ratified Kyoto, and the Clinton Administration had refused even to submit it for a vote. In 1997, the Senate voted 95-0 not to endorse any climate change pact that didn't include China, India and other developing countries, as Kyoto didn't. Voting "aye" were Ted Kennedy, John Kerry and Harry Reid, among other noted unilateralists.

Then came September 11 and the war in Afghanistan, which the U.S. continues to wage under a NATO flag. Unfortunately -- and despite the honorable exceptions of Britain, Canada and Holland -- few of America's allies in the theater are willing to commit more troops, much less put them in harm's way.

Iraq is where the unilateral myth settled into media concrete. But in fact, in 2002 President Bush bucked the advice of his more hawkish advisers and agreed to take Tony Blair's advice and seek another U.N. Resolution -- was it the 16th or 17th? -- against Saddam Hussein. Resolution 1441 passed 15-0. True, the Administration failed to obtain a second resolution, not least because the French reneged on private assurances that it would agree to a second resolution if America obtained the first. But who was being unilateral there? As it was, the "coalition of the willing" that liberated Iraq included, besides the U.S. contingent, some 60,000 troops from 39 countries, who have operated under a U.N. resolution blessing their presence.

The Bush Administration has since become all too multilateralist, even -- or especially -- regarding the "axis of evil." On North Korea, the Administration adhered strictly to the six party formula. Oddly, the same critics who decry "unilateralism" would prefer that the U.S. negotiate with Pyongyang directly -- which is to say, unilaterally -- and do without the help currently being offered by Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul and Moscow.


The administration got this reputation because it was determined to not let the multilateral approach bog down the war effort the way it had in the Yugoslavia wars of the 90s. When it refused to bow to the incompetence of the French and Germans on the liberation of Iraq the reputation seemed to be set in concrete despite the facts of the coalition of the willing. What the multilateralist were insisting on was veto for the wimps. They wanted a co-op rather than a coalition. Co-ops too often tend to allow those who wan to do the least to made decisions. In a co-op club you are likely to see cast off furniture and poor maintenance prevail.

You can see the results of such efforts in Sudan and Darfur where a passive aggressive multilateralism is watching genocide on the cheap while failing to take any decisive action. The same passive aggressive forces are at work in attempts to control Iran's nuclear program. It becomes a policy of leftovers. I have heard it said that sex is mostly about leftovers. The two partners set their limits of things the will not do and the leftovers are what they will do with each other. Fortunately for most couples the left overs can be pretty satisfying. When it comes to multilateral action against rogue states the list of left overs is usually much more meager.


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