March 12, 2003

Multilateralism is bad, and so is this war

By: Timothy P. Carney

The most important reason to object to the Bush Administration’s imminent war with Iraq is the potential cost in human life. The war certainly endangers those boys who last week were researching bills on Capitol Hill and downing pitchers at the Tune Inn, but who are this week donning desert camo and shipping out to Kuwait.

There is also strong reason to suspect that our invasion of Iraq could inspire further terrorist attacks and loss of life on U.S. soil.

But beyond these costs there are others. Of course, war drains the treasury. But also, there are costs that stem from the diplomatic wrangling involved in our push to invade Iraq.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind that we’re enraging the Germans, and that the French are getting their panties in a bunch over our actions. Actually, that’s kind of a good development.

No, it’s not the “unilateralism” of this war that’s worrisome–it’s the multilateralism.

Multilateralism is a modern word for the kind of mish-mash against which George Washington warned in his farewell address. It usually means making painful concessions of our treasure and our sovereignty, or getting into bed with unsavory characters.

This war, more than most, has already had heavy costs in this regard, and the tab is growing. This adventure involves more payoffs than most for a few reasons.

First, our enemy is almost as far away from us as geographically possible. When fighting wars on our home turf or in our own region, we do not need to set up bases and staging areas in foreign countries. When we have to set up bases in foreign countries, we have to buy their favor.

As we saw with Turkey, foreign countries can ask a pretty steep price. If they don’t see the war as being in their interest, the foreigners in question will need to be offered quite a bit to go along. The Turkish Parliament rejected a U.S. opening bid of $16 billion in exchange for our stationing 62,000 soldiers there. We’ll see how high Ankara can drive the price.

For the war in Afghanistan–however necessary and manifestly just it was–we also sold our soul a little bit. An alliance with Pakistan is not really the most desirable thing in the world considering how antagonizing it could be to India and the region.

The Taliban may not have existed if we hadn’t been pressured into propping up a resistance in Afghanistan to combat the Soviet Union–again, a necessary but filthy relationship.

This story of dirty flings gone bad is practically the entire story of our dalliances in the Mideast and Central Asia. We shacked up with Saddam to combat Iran. We later cozied up with Saudi Arabia (now officially “the kernel of evil”) to go after Saddam. Now we find ourselves nuzzling Red China in the hope they’ll help us in the UN.

We’re still scratching flea bites from our previous little trysts, but we’re nevertheless finding new dogs to lie down with.

Even our true allies are making us put out more than we would like. Britain’s Tony Blair is likely no less opportunistic than any other European leader–he simply understands what Bush is willing to do for his friendship.

Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder saw the political advantage last fall in lambasting the U.S., and he played that card. Blair sees the diplomatic advantage in currying our favor, and is now playing us like a fiddle.

Most upsetting in this regard for conservatives is that the Bush Administration has refused to fully pull out of the Kyoto global warming treaty by removing the U.S.’s signature. The President is holding back from this bold step, some experts surmise, as repayment for Blair’s support in the war. In other words, we are willing to risk U.S. sovereignty–by remaining entangled in this terrible treaty–in exchange for some European backing in this war.

In some ways, the sordid Iraq/Blair/Kyoto affair is simply a more cut-and-dried example of the entire project of empire where the master, in the end, becomes the slave. Germany and France will end up going along or stepping out of the way. But what sort of favors will they demand in exchange?

If this is not a necessary war (and I still hold it is not) these costs in sovereignty and dignity are too high to bear.