Thomas Friedman writes to Andrew Sullivan:
Why is it that liberals, such as myself, who were ready to support the war, so desperately wanted U.N. approval for it? It was for a couple of reasons–one that is already apparent and one that will become more apparent. First, because this is such a huge, unprecedented task, taking over a whole country half a world away, that the more international legitimacy we had going in, the more time and space we would have to do it right. I want the world, to the extent possible, rooting for us to succeed. You don’t have that feeling right now, and that has both psychological and material implications, especially if the war drags on. Second, and this comes from having lived and traveled so long in the Arab world, I wanted U.N. approval because I knew that just because many Arabs are anti-Saddam, does not mean that they are pro-American or will automatically embrace whatever we do. This is the biggest mistake the neo-cons make. They deal with a very tiny slice of the Arab world–a slice that has not only bought into our war, but also our story, a slice that also knows how to tell us what we want to hear. That is not true of the wider Arab and Moslem world….
I wanted U.N. approval for this war because I felt that it would be easier to win the support, or acquiescence of those Arabs and Moslems who dislike Saddam and America as well. (My views on this have been deeply influenced by a documentary I have been making for the last seven months, based on travels across the Moslem world, on the real roots of 9/11. It’s running this Wednesday night on the Discovery Channel.)… This will be true even when the war is over, as we will be telling the Iraqis they have been “liberated” and many in the world, particularly the Arab world, will be telling them they have been “occupied.” … Some important moral authority was sacrificed in not getting U.N. approval and there is no way around it. [AndrewSullivan.com, 3/24/03]
To which a reader replies:
…Unfortunately, the claim made here by Mr. Friedman and echoed by countless others seems to be that without the sanction of the U.N. any action undertaken by one of its members is a priori lacking in moral authority (or at least that authority is diminished to some degree). This is a rather curious claim, since it implies that an action’s moral quality is conferred upon it by the pronouncements of a deliberative body–in this instance, a deliberative body composed of a number of countries whose own moral stature is questionable. Leaving aside the objections raised by ethical relativism or the thornier issues concerning the ultimate seat of moral authority, I’m sure that Mr. Friedman would agree that sticking hot needles into the eyes of newborn infants is a morally reprehensible act regardless of whether the Pope, the U.N., the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, or the New York Times takes a stand against it.
This is on the right track, but not sufficient. Note the giveaway sentence in Friedman’s letter: “it would be easier to win the support, or acquiescence of those Arabs and Moslems who dislike Saddam and America as well.” So the point of getting UN approval is to placate our Arab enemies, because, in Friedman’s view, you can’t fight City Hall. But how would a UN sanction gain the support of such people?
It’s clear that principle plays little if any role in UN decision-making. The idea that UN support carries moral authority rests on the implicit premise that only the UN has the right to declare war, that it is sovereign, that nations have no right to judge threats and act in their own defense. But this is not a premise that the Arabs to which Friedman wants to appeal are likely to accept–nor should the US accept it. Nor will our putative respect for international law have any more significance to them than the rule of law within our nation does.
It’s not moral authority that the UN supplies, but merely social pressure to conform: “The World supports America, so who are you to judge differently?” But, not being an argument, this support carries no moral weight and is deserving more of cynicism than esteem.
Our moral authority in this war stems from our right to exist as a free country. The only way to gain respect for this authority is to defend it with reasoned argument and to stand behind it without compromise. A UN resolution adds nothing to the rightness of those reasons; it has weight only for those who accept an appeal to authority. But it’s just as wrong and fruitless to try to justify ourselves with logical fallacies as it is to try to justify ourselves with lies.
But why should we even care about the support of the Arabs who “dislike America”? The Arab street has to know that we will not sacrifice our lives to their whims and our reasoned judgments to their fantasies–that when it comes to our security and our right to exist, we don’t care what they think, and that by God we’ll ram it down their sorry throats if we have to. That’s not just the way you win a physical battle; it’s the way you win a moral battle as well. By seeking to placate them, we would be giving their ideas and opinions great power–the power to govern our conduct; doing so can only foster ever more irresponsible anti-American radicalism. By not caring what they think, we render their ideas and opinions powerless over us. It won’t necessarily change their minds; people are responsible for changing their own minds. But you can’t win respect by appeasement; you merely embolden the opposition–who can only conclude that you know, deep down, that your ideas are false because you are unwilling to stand up for them.
A principle tells a person where he has to draw the line, where there is no longer any room for compromise. This is why pragmatists believe principles foster conflict. But in fact principles provide guidance as to where the conflict has to happen. Refusing to stand on principle is flying blind–it means allowing any number of assaults with no idea as to what you’ll take to be the last straw. Must there be a last straw? Only if you’re unwilling to die a death by a thousand cuts.