What If the U.S. Had Gotten the U.N. On Our Side?

by | Apr 5, 2003

Here’s a thought experiment: Let’s say that somehow — through being more diplomatic or offering more concessions or through performing a miracle — the Bush Administration had managed to persuade the U.N. Security Council, including France and Germany, to go along with us and to authorize a war. Seems unlikely, but let’s just assume this. […]

Here’s a thought experiment: Let’s say that somehow — through being more diplomatic or offering more concessions or through performing a miracle — the Bush Administration had managed to persuade the U.N. Security Council, including France and Germany, to go along with us and to authorize a war. Seems unlikely, but let’s just assume this.

What would have been the upside? Well, it’s possible, I suppose, that the Iraqis would have capitulated by now, or at least that more would have: Because the endeavor was U.N.-backed, the theory would go, rather than being seen as fundamentally a U.S. action, the Iraqis would be less resentful and more likely to capitulate. Possible, but unlikely — the overwhelming majority of the soldiers would still have been American, the impetus for the war would have been seen as chiefly American, and the Ba’athist thugs would still be forcing the rank-and-file to fight. We’d also have Turkish cooperation, which would make it easier to push hard on the Northern front, though apparently Turkish cooperation might itself have some costs both in the war and the postwar settlement, because of the Turk/Kurd problems.

But consider the downside. I suspect that many in the Ba’athist camp, especially at the high and middle levels, would indeed quit or switch sides if they thought the allies were sure to win; and I suspect that all but the insane in that camp realize that, if the allies keep fighting, the allies would win. The only way the Ba’athists can retain power is if the allies stopped fighting, and that’s what the Ba’athists are now trying to make us do — in particular, by using tactics that lead to more deaths of Iraqi civilians, which they hope will make the allied countries lose the stomach for the battle.

And it seems very likely that these Ba’athist tactics would have been more effective if we’d had a broader coalition. The French and German governments, for instance, were always less enthusiastic about the war than the American and British governments; antiwar sentiment was much more entrenched among the French and German public than among the American. Even if we could have persuaded them into the prowar camp, they would never have been as firmly in that camp as we and the British are. As the Iraqi civilian deaths mounted — and, to some extent, as the allied military deaths mounted — it would have been much more likely that the French and Germans would have been pulled back into the antiwar side.

Now as a purely legal matter, a French or German defection from the prowar coalition probably would not have stopped the war, unless the enabling resolution somehow so provided, especially if the war were being prosecuted under American command. Even if the French proposed a ceasefire resolution in the Security Council, America and Britain would have vetoed it.

But as a political matter, I suspect that a French defection or more broadly a French/German defection — or a Russian or Chinese defection, though I doubt that those countries would have defected over public unease about casualties — would indeed have posed problems for the allies. If we went into the war trumpeting the backing of the French and other Western Europeans, then many people, including many in America, England, and Australia, might have been persuaded that such backing was really necessary for the war to be legitimate and not “unilateral.” When the backing was removed, this legitimacy would be deflated; the removal of the backing would be seen as a serious setback to be added to whatever setbacks (setbacks, that is, relative to our expectations of easy, clean victory) were seen on the battlefield. By waiting for French (and to some extent German) approval, we’d be suggesting that the French and the Germans must have a voice in our war-or-peace decisions. And then when they shifted from lukewarm support for the war to opposition, people would have been more likely to listen to them about that, too — and the Ba’athists would have been even more emboldened. (Incidentally, this observation about psychology mirrors, I think, the principle in some parliamentary procedures that a motion to reconsider a previous decision can only be made by someone who voted in favor of the original decision: The defection of a member of the majority is seen as more worth considering than the repeated dissent of the minority.)

By saying that we don’t really care that the French, Germans, Russians, and Chinese are against us, and that we can afford to leave them out of the coalition, the Administration signalled to the public (a public that is willing to in some measure respect the Administration’s views, as the polls suggest) that their voices don’t much matter. The French were against the war at the outset — if various setbacks, including great Iraqi civilian casualties, turn the French even more against the war, the American (and, I suspect, British and Australian) public won’t pay that much attention to them. At some point, I do think that the Ba’athist forces will break, and will conclude that surrender is the less dangerous option. The more resolute we are, the quicker that point will come. And it’s easier for this resolution to be maintained by a smaller coalition of committed countries (chiefly America, England, and Australia; much as I appreciate the support of Poland, Denmark, and the others, the coalition won’t come undone if they defect) than by a larger coalition that also contains lukewarm supporters among its important members.

This, of course, is all speculation. Perhaps the benefits of a broader coalition would have overcome the costs. Perhaps if we had the French on board, they wouldn’t have defected even when the going got tough. Or perhaps if they had defected, this wouldn’t have at all affected the willingness of the others to remain.

But it still seems to me quite likely that having the at-best-lukewarm supporters on the outside of this coalition makes us better off than having them on the inside.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, copyright law, the law of government and religion, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy at UCLA Law School.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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