We have never been so alone. In taking the United States to war, President Bush chose to leave the United Nations and international legitimacy behind in his drive to rid the world of Saddam Hussein.
The road to war against Iraq was long but by signaling at the outset there was only one acceptable outcome and by ramming his initiative through the United Nations, Bush made the international body irrelevant even as he sought to label it so for not acting in the manner he found acceptable.
Using harsh rhetoric toward traditional European allies, fanning the fear created by the Sept. 11 attacks and presenting dubious intelligence work to justify his goals, Bush allied almost all the world against his Iraq policies.
In the run-up to the war, conservatives argued the issue raised by Iraq is whether U.S. power will be used for good or left on the shelf. But they forgot to allow for dissent and the organic requirements of the international system. In doing so, they forced the international system underground. They could not extinguish its resistance to U.S. policies, however, as the failure to successfully obtain a final resolution justifying war and the disagreement over running postwar Iraq demonstrate.
Liberals never found the Bush administration's connection between dictators and terrorists convincing. They also fixated on the fact that many lives will be lost in a war that we started. While undeniable, so is the fact that the world is a dangerous place and dictators like Saddam must be dealt with, sometimes with force.
As the war began, administration officials took pains to demonstrate how many countries had joined its coalition. The effort indicated Bush is aware that very little of the world accepts his handling of the threat that Iraq posed. But he has done little to demonstrate that he understands the importance of genuine international legitimacy. What we have instead is the administration's media relations campaign to show the U.S. public that the world is with us, not real support.
True legitimacy is characterized by more meaningful support on the part of our so-called coalition partners than permission to use their names in the administration's parade of other similarly reluctant and silent allies. Such was the case in the first Gulf War. The international coalition involved a majority of Arab states, solidly unified in their opposition to Saddam and his aggression, who sent their forces to fight alongside Americans in Operation Desert Storm. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan recognized this simple fact on the first day of the current war when he stated that a collective decision would have endowed U.S. action with greater legitimacy than is now the case.
Nor will an easy U.S. victory resolve the problem. Even if coalition forces have eradicated all resistance quickly, the war is relatively inexpensive and the occupation of Iraq goes smoothly, the United States will still be judged by the high-handed manner in which Bush brought the world to this point. The world will remember. Today, with the war effectively over, world opinion remains unchanged and strongly against the United States' Iraq policies.
Perhaps most unfortunate was the attitude that Bush took in his evening speech announcing the war. He stated that the United States had done nothing to deserve the danger that dictators and terrorism presented us -- blatantly ignoring our past administrations' roles in creating Saddam. The United States, of course, is by no means responsible for Saddam's choice to suppress, starve and murder his own people. But at certain points through the years, the United States aided Saddam, supplied him and, at important junctures, did nothing to dissuade him. Our leaders made policy toward Iraq based on the international circumstances at the time and thus cannot bear all or even the majority of the blame for Saddam's evils. However, the failure to take responsibility for our country's actions will fuel the world's perception that the administration, and unavoidably the United States, sees itself as above the rules and international norms.
Until Bush listens to the world instead of throwing our country's weight around, our policies will lack international legitimacy. No amount of military or economic power will change that fact. Never in history has a country been so powerful. And never have we been so alone.
Chris Ajemian is a lawyer and member of the World Affairs Council of Seattle.