With the recent outbreak of war in Iraq, there has been a raging debate across the world regarding the legitimacy of unilateral action by the United States. Certainly the finer points of that debate have been considered elsewhere. I am against the war, but not because of any absolutist ideologies or blindness to reality. I could be convinced that this is a legitimate war. What really worries me, however, is the aftermath.
Assuming that the Bush administration's intentions are golden, how does our economic and military superiority translate into improving the lot of the Iraqi people or diminishing the threat of terrorism? It's comforting for Americans to think military superiority can achieve anything, but that is a naive view. Even if we can kill Saddam, how do we ensure the stability of a new democracy? There is no historical precendent to look at for guidance. The Iraqis have had their spirits literally beaten out of them over the past 30 years, so it seems unlikely that they have a good democracy recipe ready to throw in the oven. Success at rebuilding Iraq will be incredibly difficult given the general instability of the region and psychological state of its citizenry. If we fail, then anti-American sentiment will increase and the goal of reducing terrorism will not have been achieved.
The United States is horrible about upholding its commitments. Every four or eight years, the entirety of American policy is subject to drastic change. Humanitarian and nation-building work requires a huge commitment of time and money, but is not sexy enough to hold the interest of the American public. Just look at Afghanistan. The middle-east is a hot-bed of political instability and social upheaval. A democracy is not the natural state of affairs in that kind of environment. It will only stand when the people are ready to uphold it through their own sense of individual freedom and power. That requires a lot of work, particularly considering the psychological effects of a brutal dictator like Saddam Hussein.
While the United Nations is weak in terms of military will, it has other strong points. By serving the interests of the whole world, it can attent to humanitarian crises and relief with a focus unmatched by individual countries. After the United States attacks a country, it has to clean up the mess or risk creating more bad will. The nature of America makes it difficult to muster the kind of political will to do this solo, so why not use all the support the United Nations has to offer?
The War on Terrorism can not be won by stomping on every terrorist we see at the expense of international public opinion. As long as the United States brashly focuses on the threat of the day while ignoring prior commitments, the terrorists will have an ample supply of new recruits in the ghettos of the world. It's not enough to justify our actions, we must embrace our responsibility as a Superpower and live up to our commitments as a world citizen. Anti-American sentiment is not simply a result of economic dominance, it comes from a lack and integrity and credibility in American international relations. Given the average American's disinterest in foreign affairs, the United Nations could provide a reasonable check and balance on US actions oversees. That could prove valuable in the long run.