March 20, 2003 -- Whether one favors the war against Iraq or not, one's attitude towards the United Nations' role is a revealing Rorschach test; those with a fetish for securing a U.N. consensus for American actions expose serious ethical confusion and pernicious political premises.
We're told that the U.N. is a community of nations. But what is the principle on which this community is based? The United States itself, our community, was established on the principle that each individual is endowed "with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men." It's this understanding that unites Americans—and that should unite any civilized people—that individuals should be free to live their lives as they see fit, with government protecting their liberty. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were meant to allow government to protect our freedoms but also to protect us from government abuses. It is with reference to our founding principles that we should judge whether a particular policy is wise or not.
The U.N. was established by the World War II allies as a forum to prevent future wars through diplomacy and possibly as a force to counter aggression. These goals certainly could be in America's national interest. But it became clear early on that many U.N. members did not share America's vision of a community of nations that respected the rights of their own citizens and that preferred free trade and prosperity to war and destruction. The Soviet Union was the greatest danger to the United States, world peace, and liberty everywhere. Furthermore, the governments of most countries represented at the U.N. were dictatorships of one sort or another that did not respect the individual liberties of their own citizens.
Illustrative of the nature of the U.N. was the furor raised in 1975 by then-American ambassador to the U.N. Patrick Moynihan, who referred to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin—who had called for "the extinction of Israel as a state"—as a "racist murderer." U.N. diplomats were horrified that the American ambassador would be so undiplomatic as to say such a thing about Amin but were not particularly horrified that Amin was a racist murderer. After Amin's fall—he received political asylum in Saudi Arabia—his blood-soaked execution chambers, murder of as many as half a million of his own people, and the revelation that he was a cannibal who literally feasted on the remains of his enemies simply rounded out the picture of a regime of horror that had been on clear display before the world for years. No wonder Moynihan entitled his book about his years at the U.N. A Dangerous Place.
The moral bankruptcy of the U.N. is still on display today in so many ways. The Libyan government of dictator Muammar Qaddafi—which has been a major sponsor of terrorism and was responsible for blowing up PanAm Flight 103—now sits on that body's Human Rights Commission.
In seeking U.N. backing for its efforts against Saddam Hussein's regime, the Bush administration risked conferring on a generally sleazy organization a dignity and seriousness that it did not deserve. But at least the administration's efforts revealed for a new generation the impotence of the U.N. and the moral bankruptcy of many of the administration's critics.
Such detractors asserted that U.N. approval was necessary to confer moral legitimacy on the war against Hussein. In other words, rather than judging the war by asking whether it would protect the lives and liberties of Americans or even citizens of other free countries, they assumed that the goal should be to secure a consensus of representatives of governments run on principles that are often antithetical to freedom. In philosophy, this attitude is called "social metaphysics," that is, placing opinions over facts. But the morality of actions, institutions, or other human endeavors should be judged by the objective need of human beings for freedom, based on our nature as rational creatures with free will, not on the confused and contradictory feelings of others. And while a morally confused individual might benefit from consulting the opinions of wise and thoughtful sages, U.N. delegates hardly fit into that category.
A majority vote does not make morality. There was a legitimate line of argument against the war—that Hussein was a despot but if left alone would not attack America—as well as the argument that this war is necessary to head off future terrorist attacks. Yet those individuals, whether Americans or citizens of other countries, who believed that a U.N. sanction was necessary to make this a moral war display just the kind of moral nihilism that makes the U.N., in Moynihan's words, a dangerous place. And if America expects to make the post-war world one that will be more secure for Americans and all freedom-loving individuals, it must act from the principles of liberty rather than a consensus of the confused and cowardly.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.