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Moral authority for war (Scripps Howard News Service) October 29, 2002

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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Mother Teresa has it. Yasser Arafat does not. A recent survey of historians says George Washington and Abraham Lincoln had it, but Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon did not. The Catholic Church has had it for centuries, but lately its supply as eroded. Is it money? Power? Charisma? No, it is a more elusive quality: moral authority.

Moral authority is front-page news today because it is widely agreed that the United States needs it in order to take preemptive military action against Iraq. President Bush and his supporters believe the United States already has it, but many Democrats in Congress and leaders of other nations argue that only the United Nations can confer the moral authority to attack Saddam.

People are talking a lot about moral authority but most would be hard-pressed to define it. Four Harvard professors held a debate on “Moral Authority: What It Is, What It Isn’t,” and did not reach agreement. Moral authority may be one of those intangibles that, as a Supreme Court justice once said about obscenity, we cannot define, but we know it when we see it. In the case of military action against Iraq, however, people see it differently.

The words themselves point in the right direction. Moral means a concern about things that are right and wrong. Authority is the power to exercise control or influence. So whoever exercises control or influence over decisions about right or wrong has moral authority.

Is the United Nations, then, the source of moral authority about a preemptive attack upon Iraq? While there is a certain appeal to an international body playing such a role, a closer look at the United Nations and how it operates suggests that it is ill-prepared for such moral leadership.

Like Congress, the United Nations is essentially a political body, not a moral one. Nations come to represent and vote for their own interests. States align in blocs that are primarily regional or political in nature. As former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Jeanne Kirkpatrick said, “What happens in the Security Council more closely resembles a mugging than either a political debate or an effort at problem solving.” And political debates and pragmatic problem solving are still a long way from the exercise of moral authority.

The makeup of the United Nations would make the exercise of moral authority in a case like this very difficult. Saddam’s neighbors are unlikely to offend him and risk trouble by voting to attack him. Some U.N. members, such as Zimbabwe, have committed such recent and heinous offenses that their vote could hardly count in the moral authority column. In a broader sense, most of the states in the United Nations are not free and democratic, as we understand those terms. A U.N. ambassador or foreign minister from Syria or Iraq simply does not bring the moral authority to a situation like one from Britain or the United States would possess. Indeed, in a highly political, one-nation one-vote context like the United Nations, the exercise of moral courage and authority would be exceptional and not the norm.

The United Nations has frequently demonstrated that its decisions are more political than moral. For example, it has provided seats on its Commission on Human Rights to some of the most persistent violators of human rights. With its large Arab bloc, it has consistently condemned Israel, but not Arab terrorists. The list is too long to recite.

The passage of a U.N. resolution favoring military action would be a useful political victory for the United States but not a moral one. It would amount to a popular vote, and doing the right thing at the right time is rarely popular. A petition signed by 12,000 American college professors has it wrong when it says “any military action against Iraq should have the moral force of international consensus behind it.” International consensus may be a wonderful sign of political power and popular support, but it is not an indicator of moral right or wrong.

The United States should not acknowledge the United Nations as a moral authority about Iraq, but rather should apply traditional standards of “just war” theory to explain its actions. If there is a wrongdoer like Saddam, who has consistently violated international war and agreements, who is harboring weapons of mass destruction with a likelihood of using them, the United States has the moral authority it needs to take action.

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