(Captain's log): Now that the charade with the UN is finished, it will be easy to look back on it and condemn the entire enterprise as having been a major blunder. It certainly seems as if we took a lot of damage in the process, and apparently alienated many of the world's governments. We almost lost our most important ally (Tony Blair) and faced the possibility of having a new government in the UK which would not cooperate in the war. We also failed to gain the cooperation of Turkey, to permit a northern front, and now even to permit us to use Turkish airspace or to continue to use Incirlik airbase. Because of that, over a hundred American and British jets are probably going to sit out the main phase of the war (though they performed a vital function in preparations over the last few months).
But there were at least three major benefits of that process, and in the long run they'll be far more important than any costs we paid in the process. First, it made Congress pass an authorization for war which did not include a requirement for UNSC approval. Second, it protected our troops during deployment. Third, it flushed out the weasels.
Congressional approval. The United States does not require approval from the UNSC for war. Many are talking about how this war will be "illegal under international law" and others have tried to claim that a requirement for UNSC approval is binding on the US because we ratified the UN treaty. But as Donald Sensing has demonstrated, treaties cannot override explicit provisions of the Constitution, and the Constitution makes very clear what is required for war: Congressional approval.
Congress passed an authorization for war in the aftermath of the attack in September of 2001, but it only authorized war against those responsible for the attack (that is, al Qaeda) and any governments which were directly involved in aiding them (e.g. the Taliban). But unless Bush was able to prove an Iraqi connection to the attack, it was clear that a new authorization would be needed before attacking Iraq. Bush didn't try to push the issue; he did go back to Congress in October, and a new authorization for war explicitly against Iraq was passed by a large majority, with many Democrats voting in favor.
And though the Constitution doesn't require UNSC approval, and though treaty provisions requiring UNSC approval are not enforceable, Congress could have attached a provision to its authorization requiring UNSC approval and in that case it would have been necessary. That was a big danger, and in fact there was an active effort by certain Democrats (notably Senator Byrd) to do exactly that.
Another possible nightmare scenario would have been if the Senate (controlled by the Democrats) had included such a provision on the bill and the House refused to, leading possibly to deadlock and no passage at all. That, too, would have prevented us from attacking unless Bush were willing to risk a Constitutional crisis.
Bush went to the UN in August, and by October it was already very clear that certain (French-speaking) nations who sat on the Security Council had no intention of permitting any war to happen if they could possibly prevent it. As a result, the Democrat-controlled Senate voted down by a 2:1 (and filibuster-proof) margin a Democratic-sponsored amendment which would have required UNSC authorization. The Republican-controlled House also included no such requirement, and Bush had all the legal authorization he required to go to war, without passage of any resolution in the Security Council.
As a practical matter, passage of that bill by Congress without any attached requirement for UNSC approval was the one essential step in the entire process. If Bush had not gone to the UN in August, there was a much higher chance of such a requirement being included in the bill, and in that case Chirac could have prevented us from attacking by using France's veto.
This, alone, more than justifies the decision to deal with the UN.
Protecting the deployment. In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, a clear lesson for nations who might face American military operations was: "Never give the United States six months to deploy ground forces on your border." If it seemed as if the US was determined to attack you, then the best option militarily was to wait until the Americans had some forces in place which were not really ready for war, and then attack them. By inflicting a bloody defeat on the US you might well achieve a "Tet moment" and completely alter the political environment in the US, leading to the US giving up and pulling back out.
Certainly Saddam learned that lesson, and the biggest danger all along has been the possibility that Saddam might either make a spoiling ground attack against our early deployment in Kuwait, or that he might launch surface-to-surface missiles armed with nerve gas (most likely VX) at early concentrations of our troops before they were prepared for chemical attack and didn't have substantial anti-missile defenses in place. While in overall terms our military power massively dwarfs his, in the early days of our deployment he had the ability to temporarily be much stronger than us, and "defeat us in detail".
If hundreds of our troops in the early deployment had died a horrible death, there was certainly the chance that this would cause the US to go nuclear, but equally a significant chance that the US would lose heart and withdraw. Since letting us fully deploy and attack offered Saddam no chance at all, then an early spoiling attack was actually his best chance of driving us off; odds-against, perhaps, but certainly better than no chance at all once we were ready to attack.
Having been badly punished in 1991 by giving the US six months to deploy before war, there was every chance that Saddam would not do so this time and would attack us before we were ready to attack him.
But he didn't do it, and the reason was that he instead embraced what he saw as a different way to possibly win. By pretending to cooperate with the UN inspections process, and by the fact that diplomatic wrangling in the UN and around the world seemed to be going very badly for the US and UK, Saddam hoped that we might give up without even attempting an attack. Which is why one of my correspondents pointed out that it was actually desirable during this process for it to seem to be going very badly for us, because it encouraged Saddam to stick with diplomacy and not resort to a spoiling attack.
And in fact, right up until the last minute – today, in fact, as I write this – it still seemed to Saddam as if he had a chance to avoid war using diplomacy. There's still a very small window where he may attempt such an attack in the next couple of days, but our defenses are now in place. The biggest risk was in December and January.
The combination of seeming diplomatic failure by us and the inspections themselves helped keep Saddam from using the chemical weapons he doesn't have against us when we were most vulnerable.
The Congressional authorization for war was passed in mid-October. It's five months later and we've deployed and are ready to attack, without having faced an Iraqi spoiling attack.
Flushing out the Weasels. The third major benefit, and in the long run possible even the most important one, was that it forced most of the major powers of the world to show their true agendas. In particular, it revealed deep philosophical splits among the nations in Europe currently negotiating union, and it brought into the light the French plan to make the EU into a bloc which was both capable of and determined to oppose the US, to act as a "counterweight". This has been mentioned, off and on, for a long time but it's never been something which was really given much attention.
But France's behavior especially in the last six months has made very clear just how serious and important they consider this to be, and it finally caused other European nations to break with a long-standing agreement to let Europe "speak with a single voice" about foreign relations. Chirac had tried to pretend that he was speaking on behalf of all of Europe, and though others had been grumbling about it they felt restrained by an unwillingness to air disagreements in public. During the process of creation of the EU, there had always been strong investment in the appearance of easy agreement even when major disagreements actually existed.
The fiction that Europe was united, and that it was united against the US, was made clear with the double-punch of the "Gang of 8" announcement in the WSJ, followed by the letter from the new-Europe "Vilnius Group". The situation had become sufficiently important that other governments in Europe finally became willing to publicly disagree.
Until that point, France had disproportionate influence on the process of formation of the EU, and it began to be apparent that they and the Germans meant to hijack the process and to convert the EU into a de facto Franco-German ruled European empire. That's out in the open now, and those plans won't survive scrutiny.
The process of formation of the EU may not even survive this crisis, but if the EU does get formed it will definitely be different than it would have been, and it will unquestionably be much less inimical to the US than it would have been.
This was the crisis in the process of forming the EU, and France just lost it. They just passed the high-water mark in influence and prestige. When we've won the war, and when we begin to reveal the true state of affairs in Iraq, the reputation of France and French ability to influence the EU process will decline precipitously. Pro-American, pro-capitalist nations such as Italy and Spain and the UK will be strengthened just when it is most important, during the debate about the upcoming EU constitution (which is being written by a committee led by a former President of France).
Each of these three benefits from the process more than outweigh the damage we took, especially since most of that damage is temporary. Unless the war goes very badly, the simple fact of victory will help us. But even more, once Saddam has been removed from power and once the press gains access to ordinary Iraqis and can begin to reveal the depths of the brutality Saddam's government has used against them, anyone who seemed to be working to keep him in power is going to be very badly damaged, and no amount of protests about how they didn't favor Saddam and were only trying to push for a peaceful solution will ultimately save them.
I do not know how many of these results were actually the result of planning. I think that they did deliberately go to the UN as part of a process of working to get Congressional authorization without unnecessary entanglements. I can't say whether the other benefits were part of a plan, or merely a serendipitous benefit. But I do know that if we had tried to deploy for war without the UN process going on in parallel, that the result would almost certainly have been much worse.
This is a distillation of a lot of things I've read on many blogs, and letters I've received, and my own thinking; too many people have contributed pieces of it to possibly credit if I even remembered any more where I saw them. I apologize for the minimal linking in this article.
Update: A discussion of what I referred to as a "Tet moment" can be found here.