Philip Stephens: Power and legitimacy

By Philip Stephens

Financial Times

Published: September 24 2004

Watching the forced handshake between George W. Bush and Kofi Annan at the United Nations General Assembly this week reminded me just how bad things have become. There, under the television arc-lights, power and legitimacy stood side by side; and it was painfully obvious they had never been further apart.

Mr Annan, the best secretary-general the UN has had for a long time, voiced his despair at the way Hobbesian anarchy was elbowing aside the rule of law as the organising principle of international relations. The bloody chaos in Iraq, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and ethnic cleansing in Darfur - all are rooted in their own grim histories. Taken together, though, they speak to what Mr Annan sees as a much bigger fracturing of the global system.

The warnings in his speech to the General Assembly were directed above all at the US - specifically to the present administration's selective and arbitrary application of international law. Yet Mr Bush's presence was a reminder that Mr Annan is a servant rather than master of his institution. The secretary-general is po werless without the backing of the Security Council and the Security Council depends on the willing engagement of the sole superpower.

Mr Bush is not interested. He talks about leadership, not legitimacy, unaware or unconcerned about the umbilical cord between them. He must have hated every minute of his brief sojourn in New York. After all, only the other day Richard Cheney, the vice-president, was drawing his loudest applause at the Republican convention by parading Washington's disdain for the UN and all its works - and that was before Mr Annan declared the invasion of Iraq to have been ‚illegal‚.

By any objective measure America stands on the brink of strategic failure in Iraq. But the US president is fighting an election. So, at every turn, loud determination defies grim reality. All that matters, Mr Bush tells us, is that America will prevail. Good will triumph over evil, the terrorists will be routed, and freedom will reign.

It must be said that such obstinate optimism has done him no harm on the campaign trail. The opinion polls say Mr Bush is still well ahead of John Kerry, the Democratic contender, as America's preferred choice as commander-in-chief. The voters seem to feel safer with the certain voice of the person who marched them into the swamp than with the uncomfortable truth that there is no easy way out.

Yet the irony is that the slide towards civil war in Iraq offers the most convincing rebuttal of Mr Bush's reckless assertion that American power has no need of the legitimacy that flows from an international system grounded in the rule of law.

The rising death toll of innocent civilians, the pitiless barbarism of the hostage-takers led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the impotence of an American military increasingly confined to its fortified bases bear daily witness to the gathering catastrophe in Iraq.

Anyone who doubts Mr Bush's culpability would do well to read a paper by Larry Diamond in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs. Mr Diamond, a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and a former adviser to the now defunct Coalition Provisional Authority, does not revisit all the arguments about whether the US should have gone to war to remove Saddam Hussein. Instead, he chronicles in sober, non-partisan prose the catalogue of grievous errors that ensured that a speedy military victory was thrown away to the chaos of the present insurgency.

Many of the mistakes are familiar: the hubristic incompetence of the Pentagon's civilian leaders in their refusal to commit sufficient forces to guarantee a minimum level of security in postwar Iraq; the decision by the CPA to purge all Ba'athists from positions of responsibility; the disbanding of the army; the promotion of discredited Iraqi exiles as the country's future leaders; and the failure to develop anything resembling a coherent political strategy to engage respected Iraqi leaders.

The binding thread in Mr Diamond's narrative, though, is Washington's consistent failure to under stand that its occupation lacked legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis. In his dispassionate description: ‚Too many Iraqis viewed the invasion not as an international effort but as an occupation by Western, Christian, essentially Anglo-American powers, and this evoked powerful memories of previous subjugation and of the nationalist struggles against Iraq's former overlords.‚ Put another way, American military power was fatally undercut by a lack of legitimacy.

Circumstance has forced grudging recognition of this in the White House, though Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon is a man who must never be blamed for anything. In June, the UN was persuaded to give international blessing to Iyad Allawi's interim government. Mr Bush himself points to the UN's central role in the organising of elections planned for January. Whether those elections can actually take place in conditions that Iraqis judge to be fair is an altogether different question.

Mr Diamond has not given up all hope that a relativ ely free Iraqi state might emerge at some point from the present mess, not least because his time in Baghdad persuaded him most Iraqis share that hope. But he points also to the risks of civil war, renewed repression and the creation of another safe haven for terrorists.

As for the shifts in Mr Bush's position, they have been largely tactical. The fundamental view of the White House remains that while the UN may occasionally be useful as an instrument of US hegemony, it is an unnecessary source of legitimacy. America does not need foreigners to tell it it is right.

The (American) architects of the postwar international system understood otherwise, recognising from the outset the symbiotic relationship between power and legitimacy. The UN, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and a panoply of international treaties - all were designed to underscore US power. The institutions drew authority from Washington and, in turn, underpinned its leadership . The system was far from perfect, not least because of the paralysing effect of the cold war. But as we witness its collapse, we can see what we have lost; and that we are all less secure as a consequence.