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Why I nearly resigned

Mark Steyn says he is disgusted by what he sees as The Spectator's ill-judged and idle defence of the UN

26 April 2003

12:00 AM

26 April 2003

12:00 AM

New Hampshire

The UN should be appointed overseer of the peace not because that organisation possesses planning skills which America does not, but because to shut it out will cause resentment in the Arab world. However irritating are many of the do-gooders among its ranks, the UN has the advantage of being seen as an antidote to alleged Western imperialism.

After reading those words in The Spectator’s leading article of 12 April, I hurled the magazine across the room and typed up my letter of resignation. A nervous dependant pointed out it might be wiser to line up alternative employment first. It quickly emerged that no other British publication would have me, and the only alternative employment was casual construction work. So let me try to explain instead why the heart sinks at finding a paragraph like that in what purports to be a conservative magazine.

The short answer is the official Russian response to the suggestion that UN sanctions should now be lifted, so that Iraqis can sell their oil and start rebuilding their country. ‘This decision cannot be automatic,’ says the Russian foreign minister with a straight face. ‘For the Security Council to take this decision, we need to be certain whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction or not.’

Got that? Last month, the Russians were opposed to war on the grounds that there was no proof Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. This month, the Russians are opposed to lifting sanctions on the grounds that there’s no proof Iraq doesn’t have weapons of mass destruction.

There are a few striped-pants masochists in the State Department who enjoy this sort of thing and have spent the last four weeks pining for M. Chirac to walk all over them in steel-tipped stilettos one more time. But most Americans, given a choice between being locked in Security Council negotiations with the Russians, French and Germans or being fed feet-first into one of Saddam’s industrial shredders, would find it a tough call.

In the week before The Spectator’s demand that Kofi and co. be put back in the limelight, I’d devoted this space to suggesting why the UN was not the answer for postwar Iraq. While one is not so foolish as to believe the scales will be falling from Dominique de Villepin’s eyes, one hopes one’s argument might as least circulate as far as the magazine’s editors. After all, that was also the column in which I opined on the progress of the war. ‘We’re still on Cakewalk Time,’ I wrote. ‘If Baghdad falls within the next seven to ten days, that’s a quickstep cakewalk.’

Well, I was wrong. It was six days. But that still put me ahead of that issue’s leader (‘Now that coalition forces are digging in around Baghdad waiting for reinforcements…’), not to mention Julian Manyon (‘We now know that The Plan – General Franks’s plan, as Donald Rumsfeld has effortlessly started calling it – was based on a number of arrogant assumptions. It completely disregarded a key lesson of modern history – that invasions ignite nationalism, and that even the worst of tyrants may be preferred by many of his people to occupation by a foreign army…. Meanwhile, Saddam appears to be plotting an Arab Stalingrad’). In an issue brimming with an unintentional hilarity not seen since Alexander Chancellor’s Falklands coverage, I was happy to do my bit to help maintain a few shreds of The Spectator’s reputation.


A thank-you note and a box of chocolates would have been nice; a large raise and comprehensive medical coverage would have been better. But at the very least, instead of rushing on to their UN bromides, The Spec’s editors might have thought, ‘Hmm. Steyn was right on the war; maybe he’s right on the postwar, too.’

You don’t have to be a genius to see that, since 11 September, we have entered a transitional phase in world affairs. John Pilger can keep boring on about Vietnam until he’s driven away every last Mirror reader, but to any sentient columnist the analogy is irrelevant: indeed, a canny newspaper would design a software programme that crashed a columnist’s computer every time he typed in the word.

The Spectator is not motivated by anti-American animus, of course, and, unlike certain anti-war contributors to these pages, it was not on Saddam’s payroll. But it’s as prone as anyone to a slyer temptation: the seductive power of inertia in human affairs. The wish not to have to update one’s Rolodex burns fiercely in the political breast. Brent Scowcroft, George Bush Sr’s national security adviser, wanted to stick with the Soviet Union even after the Politburo had given up on it. The European Union was committed to the preservation of Yugoslavia even when there had ceased to be a Yugoslavia to preserve. Indeed, as Tim Congdon pointed out last week, Britain’s own membership of the EU now defies any rational justification other than force of habit – which is a mighty potent force. As Polly Toynbee wrote to Peter Cuthbertson’s Conservative Commentary website a couple of months back, ‘War without the UN is unthinkable.’ But it happened anyway. Imagine that.

Clinging to the status quo even as it’s melting and dripping on to your shoes is one reason why the Middle East is now a problem. You’ll recall G.W. Hunt’s famous 19th-century music-hall song, the one that gave us a new word for the kind of militant patriotism most distasteful to the enlightened soul:

We don’t want to fight, but by Jingo if we do,
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too….

What’s often overlooked is what all this flag-waving was in aid of:

We’ve fought the Bear before, and while Britons shall be true
The Russians shall not have Constantinople.

Why? Because the British coveted it? Not at all. Her Majesty’s Government was interested in cherrypicking the odd isle and emirate – Cyprus here, Oman there – but, other than that, they were committed to maintaining the Ottoman empire: all that jingoistic rabble-rousing not for British glory but just to keep some other fellow’s simpleton sultan on his throne. The Middle East is in its present condition in part because the European powers kept propping up the Turkish empire decades after it had ceased to be prop-up-able. It would have been much better for all concerned if Britain had got its hands on Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Arabia in the 1870s rather than four decades later. But, even in the later stages of the Great War, after the British had comprehensively sliced and diced Turkey from top to toe, London’s official position was that somehow the Ottoman empire should be glued back together and propped up till the next war.

Now another Middle Eastern war has come and gone, and the bien-pensants are anxious that once again an obsolescent institution be glued back together and propped in position. This time it’s the UN. The Spectator has it exactly backwards: it’s not the irritating ‘do-gooders’ among its ranks, but the do-badders. The ‘oil-for-palaces’ programme (as Tommy Franks calls it) is a classic UN boondoggle: it was good for bureaucrats, good for Saddam’s European bankers, good for George Galloway (allegedly), but bad for the Iraqi people. A humanitarian operation meant to help a dictator’s beleaguered subjects has instead enriched the UN by more than $1 billion (officially) in ‘administrative’ costs. There’s no oversight, no auditing, nothing most businesses would recognise as a legitimate invoice, and, although non-essential items can be approved only by the secretary-general himself, Kofi Annan has personally signed off on practically anything Saddam requested, including ‘boats’, from France. The UN, France, Germany and Russia are desperate to keep the oil-for-palaces programme going, and they figure they can bully the Americans into going along.

Before the war, it was said t
hat, for America, the issue was Iraq and, for everybody else, the issue was America. Now the issue is the UN, France, Germany and Russia, and whether they can get away with hijacking the Anglo-American victory. You don’t have to agree (though, as it happens, I do) with my distinguished compatriot George Jonas that the UN is a fully-fledged member of the axis of evil to recognise that there’s little point in going to war to install yet another branch office of UNSCAM. If the problem is America’s image in the Arab world, in what way does it help to confine the Stars and Stripes brand to unpleasant things like bombs, while insisting all the nice postwar reconstructive stuff be clearly labelled with the UN flag? If the answer is that that’s the price you pay for healing the rift with Old Europe, that presupposes Old Europe is interested in healing it. Tony Blair may be keen, but the Continentals have different agendas. Will the Belgian government approve the complaint of ‘genocide’ against Tommy Franks? The petition accuses the general of ‘inaction in the face of hospital pillaging’, which apparently meets the Belgian definition of genocide. Unlike the deaths of more than three million people, which is the lowball figure for those who’ve died in the civil war in the Congo – or, as I still like to think of it, the Belgian Congo.

The Congo’s civil war is everything George Mohammed al-Galloway claimed Bush’s war would be: there were more civilian deaths in a few hours in Ituri province last week than in the entire Iraq campaign; while the blowhards at Oxfam and co. – the Big Consciences lobby – insist on pretending that Iraq is a humanitarian disaster, there’s an actual humanitarian disaster going on in the Congo, complete with millions of children dead from disease and malnutrition. While the lefties warned that Ariel Sharon would use the cover of the Iraq war to slaughter the Palestinians, the Congolese are being slaughtered, and you don’t need any cover. Because nobody cares. Because no Americans or ‘Zionists’ are involved.

That’s why The Spectator should be wary of lending credence to phrases like ‘Western imperialism’. There’s no such thing. There’s Belgian imperialism, which, as the Congo continues to demonstrate, is a sewer. And then there’s Anglo-Saxon nation-building, which, from India to Belize, works quite well, given the chance. St Lucia, Mauritius, Tuvalu and Papua New Guinea, to pluck four at random, have enjoyed the attributes of a free society a lot longer than, say, Greece, Portugal and Spain, which were dictatorships a quarter-century ago. The argument of our old friend Ghazi Algosaibi, the Saudi minister of water, that freedom is ‘European’ is not borne out by the facts. If Latin Americans, Pacific islanders and even the Muslims of south Asia can live in liberty, it’s surely a little racist to suggest that Arabs are uniquely incapable of so doing. Had Britain begun administering Mesopotamia in 1877 instead of 1917, we wouldn’t even be asking the question.

But if you want to turn a long shot into a surefire failure, there’s no better way than handing postwar Iraq from the Americans to the UN – the successors to the Belgian school of nation-building. At best, you’ll end up with Cambodia, where the UN has colluded in the nullification of democracy; at worst, you’ll wind up with the Balkans, where once functioning jurisdictions are reduced to the level of geopolitical tenements with the UN as slum landlord in perpetuity.

As my colleague Matthew Parris has written, there are today two competing philosophies, which he has characterised as America vs the Rest of the World. For the purposes of this argument, ‘America’ includes Australia, Poland and Qatar, but let’s not quibble. The Rest of the World – the Franco-Russo-Belgian philosophy – has given us the oil-for-food programme, Hun Sen’s UN-approved coup in Cambodia, and Congolese genocide. That’s good enough for Belgium, but it shouldn’t be for Britain and America. Washington should dare the French and Russians to veto, let the Iraqis turn on the spigots, and pay no attention to Spectator editorials.


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