‘Smoking gun’ may come too late

? A contemporary said of Chief Justice John Marshall the most consequential American never to be president that “he hit the Constitution much as the Lord hit the chaos, at a time when everything needed creating.” George W. Bush is struggling to do something comparably ambitious in international affairs.

One reason it is such a struggle is that new technologies of menace are in the hands of regimes that can as Iraq is doing with its letter proposing renewed weapons inspections manipulate the United Nations. The dominant thought of the “international community” wishful thinking invests the U.N. with responsibility for coping with the menace.

The president touched that tar baby, the U.N., in November when he improvidently proposed the return of U.N. weapons inspectors, and he was not unstuck from the tar baby by Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent insistence that inspectors could provide only “false comfort.” There is a domestic constituency that favors staying stuck. It favors it for various reasons, but one has a particularly long pedigree.

Chief Justice Marshall, a great definer of American nationhood, was opposed by Jeffersonians, with their anti-nationalist vision of the nation as only a confederation produced by a compact (implicitly revocable; see 1861) among states. Today Bush’s defense of American national autonomy is opposed, among Americans, mainly by members of the party that traces its lineage to Jefferson.

Many Democrats have more than a merely banal political reason they believe they prosper when focusing on domestic matters for pushing this nation deeper into the tar baby’s embrace. Their desire is to avoid having to assert what many of them believe: that the use of U.S. force in pre-emptive self-defense requires permission from the not-altogether-savory collection of regimes that is misnamed the United Nations.

It is perverse, and profoundly dangerous, that the U.N. is being encouraged to place upon its own brow a garland of laurels it has woven for itself as the sole legitimizer of force in international affairs. Even NATO, an alliance of democracies, is said to be morally bound to defer. The U.N.’s overweening vanity is made possible by the acquiescence of formerly formidable European nations. They now are eager to disguise decadence as a moral gesture, that of sloughing off sovereignty and with it, responsibilities.

The U.N.’s prestige is at an apogee, and its performance is at a nadir. The composition of its Security Council is anachronistic a historical accident. If the U.N. were being founded today, France would not be a permanent member of the Security Council, and India would be. India’s population is 17 times that of France and three times that of all 15 members of the European Union; India will account for one-fifth of the world’s population growth this year, and by 2050 will have a population almost as large as the world had in 1900.

No wonder France celebrates deference to the U.N., which is a mirror with a frozen reflection of the world in 1945. That is why another shadow of a great power, Russia, with a GDP of $300 billion (smaller than the Netherlands’) is a permanent member of the Security Council, and Japan, with a GDP of $2.9 trillion, is not.

In Iraq, the U.N. is meeting its Abyssinia. That is what Ethiopia was called in October 1935 when Mussolini’s Italy invaded it and the U.N.’s predecessor, the League of Nations, proved to be impotent as an instrument of international order.

When the president told the U.N. that Iraq’s race for weapons of mass destruction is a “grave and gathering danger,” he echoed the title of the first volume of Churchill’s history of the Second World War, “The Gathering Storm.” The president’s substitution of the phrase “grave and gathering danger” for the common phrase “clear and present danger” is freighted with significance.

Some critics seem to say that in order for the president to “make the case” for proving that the danger is present, its presence must be evidenced by a “smoking gun.” But that means America cannot act against Iraq until acting is much more dangerous, when Iraq has nuclear weapons.

With America’s political culture increasingly colored by the legal culture, and with Democrats increasingly the party of trial lawyers, there is a growing tendency to treat foreign policy crises as episodes of “Law & Order,” crises to be discussed in television-courtroom patois, such as “smoking gun.” As Condoleezza Rice has said, let us hope the smoking gun is not a mushroom cloud.