THE “HUMAN RIGHTS EXCEPTION”….Mickey Kaus asked the other day if there should be a “human rights exception” to the general rule that you don’t start a war unless someone else starts it first. It is questions like this that make it so frustrating to me that left and right are so far apart these days.

The reason for this frustration is that I think the answer to his question is yes. I would be delighted to see the civilized world take a stronger stand against brutal, dictatorial regimes like Saddam Hussein’s. There’s no sophisticated thinking behind this, either. It’s just that I don’t like torture, repression, and mass murder, and I do like democracy, religious tolerance, and personal freedom. And these are things I feel strongly enough about that I’m willing to impose them by force on the occasions where it seems feasible to do so.

The obvious question, of course, is: who gets to decide when a regime is bad enough that it ought to be forcibly removed and replaced by something (hopefully) better? I take it as a given that organizations with power should not be solely in charge of using their power. That’s why ? like everyone ? I’m in favor of civilian control of the military and city council control of local police forces. It’s not that I’m anti-cop, it’s just that I recognize that the kind of people who are good at wielding power are not the same people who are good at deciding when and how to wield it. They need oversight.

The same applies rather obviously to international affairs. Just to take the Middle East as one example, American backing for Israel, though laudable on many grounds, has been so one-sided that it’s been ineffective in mediating an end to 50 years of bloodshed between Israel and the Palestinians; we supported the Shah of Iran with disastrous consequences; we supported Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran; and we supported the Mujahedeen against the Soviets in Afghanistan, a splinter of which eventually became the Taliban. All of these seemed like defensible short-term decisions at the time, but the longer term effects have been catastrophic.

On the other hand, when we are part of a genuinely effective multilateral effort ? World War I, World War II, the Cold War ? we’ve done quite a bit better. It’s unfortunate, then, that anti-war liberals seem to put rather too much stock in the UN, an organization that has too many institutional barriers to action to be an effective multilateral force, while conservatives disdain any kind of multilateral body that might genuinely constrain American use of force.

We seem to be at an impasse these days and I wonder where the statesmanship will come from to break it? Oddly enough, in the same sense that only Nixon could go to China, the statesmanship could come from George Bush.

But what are the odds?