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The UN Gambit | The Nation

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The UN Gambit

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George W. Bush's decision to "involve" the United Nations in his plans to attack Iraq does not indicate a conversion to multilateralism on the road to Baghdad. Washington's continuing campaign to neutralize the International Criminal Court and its disdain for the Kyoto Protocol are only part of the evidence that this would at best be a very expedient multilateralism.

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Ian Williams
Ian Williams is The Nation's UN correspondent. In addition to his work for the magazine, he frequently comments on...

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There are sound pragmatic political considerations behind the shift to the UN track. The President's father and James Baker have almost certainly reminded him that it was Security Council Resolution 678 mandating military action to expel Iraq from Kuwait that was crucial to winning the bare majority for a war powers resolution on Capitol Hill. And even Tony Blair, assailed internally by opposition from his own party and public, and externally by his European colleagues, now wants some form of UN blessing--or excuse--for the crusade against Baghdad.

So what form will the Administration's use or abuse of the UN take? There is little or no chance of a Security Council resolution authorizing invasion to effect a change of regime. While Russia, China and France have all told Iraq it should admit weapons inspectors, none of them can countenance explicit support for an enforced removal of the Iraqi government, which would go against one of the most fundamental principles in the UN Charter. Instead, diplomats on the Security Council anticipate a US-inspired resolution setting a deadline--most speak of four weeks--for Baghdad to admit inspectors unconditionally, probably warning of "severe consequences" if it does not. The Administration's nightmare would be Saddam having a belated moment of rationality and allowing the inspectors in, but it's reasonably confident that Baghdad will oblige by refusing.

The Administration's confidence seems to be justified. Iraq's current ambivalent gestures--wanting Hans Blix, head of UNMOVIC, the inspection unit, to come for talks but still declaring its refusal to admit his inspectors--is exasperating even some of Iraq's best friends, while the refusal to admit inspectors for the past two years has eroded the little support it had from other countries. The Security Council set up UNMOVIC in 1999 in response to criticisms made about its predecessor, UNSCOM. A later resolution, 1382, represented the high-water mark of sanity for the Bush Administration, since it actually mandated the end of sanctions after the inspectors had completed their timetabled examination and certification that Iraq was not producing weapons of mass destruction. In supporting the resolution, Colin Powell went much further than the Clinton Administration in offering what was termed "light at the end of the tunnel"--an end to sanctions in return for compliance with resolutions, rather than the regime change demanded by Clinton's UN ambassador, Madeleine Albright. UNMOVIC's new inspectors have also been carefully insulated from the allegations of undue Anglo-American influence that dogged their predecessors.

It is against this background that the Administration is working hard to make sure that there is no veto by France, Russia or China--and no doubt the US determination that Muslim separatists in the west of China are "terrorists" has helped mollify Chinese opposition. Even French President Jacques Chirac in his recent statements is moving toward acceptance of some kind of UN authorization for coercing Iraqi compliance, while Putin's US-friendly stance suggests that Russian opposition will be muted.

But even if Washington heads off vetoes, it still needs nine yes votes to win--and Syria is certain to vote against. For political legitimacy the British and Americans must win by more than a bare majority, which is why a diplomat representing one of the ten elected members on the Security Council said, "We're expecting to feel the grip on our testicles any day soon"--the traditional US route to hearts and minds in international forums, and no more so than with this Administration. In the end, it is likely that Washington will get its deadline, since the vote will be on Iraqi compliance, not "regime change"--although in a last act as friends of Iraq the Russians may negotiate a slightly longer deadline.

Once the United States has its deadline and if Iraq plays into its hands by defying the UN, then Washington has at least two options. One, which seems increasingly likely as US diplomacy gets to work on the council members, is a resolution that in some euphemistic measure calls down "severe consequences" on Saddam's head if he fails to comply with a demand to accept inspectors. The alternative would be a simple determination that Iraq has failed to comply, after which the United States and Britain will claim authority from the original Gulf War resolutions to use military means to enforce the inspection and disarmament demanded by the resolutions.

In both cases, it allows the Administration to shift some of the blame for "warmongering" onto the UN, as a duty of the global community rather than as US aggression. Internationally, it transforms what would have been a flagrant breach of international law--the unilateral overthrow of a sovereign government--into a move to assert UN authority, the consequence of which may be the downfall of a little-loved dictator.

Ariel Sharon may yet rescue Saddam Hussein with more assaults on Palestinians, allowing the Arabs to contrast starkly the different outcomes of egregious defiance of the United Nations by Israel and Iraq. Or Iraq's president may yet decide that survival with inspectors is preferable to martyrdom surrounded by half-finished projects for mass military mayhem. But it is a reasonable supposition that shooting will begin in some form sooner or later. And if Bush has his way on Capitol Hill, sooner than the November elections.

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