Half a Victory at the UN

Half a Victory at the UN

Iraq’s decision to accept the United Nations Security Council resolution, passed unanimously on November 8, sets in motion a tightly scripted plan for UN arms inspectors to return to Iraq.


Iraq’s decision to accept the United Nations Security Council resolution, passed unanimously on November 8, sets in motion a tightly scripted plan for UN arms inspectors to return to Iraq. Baghdad’s ambassador, Muhammad al-Douri, delivered his government’s acceptance letter to Secretary General Kofi Annan on November 13, telling reporters, “We are prepared to receive the inspectors within the designated timetable.”

Despite an angry parliamentary recommendation to reject the resolution, Iraq’s acquiescence was widely anticipated. It reflects the relentless pressure brought to bear on the country, from the Arab League and from such Council members as Syria, France and Russia, as well as Washington’s escalating threats of war for “regime change” virtually regardless of Iraq’s compliance.

In general, antiwar forces in the United States and around the world can claim the recent UN resolution as a partial victory. The resolution does not endorse the use of force; it redefines the Iraq crisis, at least in the international arena, as one of disarmament, not regime change; and it will at least delay a US attack. It provides a powerful tool to fight for US accountability to multilateralism and the UN. But it still reflects the heavy-handed domination of the UN and the rest of the world by the United States and ultimately sets the terms for war.

The real victory lies in the fact that the Bush Administration felt it necessary to go to the UN at all. Only last summer the Pentagon’s “chickenhawks” appeared to have derailed any UN-based strategy for Iraq. But the Joint Chiefs of Staff remained skeptical of war; polls showed less than a quarter of Americans supported attacking Iraq without the UN; and hundreds of thousands of protesters filled the streets. Washington’s closest allies, from Germany to Mexico and even Tony Blair’s own Labour Party, railed against growing US unilateralism. The superhawks didn’t want this resolution, but they lost.

That the anti-UN Bush Administration took eight weeks to negotiate the terms of Resolution 1441 reflects the enormous international and domestic opposition to its planned war for oil and empire. The resolution puts additional pressure on Washington to at least appear to be acting in concert with the international community. While the Republican sweep of the midterm election will certainly further empower the Administration’s most unilateralist voices, diminishing US public support for a solo attack, bolstered by the UN resolution, may act as a brake on that trajectory.

The United States made significant concessions to win support for its text. But backroom deals with France and Russia regarding oil contracts in a postwar Iraq were a big part of the picture. And the impoverished nation of Mauritius emerged as the latest poster child for US pressure at the UN. The ambassador, Jagdish Koonjul, was recalled by his government for failing to support the original US draft resolution on Iraq. Why? Because Mauritius receives significant US aid, and the African Growth and Opportunity Act requires that a recipient of US assistance “does not engage in activities that undermine US national security or foreign policy interests.”

Every Council ambassador, even the British, speaking after the unanimous vote, made clear that the resolution provides no authorization for war. French ambassador Jean-David Levitte said it requires a Council meeting in the event of Iraqi noncompliance. “France welcomes the elimination from the resolution of all ambiguity on this point,” he said. Mexico’s ambassador, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, was probably the most direct. Force is valid, he said, only “with the prior, explicit authorization of the Security Council.”

Nothing in the resolution gives Washington the right to determine whether Iraq is in “material breach” of its obligations, or to decide what to do if there is such a breach. But Washington claims exactly those rights, and no other country was prepared to defy the United States by demanding that the text explicitly reject that claim or to reassert the UN Charter’s clear statement that only the Council as a whole has the authority to make such decisions. For almost every country on the Council the vote was less about constraining Iraqi weapons than about constraining US power. Even Syria, acquiescing to French and Arab League persuasion and to US threats of vilification if Damascus voted no, joined the Council consensus.

Despite all the bickering over language, there is no evidence that the Bush Administration has any intention of basing its go-to-war decision on what the UN resolution actually says, or even on what the inspectors find or don’t find. If it is looking for a pretext, the super-tough inspection requirements provide plenty. Within forty-eight hours of the resolution’s passage, US and British jets bombed the unilaterally declared “no-fly” zone in southern Iraq. The new resolution specifically prohibits Iraq from threatening any country ostensibly “taking action to uphold any Council resolution”; if Iraq even locks radar on these bombers, the United States may claim it is violating those terms. Further, there is no explicit commitment that if Iraq fully complies, the crippling economic sanctions will finally be lifted.

The United States has been forced to go to the UN, but it retains a thoroughly instrumentalist view of the United Nations–in which the global organization’s relevance and authority are defined by proximity to Washington’s positions. The newly emboldened Republicans continue to claim that UN decisions do not “handcuff” any US decision for war. There is still danger that US pressure will force a second-stage Council decision endorsing a war, whatever the inspectors find. But if UN leaders begin to use their bully pulpit in defense of the Charter’s insistence on nonmilitary solutions, the combination of international UN legitimacy, massive global opposition to war at both the governmental and popular levels and the pressure of a growing antiwar movement in the United States may be able to raise the price of this war above what even this Administration is willing to pay.

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