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.
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.