As the United Nations Security Council neared approval of a resolution on Iraq, it appeared that Council resistance was giving way to rising US pressure. The final resolution is likely to provide Washington with language it will use as tacit approval for a unilateral attack on Iraq if Baghdad’s compliance with inspections is deemed inadequate. It is also likely to include agreement that there should be further Council discussions (though not necessarily a new resolution or even a formal meeting) before any such action is taken. But that qualifier will be largely a fig leaf for those governments opposed to a unilateral US attack, giving them deniability at home. In Colin Powell’s words, “Independent of the outcome of negotiations in the Council, in the end there will be a resolution that leaves the authority and the right to the US President to act in self-defense for the American people and our neighbors.”
It’s all too familiar. In early 1998, at another moment when the United States was gearing up for war against Iraq, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan went to Baghdad and negotiated a last-minute agreement with Saddam Hussein. The agreement was designed to resolve problems with the arms inspections and to stave off the threat of a US war. When Annan came back to New York, the Security Council crafted a new resolution endorsing his agreement. US ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson demanded that the resolution call for “severest consequences” if Iraq should violate the agreement in the future; under pressure, the Council agreed. The Clinton Administration still wasn’t happy. It was geared up for war, and the resolution meant recalling bombers, fighter jets and troops.
But there was a serious disagreement over just what “severest consequences” meant. The Russian ambassador even coined a word–“automaticity”–to describe what the phrase did not mean. Severest consequences, virtually the entire Security Council had decided, did not give any state the automatic right to move on its own against Iraq. Like earlier resolutions, this one ended with the statement that “the Security Council decides to remain seized of this matter.” In UN diplospeak, that means the issue remains on the Council’s agenda, and under Council authority.
So on March 2, 1998, after the resolution passed, a parade of ambassadors emerged from the Security Council chamber, one by one, to insist that their resolution did not include “automaticity.” It did not, they said, authorize any country–including the United States–to launch a unilateral military strike against Iraq. Ambassador Richardson came last. Dismissing his predecessors’ insistence that the resolution did not authorize a military strike, he shrugged and told the press, “We think it does.” Months later, without UN authorization, the United States and Britain devastated Iraq in the four-day miniwar of bombs and cruise missiles known as Desert Fox.
Warnings of severe consequences are once again included in the US draft resolution. “Automaticity” has now become part of UN jargon, and again Council ambassadors are asserting strongly that the new resolution has no “automaticity” for military action. But the diplomats of the Bush Administration, like their Clinton-era predecessors, disagree with the rest of the Security Council; once again they “think it does.”