After Iraq crises, a foreign policy dilemma

March 06, 1998|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- Trent Lott, leader of the U.S. Senate's Republican majority, says United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been "calling the shots" on U.S. policy toward Iraq. He says U.S. foreign policy is being made by the United Nations.

This obviously is part of a rather stupid partisan quarrel in Washington, but Mr. Lott is correct when he says Mr. Annan's agreement in Baghdad was not made on terms laid down by the United States.

Washington's problem is this: By undertaking to act as agent of the "international community," it ran into the determination of that international community to have a say about what was done in its name and on its behalf.

This bothers Mr. Lott and others because they want the United States to be free to act as it sees fit. They do not trust the United Nations, nor do they like interference or second-guessing from U.S. allies.

Theirs is a comprehensible unilateralism, a position defended by many in the past. The idea that the United States should stand tall -- in solitary virtue, unencumbered by the preoccupations of other states -- expresses the traditional American exceptionalism. A distaste for foreign "entanglements" is as old as the republic. Today it presents a serious difficulty for the Clinton administration.

A day after Mr. Annan's return to New York from Baghdad, an obviously planted story in the New York Times told of a "secret flight" made to New York by Madeleine K. Albright on Feb. 15 for a "secret meeting" with the secretary-general at his Sutton Place townhouse. There, she is said to have presented U.S. "requirements" for Mr. Annan's mission to Baghdad. The purpose of the story is to claim (as the Times' headline put it) that the "fingerprints on the Iraqi accord belong to Albright."

A U.N. man

The secretary of state will certainly have seen Mr. Annan and told him what the United States wanted him to do. But even though Mr. Annan was Washington's nominee for the post of secretary-general, he works for the United Nations, and is required to take his mandate from the Security Council, not from Washington. He did not need U.S. approval to go to Baghdad.

Nor would the Security Council agree with the United States on instructions for Mr. Annan. John Weston, the British representative to the United Nations, saved the day after the council's inconclusive debate by giving Mr. Annan an oral summary of those things on which the council had been able to agree. Mr. Annan went to Baghdad with this informal and unwritten "advice," and the measure of negotiating freedom it conferred.

This was also a case -- amazingly enough -- of European Union foreign policy at work, in this instance using the good cop/bad cop technique.

The loyal British, ready to go to war by America's side, humored Washington and finessed the Security Council problem. The bad French briefed Mr. Annan in Paris on what they knew about the Iraqis' thinking and then flew him to Baghdad, where their diplomats had been telling the Iraqi leadership that this definitely was Iraq's last chance to prevent the bombing and get sanctions lifted.

After Mr. Annan's return to New York, the Italians, in the person of their prime minister, and France's president, Jacques Chirac, both suggested that if there were compliance, a way must now be found (as Mr. Chirac put it) "to reinsert Iraq into the international community."

That means eventually lifting the sanctions on Iraq. Such a statement was undoubtedly awaited in Baghdad.

The United States is not pleased by all this. Mrs. Albright does not like to be pre-empted. The Republican opposition certainly does not like what has happened. Mr. Lott says it means "peace at any price."

Whatever it means, the United States has either to live with it -- accepting the involvement of the United Nations, the allies and the "international community" in how the United States treats Iraq -- or take up a unilateralist policy and accept international isolation.

Posing these alternatives is not a useless exercise, unlikely as the latter course of action may be. U.S. leadership of a so-called new world order is a great deal more complicated than leading the Western alliance in the Cold War.

The implications of the new situation are resisted by many in Washington. This is clear, not only in the U.N. case, but also in NATO expansion. The full Senate now seems ready to approve NATO expansion but does not seem fully to understand what that means.

NATO expansion

NATO rests on a commitment to go to war if any member is attacked. Expanding that commitment from 15 countries to 18, with more to come, is a much more significant delegation of power over U.S. policies and security than membership in the United Nations could ever be.

The Senate undoubtedly takes for granted that NATO will always remain a compliant instrument of U.S. policy. It should remember that this is exactly what the U.S. government thought when it launched the idea of a United Nations organization, back in 1943.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/06/98

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