Answers, anyone?

March 11, 2003

HAS THERE ever been a stranger prelude to a war? The United Nations this week is the focus of intense diplomacy, even as all sides are aware that the United States will launch an invasion, if it so decides, regardless of how the U.N. might vote. France is on everyone's mind, while Iraq, the intended quarry, is straining to be heard, and generally ignored.

Will France actually use its veto? Jacques Chirac says Oui. Will Russia? Da.

The Americans and British and French are furiously lobbying the so-called Undecided 6, those members of the Security Council who could tip the balance. Thus, Cameroon, Guinea and Chile, among others, hold the future of international relations in their hands. The French, who sent their foreign minister to African capitals yesterday to make their case, are doing a better and more thorough job of it.

So why is the Bush administration making such a mess of a situation that seems to get worse every day? Why does it keep pushing for a second resolution, one that would set a deadline of March 17, when the prospects of securing enough votes to pass it grow dimmer and dimmer?

Possibility No. 1: The White House thinks it's worth the risk because a victory in the Security Council - even one pulled out grudgingly at the last minute - would be a tremendous international validation.

Possibility No. 2: Tony Blair's got to have it. The British prime minister is getting into serious trouble in his own party - and may even have to rely on votes from the opposition Conservatives to prevail in Parliament - so anything that can be done to make him look better on the world stage is welcome. His problems begin in earnest, however, if the resolution goes down to defeat.

Possibility No. 3: President Bush believes that at some point nations have to show their cards, as he put it last week. If you're against him, let's put it on the record. The only problem with that is it's not clear what purpose it serves except to provide grounds for mutual resentment in the future.

There is, of course, an alternative to a vote that seems unlikely to do anyone any good. The Canadians have floated the idea and the Russians appear to be receptive to it and the British seem to be moving toward it. It's called: a compromise. That's not a word that has figured prominently in the lexicon of a White House that sees the world in terms of good and evil, but there has to be a first time for everything.

In essence, it comes down to this: What about a little more time? Less than the French want but more than the Americans do? What if the world tried to pull itself together before plunging into war? What if the inspectors were given more time to sharpen their assessments, to dig deeper, to gather as much information as they could?

What if the French and Russians, their fears of American swaggering at least partly assuaged, felt they had to sign on? What if the pressure of a truly United Nations got so great that something snapped and war was averted?

Would that be so terrible, even from George Bush's point of view?

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