Meltdown at U.N. poses long-term risks

Issues of time, mistrust undermine consensus

Deadline For Hussein

March 18, 2003|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON- In a basement corridor of the United Nations yesterday, American and British ambassadors bitterly pronounced the death of a hard-won international consensus against Iraq, a death that may bring serious damage to longtime alliances.

At the core of the diplomatic failure to keep the U.N. Security Council united lay profound disagreements over the use of military force that were papered over by a council resolution adopted unanimously Nov. 8.

The tensions were aggravated by mutual suspicion between the United States and France, time pressure, diplomatic slights and mounting popular opposition to war around the world.

The result became obvious at midmorning yesterday, when John D. Negroponte and Jeremy Greenstock, U.N. ambassadors for the United States and Britain, announced that they would not seek a vote on a resolution authorizing military action against Iraq, leaving President Bush to go to war without this international seal of approval.

Both blamed France's veto threat for the failure to get the necessary support.

"France suspected all along that the Americans were determined to go to war no matter what. The Americans suspected that France was determined to avoid war and evade its responsibilities, no matter what," says Dana Allin, a specialist on U.S.-Europe relations at the Institute for International Strategic Studies in London. "Each has done much to justify the other's worst stereotypes."

This end of diplomacy contrasts sharply with the success of the first President Bush in building a sizable coalition of allied nations in the 1991 Persian Gulf war and the worldwide support the United States received in its war against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

It's not clear whether the collapse of U.N. consensus will have greater impact on the United States or on France and Russia, which led the opposition to the U.S. position. If the Security Council is permanently weakened, France and Russia risk losing some of the power that comes from their veto there.

Last fall, the U.N. resolution giving Saddam Hussein "a final opportunity" to disarm took seven weeks to draft, mainly because France and Russia were determined to prevent the United States from putting a hidden "trigger" in the text that it could use as a pretext for war.

Aware of the contempt for the United Nations among some of the hawks in the Bush administration, both Russia and French labored to keep the Security Council in the driver's seat when it came to deciding whether and when to go to war.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin left no doubt at the time that he shared the Americans' view of what the resolution meant in threatening Iraq with "serious consequences."

"If Saddam Hussein does not comply, if he does not satisfy his obligations, there will obviously be a use of force," he told a French radio station four days after it was adopted.

But there was no clear agreement among the United States and other countries on how Hussein would "satisfy his obligations" or how much time he should get to do it. And left unstated in the resolution was the Bush administration's goal of "regime change" in Iraq, a goal that not even Britain thought should be a reason for war.

As the Americans saw it, anything short of complete disclosure by Iraq of all its weapons programs amounted to a failure to comply. They were certain that Iraq would not meet this test as long as Hussein remained in power.

U.S. officials also had no faith that the United Nations inspection teams led by Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei would ever be able to uncover the full extent of Iraq's weapons programs. Administration hawks saw the inspectors as useful mostly in exposing Iraqi deception and, thus, providing grounds for military action.

France and others on the council, as well as Blix and ElBaradei, had a far different view of inspections. Armed with intrusive powers and backed by the threat of force, they believed, the inspectors over time would penetrate Iraqi weapons programs and, at a minimum, prevent Hussein from expanding his arsenal. The inspectors themselves made little secret of their desire to prevent a war.

The progress of inspections proved frustrating to both sides. American intelligence failed to steer the inspectors to any "smoking gun." At the same time, Iraq avoided any glaring obstruction.

While Blix remained suspicious that Iraq was hiding biological and chemical agents, ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, became increasingly confident that Iraq had not resumed its development of nuclear weapons.

Impatient with the inspectors' bland appraisals, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell seized on and highlighted only the parts that offered evidence of Iraqi noncompliance. His own dramatic presentation to the Security Council contained intelligence findings that the inspectors later challenged.

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