Fig leaf offered for Bush on Iraq

October 20, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- After the U.N. Security Council's unanimous approval of the latest U.S. resolution backing the American effort in Iraq, a photo of a broadly grinning Secretary of State Colin L. Powell showed him gripping an imaginary baseball bat, as if he had just hit one out of the park.

But the resolution achieved by Mr. Powell bore no figurative resemblance to the blast into the left field stands later the same night by Aaron Boone of the Yankees, keeping the Red Sox's Curse of the Bambino going for at least another year.

Rather, the resolution, as Mr. Powell himself admitted, won't be "opening the door" any time soon to substantial contributions of troops from U.N. members or more than token financial assistance from most of them to the huge reconstruction undertaking. The United States will bear the brunt of that.

The resolution amounts to little more than a fig leaf over the fact that the chief U.N. opponents of President Bush's invasion of Iraq still disagree with the way it happened and were dragged kicking and screaming into accepting it.

Nevertheless, it gives the president some window dressing for his continued occupation of Iraq. He will be able to use it to good effect in arguing that his invasion has been vindicated by a stamp of approval from the international body.

Just as the vote of those Democratic presidential candidates who went along with the congressional resolution authorizing Mr. Bush to invade Iraq has made it awkward for them to criticize the aftermath, the U.N. vote will take much of the sting out of criticism from U.N. headquarters in New York.

More than any practical result of the resolution, its unanimous passage will help restore Mr. Powell's image as an effective player in an administration in which he has been widely cast as the loser in intramural struggles with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the Pentagon.

Mr. Powell's doggedness in pursuing the resolution demonstrated that, even in the face of his widely criticized U.N. presentation of "proof" that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, he remains the most effective weapon in Mr. Bush's diplomatic arsenal.

A U.N. refusal to give its blessing to a multinational military force under U.S. command, and to members' contributions to the rebuilding effort, would have been a major embarrassment to the president. Instead, he can now say he's working within the international body while continuing largely to run the show.

In the run-up to the Iraq invasion, Mr. Bush warned the United Nations that it risked becoming "irrelevant" if the Security Council failed to vote explicit approval. In unanimously passing the latest U.S. resolution, the council gives critics grounds to argue now that it has indeed become irrelevant in playing any substantial policy-making role about Iraq's future.

The earlier insistence of the French, Germans and Russians for a timetable to end the occupation and the takeover of authority by a new Iraqi government has been blunted. They showed their dissatisfaction in a joint statement, saying "the conditions are not created for us to envisage any military commitment and any further financial contribution beyond our present engagement."

Pakistan's U.N. ambassador flatly said his country would not contribute troops without a specific invitation from a sovereign Iraqi government. But Japan pledged $5 billion in aid on the occasion of Mr. Bush's visit there. More significant than any tangible assistance, however, is the fact that even with major reservations, the Security Council as a group did grant Mr. Bush a fig leaf of international acquiescence.

If nothing else, it's a first step toward papering over the bitter split that resulted from the Bush administration's earlier contemptuous attitude toward the world body that wouldn't buy into his pre-emptive war.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau and his column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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