Suddenly, the U.N. backs Bush

The president's speech left the world governing body little choice but to get tough on Saddam.

By Ian Williams

Published September 15, 2002 12:50AM (EDT)

A day after his speech to the United Nations, President Bush's sudden conversion to multilateralism along the road to Baghdad appeared to be succeeding beyond all expectations. His call for the United Nations Security Council to hold Iraq accountable, complemented by some delicate diplomatic horse trading, has won critical international support for his push to confront Saddam Hussein, even among those who see no connection between Iraq and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In interviews yesterday, U.N. officials and other experts in foreign affairs suggested that by heeding the global cry against a unilateral U.S. invasion, Bush had skillfully maneuvered the world governing body into a position where it had little choice but to sharply increase pressure on the Iraqi dictator. If the U.N. did not act, the experts said, it would appear incapable of enforcing the Gulf War resolutions it passed to control Saddam -- and which Saddam has flouted in recent years.

Now, the Security Council seems likely pass a difficult choice on to Saddam: Either quickly agree to admit a new team of weapons inspectors with unconditional access to Iraqi facilities or face an invasion.

The biggest gamble for the Bush administration now is that, in a lucid moment, Saddam would derail the rush to war by unconditionally accepting U.N. weapons inspectors. But that did not seem likely Friday. "We do not accept President Bush's conditions," Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz told an Arab TV station. "The return of inspectors without conditions will not solve the problem."

At the United Nations, ministers and ambassadors seem confident that by Monday, Sept. 23, the Security Council will be moving on a resolution that Iraq would ignore at its peril. Although refusing to set a timetable for the ultimatum, government ministers and U.N. officials were estimating that any deadline would be a matter of a month or less.

Ominously for Iraq, its own ambassador, Mohamed Aldouri, was almost the only significant voice raised in protest against Bush's Thursday speech. Thanks to the vagaries of the U.N. seating system, he had to sit out Bush's speech with Kuwait's delegation behind him and Iran's to his left. Bush had delivered the "longest series of fabrications that has ever been told by a leader of a nation," Aldouri said. "The U.S. president was successful in diverting the attention of the real threat of peace caused by his government's policy and its backing to Israel."

Bush was indeed successful. British Foreign Minister Jack Straw, a leading hawk on the issue, warned that an unambiguous resolution would be ready within weeks.

Straw refused to be drawn out when asked whether Washington would refrain if Saddam yields to Security Council demands. "If you judge the president by what he says and does, he always acts in consultation with allies and international law," Straw said. Asked about Arab reactions, he added: "I've not met a single leader or ambassador from the Arab or Islamic world who does not recognize the threat posed by Saddam Hussein."

Even if others were not prepared to go that far, the European Union and many of its members welcomed the speech and its content, while leading nonaligned members like South African President Thabo Mbeki tactfully ignored it.

Iraq's best friend, Russia, while not yet endorsing military action, was far from opposing it too strenuously. "Security Council resolutions are binding," warned Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. "Should Iraq refuse to cooperate with the Security Council, the Iraqi leadership will have to assume responsibility for all possible consequences."

Even Amr Moussa, the Arab League Secretary General, welcomed Bush's move to involve the U.N. and joined a chorus of Arab governments calling upon Iraq to admit the inspectors.

Many here were still trying to absorb the significance of the abrupt shift evident in Bush's speech. Just a week ago, top administration officials had been openly warning that the U.S. would take unilateral action. That drew international reaction ranging from skepticism to outrage, even among U.S. allies. But then came the first inkling: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld withdrew an Op-Ed piece already delivered to the Washington Post that justified unilateral military action by the United States.

Most diplomats had been appalled at the damage that would be caused to international law and order if the administration followed through on its earlier threats, and Friday, they almost welcomed an attempt to achieve the same objective by multilateral means. It would appear that Secretary of State Colin Powell and others at the State Department, backed by major allies like Britain, had persuaded Bush that the U.N. would provide the most effective lever against Saddam, for now. Indeed, the turnaround seemed so stark that one senior British official, when asked who was responsible for the White House brain transplant, said: "We've been working hard on it."

Kofi Annan's opening speech would have been a forceful challenge to U.S. arrogance and unilateralism two weeks ago. On Thursday, Bush made last-minute changes to deepen the reference to multilateralism after seeing Annan's speech and meeting him in the morning before the speeches. Bush's addition of a reference to working with the U.N. Security Council seemed to evoke a visible reaction of surprise from Condoleezza Rice, his national security advisor.

In the end, the two speeches dovetailed remarkably, not least since Annan, in a conscious echo of his call for the council to take action on Kosovo four years ago, said: "If Iraq's defiance continues, the Security Council must face its responsibilities." Those close to the secretary general say privately that he is less patient with the Iraqis today than when he went to Baghdad four years ago in an attempt to find a political solution but came away with empty hands.

And clearly, the campaign against Saddam has already begun to broaden. Powell, far and away the most popular and acceptable face of the administration abroad, and almost certainly a major mover in the shift to multilateralism, met Friday afternoon with the 10 elected members of the Security Council. Earlier in the week, one of them had cheerfully confided: "We're expecting to feel the grip on our testicles any day soon."

A no from one of the five permanent members of the Security Council is enough to veto a resolution. Nine votes are needed to pass a resolution through the full 15-member council, but the U.S. and U.K. reportedly will maneuver for as much support as possible to give the vote maximum legitimacy.

Separately and collectively, Bush and Powell have been meeting with the four other permanent members -- Russia, China, France and Britain -- to avert their vetoes and will almost certainly succeed. Britain is Bushier than Bush himself of course, but even French President Chirac seems not only to have withdrawn Paris as a recent protectorate over Baghdad and convinced himself that the Security Council route was his own idea. Cynics suggest that Saddam's cancellation of a French oil deal in peeve over an earlier vote may now be reaping its payback.

That leaves the Russians and the Chinese, both of whom are much softer than before and both of whom have urged Baghdad to accept inspectors and Washington not to go it alone. Putin's new pro-Washington stance may be reinforced by some horse trading over whether Russia has the right to pursue Chechen rebels into the republic of Georgia, an issue likely to appear soon on the Security Council agenda.

Similarly, in a move almost certainly designed as a sop to the Chinese and protested by some human rights groups, Washington has designated a little-known Muslim separatist group in Eastern Turkestan as a terrorist group. As a result, the Chinese will at most abstain and the Russians may even support the resolution, leaving Syria as the lone nay on the Security Council.

Even beyond the council, the speech showed signs of some bridge-building about to begin. Bush did not mention the so-called "axis of evil," and even named one of its members, Iran, as the victim of Iraqi aggression and sufferer of poison gas attacks. The Iranian delegation shot up in their seats, and though publicly noncommittal, they are privately pleased with the change in attitude. They may even be prepared to overlook the U.S. role in arming Iraq for that war and covering up the chemical warfare attacks.

Most delegates hope that Iraq will allow the inspectors in, although optimism on that question is muted at best. Judging by past action, Iraq will defy all and at the last minute call for urgent talks about compliance. Precisely because of that past form, no one will listen and the deadline will pass.

A key test for Bush's newfound multilateralism would come if Iraq admits a new team of weapons inspectors under the terms imposed by the U.N. Bush's speech invoked a series of other U.N. resolutions dating from the Gulf War -- ending repression of minorities, return of prisoners and property, ending oil-smuggling and payment of reparations -- that Iraq has violated. If Washington is intent on finding a pretext for invasion, there will be many options from that list.

The form of the resolution or resolutions will be worked on next week. At the very least, there will be one warning of severe consequences if the inspectors are not admitted. There may be another after the deadline, noting Iraq's failure and authorizing those consequences, depending on the cooperation of Security Council members.

But following the speech and Bush's change of heart, there likely will be more cooperation and support than anyone would have envisaged just a week ago.

Ian Williams

Ian Williams' book "Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776" is due in late August 2005 from Nation Books. His last book was "Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Own Past."

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George W. Bush Iraq Middle East Terrorism United Nations