Desperate to win undecided votes for a pending United Nations resolution authorizing war on Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair Wednesday offered a set of six benchmarks that Saddam Hussein must meet within a matter of days in order to forestall an imminent invasion.
Blair's last-minute gambit appeared to be paying off. Though most countries were being extremely cautious in their public comments, reports late Wednesday suggested that Pakistan and three African members of the 15-member U.N. Security Council appeared ready to vote for the new resolution -- possibly as early as Thursday. In a CNN report, two unidentified Bush administration sources said the U.S. and Britain were one vote short of winning the nine votes needed for approval, and that their attentions would now turn to persuading Chile and Mexico to join them.
The six benchmarks, taken together, would be a stark test of Saddam's willingness to disarm as required by a series of U.N. resolutions. He would have to account for and destroy stockpiles of anthrax that he has thus far denied having and would have to allow a large team of Iraqi scientists to leave the country for private interviews with U.N. inspectors. The Iraqi dictator also would be required to go on television in his country to admit that he possesses weapons of mass destruction and now intends to fully disarm.
Iraq offered no immediate reaction to the Blair proposals. But some analysts suggested that they could prove so repugnant to Saddam that he would reject them, and instead virtually invite an invasion.
Though it welcomed the British effort, the Bush administration was otherwise noncommittal in its response. The U.S. has insisted that the U.N. vote on a new disarmament resolution this week, and officials have indicated that Bush would seek a vote even if France or Russia makes good on its threats to veto it. But within Great Britain, opposition to an invasion without Security Council sanction was so strong that it threatened to bring down Blair's government. With reports indicating the vote could come as early as Thursday, the intense pressures and high stakes have brought a new depth of uncertainty to the U.N. deliberations over Iraq.
Already, the Blair proposal has helped shift the focus from Bush and his perceived lone ranger impulses back to Saddam and his refusal to fully cooperate with arms inspections. According to some analysts, subtle diplomatic signals arising from the benchmark plan suggest that a compromise favorable to the U.S. and its allies may be possible.
"I think Britain's trying to work out something with France, and France has given enough signals that they'd be willing to negotiate such benchmarks," says Jim Lobe, a political analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, a left-leaning think tank based in Washington. "I think it's impossible to predict what will happen in the next few days. The situation is really fluid."
As the day went on, the momentum seemed to be going in favor of the United States, Britain and roughly 40 countries that back the invasion threat, including Spain and Australia. Pakistan, which had been seen as a likely vote against the U.S. on Wednesday, appeared ready to vote yes, though its U.N. ambassador declined to comment on that prospect. Cameroon, as a former French colony, enjoys valuable trade alliances with Paris and is seen as a difficult vote for the U.S. to pick up. But according to the CNN report, Cameroon and the two other African nations on the Security Council, Angola and Guinea, appear ready to support a resolution that would be a final warning to Saddam.
U.S. efforts are now expected to focus on Chile and Mexico, two traditional allies in which there is strong public opinion against the war. Both countries had earlier proposed plans similar to that offered Wednesday by Blair.
The Security Council's five permanent members -- the U.S., Britain, Russia, China and France -- all enjoy veto power. With war opponents lining up behind France, Russia and China, the White House and Britain have been trying to thread a diplomatic needle. By assembling nine votes for passage, they hope France and Russia might be forced to back away from their threatened vetoes. Even with a veto, which technically kills any council resolution, the White House would probably still claim that nine votes gave it a moral victory and go to war anyway.
But British public opinion has made that endgame more difficult. Polls show 80 percent of the public there is opposed to the war if it comes without the U.N.'s blessing, which means the pressure on Blair, Bush's most steadfast war ally, is enormous. In fact, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for the first time hinted this week the U.K. might not be part of the initial attack on Iraq, in effect aknowleding that Blair might not survive politically if he committed British troops to combat without Security Council backing.
Blair hopes the benchmarks will save him. "He's desperate for anything that will show he's making a best-faith effort, because the last 24 hours have really reinforced what a vulnerable position he is in," says Samuel Wells, associate director of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.
In addition to destroying his anthrax stockpiles, allowing his scientists to leave the country for interviews and going on television to admit his deceptions, the benchmarks would require Saddam to
The guidelines would soothe concerns among some U.N. members that the U.S. has failed to prove that Iraq remains in defiance, and that the U.S. is preparing an imminent invasion simply because it fits into their military timetable. But for advocates of the new Blair plan, timing may still be a crucial problem. Some of the undecided six -- including Chile, Angola and Guinea -- are open to his proposal but want to give it weeks, if not months, to have the desired effect. The White House, committed to military action in March, has called that a "nonstarter."
Mexican officials seem to know they will now become the focus of a Bush-Blair persuasion campaign. Though Mexican President Vicente Fox has thus far refused to endorse the war, many analysts say he's almost sure to come around. "There's been a hell of a lot of surprises over the last few months, but I'd really be surprised to see Mexico vote no," says Warren Bass, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
But that may be the smart thing to do politically, says Julio Moreno, a professor of Latin American history at the University of San Francisco and an expert on U.S.-Mexico relations. Not only is Mexican public opinion strongly opposed to the war, Moreno said Wednesday, but for the last several years Fox has been seen as a president who gave up Mexico's autonomy and has gotten absolutely nothing in return" on immigration reform or other issues. With no sign of an immigration initiative coming out of the White House any time soon, there may not be a strong political downside for Fox to say no.
"Why would he want to further taint his image as a puppet of the Bush administration?" he said.
The chaotic U.N. endgame was set in motion six months ago when President Bush challenged the international body to confront Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction. The protracted bout of diplomacy has turned out to be far more bruising than anyone imagined, and even now, few are willing to bet on the likely outcome.
The irony of Blair's last-ditch effort is that if there were more trust among the U.N. members, tough benchmarks could have been part of the original Resolution 1441 passed last November. It calls for Saddam to let inspectors back into the country and to fully comply with them. Clear-cut guidelines, or benchmark test cases, regarding what did and did not constitute compliance would have prevented the diplomatic quagmire that now exists where many U.N. member nations, along with chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, suggest Saddam is cooperating to a degree, while the U.S. insists that he has failed the requirement to comply fully.
The current stalemate might have been avoided if the U.N. had set benchmarks with the understanding that if Saddam passed the tests the U.S. would call off the war, and if he failed, the French would not interfere with a war. But neither the U.S. nor France was willing to take that chance.
"The United States and France didn't trust each other, which is why there was no coherent, multilateral approach to inspections," says Ken Rodman, professor of political science at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and an expert on the U.N. "The U.S. was not reading from the same page as France and the fundamental difference of opinion over what constitutes cause for war has never been bridged."
To fully understand the frantic diplomatic back and forth of recent days, it's important to realize the nature of the debate has fundamentally changed, almost without comment from pundits. Instead of focusing purely on weapons inspections and Iraqi compliance with U.N Resolution 1441, the debate is now in large part about George Bush and the United States and their comportment as the world's lone superpower.
"That's been France's main achievements in all this, if you want to call it that," says Paul Saunders, director of the Nixon Center, a nonpartisan foreign-policy think tank based in Washington. "It's turned the debate into one about the United States. Countries are generally concerned about the United States and a unilateral use of force."
Those fears have trumped doubts about Iraq's weapons program at the U.N. "During his press conference last week, the president was trying to frame the U.N. vote as, the Security Council is going to go on the record about how they feel about Saddam," notes Saunders. "In truth, the vote has become much more of a referendum on President Bush and the administration's style."
The White House's often cavalier approach to coalition building has been well documented in recent months. "It's been handled inelegantly," says Bass. Analysts who have been watching this process unfold for the last six months express amazement that Russia, for instance, once seen as a reluctant, albeit almost certain U.S. ally, would be making public veto threats this late in the game.
Clearly, the dynamics are not going to change overnight. But the benchmarks and other political conditions create strong gravities working in favor of Britain and the U.S.
Benjamin I. Page, a Northwestern University professor of public policy who has closely tracked the Iraq debate, notes that the benchmarks may be setting Saddam up for failure. If he really doesn't have anthrax, then he can't destroy what he doesn't have, Page says. But it seems likely that Blair's plan could swing the vote in favor of the resolution, he says, because it's a compromise that gives everyone the chance to achieve their aims and to save face.
"Angola will probably go for this," Page said in an interview Wednesday. "Guinea and Cameroon don't want to anger the French, but the French -- I think they're draggable. In the end they'll probably say, this is a lot better than the last one! ... The six minnows -- their strategy has always been to get out of the way and lie low. Like [Mexico President Vicente] Fox having surgery, I assume that's elective. It's not often you need to get spinal surgery immediately, unless you've been in a car wreck.
"Expect the Chinese to come along last. As someone said, 'They don't have a dog in this fight.' I'd watch the Russians. I expect them to make their move [toward the U.S.-British position] any time."
Others agree that as the debate moves into its final hours, the position of major powers like Russia and France also could shift. Last fall's conventional wisdom held that France, Russia and America's other international opponents were making life difficult for the White House in the short term -- telegraphing their distaste for Bush's new military strategy of preemption -- but that come January or February they'd climb onboard the war wagon rather than be left behind. Others blamed the early French and Russian skepticism on their existing oil contracts with Iraq, but many experts now doubt that's the driving reason for their war stance. With the game now continuing into the middle of March, many say France and Russia seem committed to staring down the U.S. as a point of principle.
Like most international leaders, Russian president Vladimir Putin never adopted Bush's rationale that Saddam poses an immediate threat. Plus, he's concerned about opening Russia up to additional terrorist threats if the country signs off on the war with Iraq, says Saunders.
More important, he suggests that by hardening its antiwar position over the last few months, France has given Russia important political cover. Germany's active role has also probably emboldened Moscow to defy Washington.
"It has probably persuaded some people that they can stand up to the United States and be a part of an important effort to limit American power without barring the brunt of the political costs," says Saunders.
But today, experts say, neither France nor Russia wants to fall on its sword for Saddam Hussein. If the U.S. does manage to round up nine yes votes to ensure the resolution's passage, would Russia join France in vetoing the resolution, or simply abstain and let Paris take the heat? For now, Bass says, Russia doesn't seem to be itching for a fight the way France is. "Putin," he says. "won't go out of his way to stick a finger in George Bush's eye."
Still, its signals will be viewed under a microscope. Blair has said the U.K. would join the U.S. even if the second resolution were voted down by "an unreasonable" veto. If France is the lone country to veto the resolution, Blair could more easily make the argument that that's unreasonable."
If Russia did abstain or even vote yes, the pressure would then shift to France. Despite its tough talk, would France have the nerve to kill the war authorization resolution by vetoing it alone -- an extraordinary act of defiance, particularly in light of the fact that France signed off on the 1441 resolution last fall that called for new inspections and warned Saddam about "serious consequences" if he did not comply. "Now they're acting as if they never read 1441," complains Bass. "Maybe they won't have the guts to veto."
On paper, though, it doesn't appear French President Jacques Chirac has allowed himself room to maneuver. "I don't see how Chirac can look himself in the mirror if he reverses course," says Samuel Wells at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. "Just as people say Bush has worked himself into a corner, Chirac by playing repeatedly to the support of other European leaders and the public has painted himself into a corner as well."
Salon editorial fellow Laura McClure contributed to this report.