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Debate: U.N. Inspectors in Postwar Iraq

Authors: Gideon Rose, Editor, Foreign Affairs and Peter G. Peterson Chair, and Michael Doran, Roger Hertog Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
May 1, 2003


Michael Doran, a Council on Foreign Relations adjunct senior fellow in Middle East Studies, and Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, face off over what role— if any— United Nations weapons inspectors should play in postwar Iraq.

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Michael DoranMichael Doran: The case against resuming U.N. inspections
Dispatching United Nations weapons inspectors back to Iraq has little to do with unconventional weapons but a lot to do with U.N. Security Council politics. Americans who advocate the inspectors’ return claim that Washington lacks credibility in the court of world opinion. Around the globe, they argue, many people never believed that Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs posed a grave threat to America. Because the Bush administration has a transparent desire to prove the lethality of Saddam’s arsenal, this argument continues, a distrustful world will treat any discovery of WMD by American forces with deep skepticism. So, to sway the doubters, Washington must bring in an impartial witness: the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC).

This line of reasoning exaggerates the inspectors’ ability to bridge the credibility gap. The many skeptics of U.S. motives fall into two camps: conspiracy theorists and sophisticated opponents of the war. No amount of rational argument will persuade the former, who will react to any evidence of WMD with the claim that Washington planted it—after all, don’t American forces today exercise unfettered control of the crime scene? For their part, the sophisticated anti-war forces never disputed the existence of WMD. Instead, they argued that Saddam was containable. Independent verification of Saddam’s illegal programs will do nothing to change their fundamental assessment of American motives.

More important, the argument for keeping UNMOVIC chief Hans Blix on the job ignores the Realpolitik of the United Nations. During this crucial moment, when an interim Iraqi government is in its infancy, the call to return the inspectors is part of a concerted attempt by France and Russia to ensure that Iraqi oil revenues remain under the control of the Security Council. Their larger goal is to gain a say in the formation of the new government in Baghdad. Anyone who distrusts French and Russian motives must oppose the return of the weapons inspectors and support an immediate lifting of U.N. economic sanctions.

The aim of the French and the Russians is not to build a stable Iraq but, rather, to contain the United States. The fractious Iraqi political scene will provide them with a variety of opportunities for pursuing this goal. Subjecting the transitional Iraqi government to Security Council oversight is a recipe for deadlock and disaster.

Gideo RoseGideon Rose: The case for resuming U.N. inspections
The finesse and precision that characterized American military operations in Iraq have been noticeably absent from the Bush administration’s accompanying diplomacy, and so among the war’s chief casualties have been America’s credibility, alliances, and international reputation. The challenge for the United States now is not only to rebuild Iraq, but also to rebuild bridges to the rest of the world—to find some way of translating America’s overwhelming material dominance into legitimate international authority. This is the context in which all major foreign policy questions must now be viewed, including the issue of whether to send UN weapons inspectors back to Iraq.

The inspections issue is not a legal question but a political one, despite what France and Russia have argued. It is true that the sanctions were established to enforce the elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and will remain in force until the Security Council agrees that Iraq has “completed all actions” required of it in that regard. But this condition can be met at any time with a simple Security Council declaration; nowhere is it specified that Hans Blix and his colleagues must be involved in any way. So the Bush administration is correct to assert that it is under no formal obligation to bring the inspectors back.

But it should do so nevertheless. Why? To show that it has nothing to hide, to provide independent verification of whatever weapons-related materials are indeed found, and to demonstrate that it seeks a true partnership with the rest of the international community rather than some kind of splendid isolation. Under appropriate conditions governing the duration and mandate of the inspectors’ activities, such a move would be a low-cost act of enlightened self-interest that could help to make the United States loved as well as feared.

Gideon Rose correctly observes that the inspections conflict is essentially about politics. This raises the question: What is the fundamental source of the political struggle that pits the United States against France and Russia? While Washington is not wholly blameless, it is vital that our analysis address the deep structural basis of the transatlantic discord.

In an interview with a French paper last February, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin gave the game away: “We believe that a multipolar world is needed, that no one power can ensure order throughout the world.” In other words, the crisis with the United States is about world order. The French, Germans, and Russians share a common desire to weaken the U.S. role in both the Middle East and Europe. Paris (and possibly Berlin) very clearly plan to establish the European Union (E.U.) as a rival pole in global affairs. In short, the French have a grand strategy that sets them at odds with Washington. The return of the inspectors would allow the Security Council to remain in control of Iraqi oil revenues, thereby gaining leverage over Iraqi politics. The Bush administration would be handing the French another hammer with which to chip away at American power. Once chipped, twice shy.

Michael Doran is correct that structural considerations lie at the heart of America’s current diplomatic difficulties. But he is wrong to think that, by itself, structure is destiny. The United States has been the strongest power on earth for decades, and yet has not until quite recently provoked such widespread outrage and attempts to balance its influence. The quiescence of others was due largely to the Soviet threat, of course, but also partly to a sense among U.S. officials that it was important to frame American policy with a decent respect for the opinion of mankind. From the 1940s onwards, the wisest of those officials worked hard to ensconce and enshrine American hegemony in a variety of alliances and institutions. They tried to find ways of harmonizing American interests with those of the international system more generally, and often succeeded. For more than two years, however, the Bush administration has essentially dismissed the concerns of the rest of the world, and is now reaping what it has sown.

Ironically, much of the discord was avoidable, for the same unbounded American power that now unnerves the rest of the world could be the source of a very different foreign policy—one that replaced arrogance and disdain with confident and generous world leadership. France, Russia, and others are indeed working against us, but rather than sinking to their level, we should calmly rise above it. Noblesse oblige, in other words—a concept that Bush pere would understand, if not Bush fils. U.N. weapons inspectors could be brought into Iraq without opening up the oil-for-food issue, and could be used in ways that enhance rather than impede other postwar responsibilities. There are a rather large number of administration employees whose job it is to work out precisely such matters. Unfortunately, they are located in what the president and many of his advisers appear to consider hostile territory: Foggy Bottom.

When I said the “structural basis” of the U.S.-European rift, I was not referring to the imbalance of power. I was pointing to the fact that the anti-war governments around the globe—and the French in particular—are pursuing their own agendas, which are in no way a reflexive response to American actions and attitudes. A kinder, gentler Washington will not change anything in this regard. The French and Russians—thanks to their political and economic ties to Baghdad—opposed American policy on Iraq during the multilateralist Clinton era just as vociferously as they oppose it today.

Iraq and the Middle East are but one piece in the puzzle. For the French in particular, the strategic prize is the European balance of power. The struggle in the United Nations over Iraq is also a contest for the leadership of the European community. In terms of power politics, this struggle pits France (and, to some extent, Germany) against Britain. Whereas French President Jacques Chirac stands for an E.U. in rivalry with American power, British Prime Minister Tony Blair projects a vision of close cooperation, particularly in the military sphere. France calculates that a weakening of U.S. influence in Europe and the Middle East will increase the strength of Paris in intra-European affairs. It is no accident, therefore, that it was the Italian and Spanish governments that flouted their own public opinion and lined up behind Washington and London. These two countries have been traditionally wary of Franco-German domination, and they look to Washington to offset the power of their European rivals. A similar logic is at work in Poland, Bulgaria, and Denmark. In the prevailing culture of European solidarity, these kinds of calculations cannot be expressed publicly, but this should not blind us to the fact that they constitute much of the substance of European affairs.

Gideon Rose errs when he says that “U.N. weapons inspectors could be brought into Iraq without opening up the oil-for-food issue.” The French and Russians traditionally supported lifting sanctions because to do so would harm Washington. Now they oppose removing sanctions because it would help Washington. As long as they view themselves as the yin to our yang, they will fight to maintain a connection between inspections and sanctions. Their goal is to use the United Nations as a means of projecting French and Russian political influence into Iraq. For the French in particular, this policy will lead them to court Iraqi clients with anti-American agenda—just as they courted Saddam before the war, and just as they are courting the Iranians today. Washington’s only choice is to use a muscular policy to neutralize the French by circumventing the United Nations.

Michael Doran errs in assuming both that the diplomatic problem America faces is limited to French and Russian obstructionism and that their behavior is set in stone. A better clue to what is going on is his correct observation, in passing, that even those governments that supported the Bush administration’s Iraq policies had to do so against the will of their own publics. While France and Russia do indeed have some interests that are at odds with those of the United States, their willingness and ability to mount a significant challenge to American initiatives depends not only on the details of the particular issues in question but also on the broader international context. The sad truth of the matter is that the Bush administration’s generally tactless and belligerent foreign policy has catalyzed global fears of how America’s unprecedented power will be used, and contributed greatly to the bizarre situation in which cynical French and Russian policies of the sort Doran accurately describes are viewed more favorably than America’s successful efforts to rid the world of one of its most brutal and vicious tyrannies.

The Bush administration grounded its case for war on the imminent grave dangers posed by Saddam’s unconventional weapons programs. Although rarely remarked on in the American press, some of the evidence the administration presented to support this charge turned out to be dubious, and some completely fraudulent. The failure to date to find in Iraq indisputable signs of a major WMD arsenal has been read by much of the world in this light, as confirmation that the administration simply lied and that the war was driven by some other, more nefarious agenda. Personally, I do expect compelling evidence of Saddam’s weapons programs to be uncovered eventually, and attribute the administration’s occasional misstatements on the issue to incompetence and overzealousness rather than deliberate deceit. It is precisely for that reason that I want such finds to be made or at least quickly verified by somebody other than American military personnel, so that the process of retrospectively legitimizing the war in the eyes of the world can begin.

I am not opposed to third-party verification of WMD. I am, however, opposed to returning UNMOVIC to Iraq as long as sanctions are in effect. Gideon Rose accepts my view of French and Russian policy. In that case, he must also admit the necessity of circumventing those two powers—France, first and foremost. The larger question of combating global anti-Americanism must be addressed in a manner that will not benefit Chirac’s grand strategy, and that will not complicate the establishment of a stable order in Iraq. A good place to begin is by discussing strategies for driving a wedge between Paris, on the one hand, and Moscow and Berlin, on the other.

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