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Bargaining Table

Authors: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, and Ivo H. Daalder
February 2, 2003
Star-Ledger

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All eyes will be on Secretary of State Colin Powell this Wednesday when he addresses the U.N. Security Council on Iraq. As President Bush promised in his State of the Union speech last week, Powell will lay out before the Security Council— and the world— information and intelligence about "Iraq's illegal weapons programs, its attempt to hide those weapons from inspectors, and its links to terrorist groups."

Many hope that Powell will repeat the success Adlai Stevenson had three decades ago during the Cuban missile crisis. Stevenson presented the Security Council with photos showing that the Soviet Union was placing nuclear missiles in Cuba. His presentation was a turning point in the crisis.

The chances are slim, though, that Powell will produce a true "smoking gun." If Washington could have proved Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction with a briefing, it would have done so long ago. And if it could prove that Baghdad was connected to Sept. 11, there would be no need to rally U.N. support. The United Nations as well as our NATO allies already are on record supporting retaliation against any people or countries found to be behind the terrorist attacks.

While expectations for Wednesday's Security Council meeting are high, Powell is unlikely to produce the kind of information sufficient to change many minds. That doesn't mean that the United States cannot move forward against Iraq. But it does mean giving the diplomatic process a bit longer than the mid- February deadline the administration has hinted at— and it means greater decisiveness on the part of the United Nations.

Without a smoking gun or other major new evidence, arguments for giving inspectors more time will remain appealing. Americans favor such a course by a 2-1 ratio. Equally significant, in one recent poll, 81 percent said they would support a war if it were conducted by a multinational coalition acting with U.N. authorization. Another poll (see below) shows most Americans want European support for military action.

Most countries share the view that more time is needed. "The inspectors have asked for more time," French President Jacques Chirac recently said, "and wisdom requires us to grant this request and the time that is needed." China's foreign minister made the same point: "There's more work to do in terms of the inspection, and it will take some time."

While pledging support for U.S. goals in Iraq, key allies (including eight major European countries) have asked Washington to continue the process it began last September—working through the United Nations to secure broad international support to force Iraq to disarm. Even Britain, the country most supportive of President Bush's Iraq policy, insists that a new U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing force is needed. Last weekend, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the only situation in which he could envision acting without U.N. blessing is if inspectors say Iraq is in breach of its obligations and another permanent member of the Security Council "unreasonably exercises their veto and blocks a new resolution."

So far the president has been unsympathetic to these arguments. He instead has emphasized that America will act even if no one else follows. "The course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others," he proclaimed in the State of the Union. "Whatever action is required, whenever action is necessary, I will defend the freedom and security of the American people."

Could the United States could wage a war against Iraq without U.N. authorization? As a technical matter, yes. Washington almost certainly can gain the support it must have to wage war. Gulf states like Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Jordan have agreed to provide critical bases. Turkey is also likely to let U.S. forces attack Iraq from the north. Even Saudi Arabia may allow U.S. forces to operate from its territory. In purely military terms, this is all the United States requires to fight and win a second gulf war.

The real question Washington faces is whether it should fight a war without seeking further U.N. authorization. Going it alone after having gone to the United Nations will alienate key allies. That will make it harder to build the broad multinational coalition needed to shoulder the major challenges that will come once Saddam Hussein is ousted. There is little doubt the United States can win a war on its own. But it cannot win the peace without the help of others.

At the same time, the Security Council would suffer a serious blow if the United States ignored the United Nations. That hardly serves U.S. interests. As much as Washington complains about the United Nations, it repeatedly finds it an invaluable help in achieving American foreign policy objectives. Even as Bush prepares for war with Iraq he is asking the Security Council to address North Korea's efforts to build nuclear weapons.

Fortunately, there is a way to square this foreign policy circle— to gain sufficient international support for a war many are now wary of starting.

The key is to trade time for authorization. Bush could meet the allies halfway and put off an attack until mid-March. This would give Baghdad one last chance to answer the many unresolved questions U.N. inspectors identified in last Monday's report to the Security Council.

In return for giving the inspections more time, the Security Council would agree to issue an ultimatum: Iraq must resolve every outstanding issue to the satisfaction of the council by March 15 or face war.

Given that U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf are not expected to reach their full battle strength until late February or later, the United States has little to lose and much to gain from such a deal. Accepting a few weeks' delay would answer the criticism that Washington is more interested in war than in disarmament.

And it would put the squeeze on Baghdad one final time. Saddam Hussein may opt for exile for himself and his family, or his generals may decide that the time for his removal has now come. Conceivably, Iraq might even decide finally to disarm fully and completely. Failing that, of course, war becomes inevitable— but it would be a war that many countries, however reluctantly, would then support.