Friday's United Nations Security Council vote produced what once seemed unachievable: A tough new demand by the world that Iraq allow unfettered inspections to ensure the complete disarmament of its weapons of mass destruction.
The unanimous approval shifts our attention from New York to Baghdad. What will Saddam Hussein do now that he is faced with a choice between his weapons and his head? The decisions he makes in the next few weeks could present President Bush with tough choices of his own.
The Security Council's vote vindicated Bush's decision to change tack and take the Iraq issue to the United Nations. Until his mid-September speech to the U.N. General Assembly, the administration gave no indication of any interest in doing this. In January, for example, Bush put the world on notice that Iraq and other members of the "axis of evil" posed a "grave and growing danger"one that seemingly required a swift response. By June, the president had promulgated a new doctrine that justified moving pre-emptively against terrorists and tyrants.
In August, Vice President Dick Cheney pushed the argument further, essentially saying that the time for diplomacy had passed. Warning that Iraq might acquire nuclear weapons "fairly soon," Cheney criticized proposals to send U.N. inspectors back to Iraq.
"Saddam has perfected the game of cheat and retreat, and is very skilled in the art of denial and deception," he said. "A return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of his compliance with U.N. resolutions. On the contrary, there is a great danger that it would provide false comfort that Saddam was somehow 'back in his box.'"
Bush's decision to ignore the vice president's advice and return to the United Nations reflected growing unease, both abroad and at home, with U.S. policy toward Baghdad. America's major allies, including Great Britain, all argued that bypassing New York would provoke a backlash around the world against American unilateralism. Several Middle Eastern countries pegged their willingness to aid a U.S. invasion of Iraq to securing the Security Council's blessing.
At home, Congress pushed the White House to go to the United Nations even as it authorized the president to go to war, alone if necessary. Poll after poll revealed that the America public felt even more strongly on the need to secure broad international support for a second gulf war.
And key Republican elders— including the most senior foreign-policy advisers to President Bush's father— publicly questioned the wisdom of ignoring the United Nations.
Friday's Security Council vote, however, does not bring the long-running Iraq saga to a close. Rather than resolve differences between Washington and allied capitals— and within the administration itself— the new resolution merely kicks them down the road. The Security Council will soon grapple with whether Iraq is complying with the resolution, and if not, whether the violations warrant more diplomatic pressure or war.
Differences over how to handle these questions are likely to emerge in the weeks to come, possibly with an intensity that undoes much of the progress made in New York last week.
Reining in the U.S.
For the United States, the issue on the table was Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. But for most other countries, the issue was how to rein in a United States that looked bent on war with Iraq no matter what the United Nations might decide. Skeptics at the United Nations argued that the Bush administration was seeking a tougher U.N. inspection regime designed more to provoke war than to force Iraqi disarmament.
The greatest unease arose over Washington's insistence that the Security Council authorize member countries to use "all necessary means" (U.N.-ese for war) if Iraq failed to comply fully with the new resolution. France and Russia, backed by China and most other Security Council members, wanted to prevent the United States from going to war. They argued that the Security Council should wait to see Iraq's response before deciding on a course of action.
After eight weeks of intensive negotiations, the two sides struck a deal. Washington agreed to drop the "all necessary means" provision. It also agreed that the Security Council should consider what to do if Iraq refused to comply with the terms of the new resolution. Importantly, though, the Bush administration left open the possibility that it would go it alone in Iraq if the Security Council failed to respond to Iraqi non-compliance.
In return for these concessions, Washington gained formal backing for a tough new inspection regime. Baghdad must accept the new regime within seven days, and must provide a complete accounting of its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and missile programs 30 days after the resolution's passage. Fifteen days later, inspectors will begin their task of verifying Iraq's declaration.
Once they are there, Iraq must provide the inspectors "immediate, unimpeded, unconditional and unrestricted access to any and all" facilities, people and documents they might wish to see. They must report any violation (including denial of access) back to the Security Council immediately— and they must report their overall findings to the council 60 days after inspections begin.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had pushed Bush to go to the United Nations, hailed the new resolution as a major victory for the United States. Many of his administration colleagues worry that it is more of a mistake in the making. They share Cheney's fear that Saddam will use his cheat-and-retreat skills to frustrate new inspections.
Stakes high for Bush
At least for now, Bush's decision to go the U.N. route is clearly paying off. The United States, with critical support from Britain, has fashioned widespread international support for a new, much tougher inspection regime in Iraq. If Baghdad defies the Security Council, the war that follows will most likely enjoy much greater legitimacy than if the United States had decided to go it alone.
But it is too early to declare victory. Bush may have succeeded only in postponing the day of reckoning on disputes with other Security Council members— and among his own advisers. As the United Nations moves to implement its resolution, these differences probably will re-emerge— sooner, perhaps, than many think.
Saddam could make Bush's job easy by refusing to accept the new weapons-inspections regime. Should Saddam openly spurn the United Nations, the president's advisers will likely unite in recommending war. With U.N. credibility on the line, most member states will probably follow suit, if reluctantly.
Conversely, Saddam could decide to save his regime and come clean on his weapons-of-mass-destruction programs. Having sold the new resolution as giving Saddam "a final opportunity to comply," the U.S. administration would find it hard to justify war if he did just that.
If the past is any guide, though, Saddam is far more likely to respond by promising to cooperate while actively blocking weapons inspections, as was his wont during the seven years inspectors were in Iraq. That could easily put Washington at loggerheads with much of the rest of the world, and many administration officials at odds with each other.
Assume for instance that Iraq makes the final declaration required by Resolution No. 1441, only to repeat its previous claims that it does not possess weapons of mass destruction. The United States and Britain will surely argue that this clearly violates the spirit of the resolution's demands and is grounds for war. Other Security Council members, however, are likely to argue that such a declaration makes it all the more important to proceed with weapons inspections.
Or assume that Baghdad admits to possessing weapons of mass destruction, but reports amounts short of what U.S. and British intelligence believe it possesses. And what if Iraq's cooperation is good but not perfect in subsequent inspections— if it grants access in one case, temporarily denies it in other cases, but overall allows inspectors to get on with the business on hand? Again, the Security Council— and possibly the administration itself— will most likely divide over how to respond.
Defining the threat
What makes such disputes possible is fundamental disagreement over the problem that needs to be addressed.
For many in the Bush administration, the problem is Saddam's government. It threatens the United States and its allies. Only his removal will end the threat. But for much of the rest of the world, and some in the administration such as Powell, the problem is Saddam's weapons. From this perspective, inspections that eliminate much of his arsenal and impede his ability to build new weapons may well be enough. A defanged Saddam would remain an evil dictator, but one unable to cause harm beyond his borders.
So Bush's diplomatic travails have not ended. By going to the United Nations, he has won international backing for a strong inspection regime. But he has yet to gain agreement on what degree of Iraqi non-cooperation would justify war.
The president will have to make his case by drawing clear red lines beyond which Saddam cannot be allowed to go. These lines should emphasize America's interest in seeing Saddam disarmed, and not leave the impression that Washington is interested only in finding excuses for going to war.
Anything less would leave others convinced that the eight weeks of negotiations in New York were little more than political window dressing. And the grievances that other countries feel toward the United States would only continue to grow.