Why the UN Won't Yet Back an Iraq Attack

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The United Nations flag flutters atop the UN headquarters in Baghdad

The Bush Administration will likely find plenty of support for an invasion of Iraq — but only if such an action is approved by the United Nations Security Council. Whether it's the ever-faithful British or the still-skeptical Saudis or the hesitant Democrats or two out of three American voters polled in recent opinion surveys, the key condition cited for supporting a U.S. invasion of Iraq is a green light from the United Nations. That's why President Bush continues to demand that the UN take a tougher stand on Iraq, warning that failure to do so would liken it to the League of Nations — an ineffectual post World War I talk-shop boycotted by the U.S. But the United Nations is nothing more than the sum of its parts, and it is the member states — particularly the "Permanent Five" members of the Security Council granted veto power at the end of World War II — that will have to be persuaded. That process may take longer, and offer Saddam Hussein more wiggle room, than Washington would have liked.

Taking the case to the UN appears to be working on one level. Governments skeptical of Washington's war talk have been moved to endorse the demand for Iraqi compliance with UN resolutions — even the Saudis, who had spent the past six months actively rallying the Arab world against a war, made clear that they would allow U.S. forces to use their territory to attack Iraq if such an attack was authorized by the UN. But there are downsides to working through the UN for a Bush Administration pumped up for war with Iraq. The first is that the issue for UN is disarmament rather than regime change, and while Washington dismisses Saddam's latest promises to comply as simply a tactical ploy, almost everyone else on the Security Council wants to test his intentions by actually sending the inspectors back into Iraq. That's an eventuality Administration hawks had hoped to avoid out of the conviction that inspections give Saddam wiggle room, are an insufficient guarantee of disarmament and will only slow the momentum toward war.

The second, related downside, is that while President Bush wants the Security Council to pass a resolution now that could be claimed as a green light for war if Saddam refuses to comply with inspections, the UN is a lot less likely than, say, the U.S. Congress, to give President Bush proxy authority to make the judgment call. They may ultimately accept that U.S. military might accords it the role of enforcer, but the Security Council won't cede to the White House the role of judge and jury.

The U.S. and Britain seek to narrow Saddam's wiggle room by pushing this week for a tough new Security Council resolution setting terms and deadlines for compliance, and warning of military consequences for refusal. But the Council remains focused on sending the inspectors back as soon as possible, and Russia continues to insist that no new resolutions are necessary now that Baghdad has vowed to comply with existing ones. Moscow may eventually come around — particularly if it wins concessions from the U.S. on its own demand to be authorized to pursue Chechen rebels into neighboring Georgia, and guarantees that its economic stake will be recognized in a post-Saddam Iraq — although they may want to delay such a resolution at least until chief UN arms inspector Hans Blix returns from a September 30 meeting with Iraqi officials in Vienna to finalize arrangements for the inspectors' return.

Even if Russia relents, the resolution the Council is likely to adopt in the next week or so is likely to fall short of authorizing military action in the event of non-compliance. Right now it appears more likely to adopt France's approach of an immediate resolution setting strict terms and deadlines, and a second resolution authorizing force if Iraq fails to comply. But the time-frame between the two resolutions may be measured in months rather than weeks. But the UN process has not deterred the U.S. from pressing ahead with military preparations. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the BBC Wednesday that Saddam's compliance may not deter the U.S. from moving to oust him, and the military buildup continues apace. And the Iraqi dictator's decision-making in the coming weeks will be more likely to be influenced by that buildup than by the debate at the UN.