UN-Iraq Agreement Muddies U.S. Objectives

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US Congressman Mike Thompson (left) walks with an Iraqi officer in Basra, Iraq

Iraq's latest agreement to unfettered arms inspections may be just what Secretary of State Colin Powell had been trying to avoid. Not that Powell is in any rush to go to war, but the deal hammered out Tuesday in Vienna after two days of talks between Iraqi officials and UN arms inspectors is based on existing UN resolutions, rather than the tough new ultimatum for which Washington has been pushing at the Security Council. And that could make the difference, for London and Washington, between effective and ineffective inspections. Most irksome to the U.S. in the current deal is the fact that eight Iraqi "presidential sites" remain subject to rules requiring prior notice and diplomatic chaperoning of inspection — in keeping with an agreement worked out between the Security Council and Iraq in 1998, with U.S. approval.

The State Department immediately said that the U.S. would block any effort to return inspectors to Iraq before the adoption of a new resolution tightening up any such loopholes. But the inspectors are answerable to the Council as a collective body, and the only way the U.S. can stop them returning to Baghdad is to persuade a majority of Council members that the interests of a satisfactory inspection regime require waiting for a new resolution. Prevailing on the Security Council to delay renewed inspections may be possible, because even the most war-averse members of the UN body want to keep Washington engaged in a diplomatic process rather than see it march unilaterally off to war. Not that there's much danger of that right now: Even moderate Republican senators appear to support a compromise congressional resolution that would tie a U.S. decision to attack Iraq closely to UN authorization of military action. Securing consensus at the UN behind a tough disarmament regime backed by an "or else" ultimatum remains a key goal for the Bush administration — but one that is proving to be elusive, and may be more so following the Vienna deal.

When Saddam offered two weeks ago to submit to unfettered inspections, the Security Council's response was to send UN inspection chief Hans Blix to Vienna to discuss practical arrangements for resuming such inspections. But in the absence of any new Security Council resolution changing the terms of inspections, Blix is working off the existing script — one which is unlikely to satisfy U.S. demands. Indeed, media reports claim that a new Security Council draft resolution being proposed by the U.S. and Britain includes demands for access to the presidential sites and all other government buildings and mosques; for security forces to accompany the inspectors into Iraq; for the right of permanent Security Council member states (Russia, China, France, Britain and the U.S.) to put their own personnel on any inspection team; access to Iraqi scientists in an environment free from coercion; the right of inspectors to declare no-fly, no-drive exclusion zones within Iraq; and so on. The draft resolution reportedly also authorizes the use of force if Baghdad violates any of the demands. But the U.S. and Britain are struggling to find Security Council support for their position, and the eventual compromise may eliminate many of the items on the Blair-Bush wish-list. Still, unfettered access to "presidential sites" will be one area where Washington and London are likely to stand firm, and they should manage to persuade the Council that unfettered inspection of such sites is essential for verifying Iraqi disarmament. While this week's horse-trading at the Council may eventually produce a new resolution clarifying the requirements for Iraqi disarmament, the authorization of force is almost certain to be the subject of a second resolution introduced at a later date only if Iraq once again seeks to stymie inspections.

Of the veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, Russia rejects the U.S.-British call for a new resolution, although it may eventually cave on that position. But France and China insist on excluding anything that could be construed as authorizing force until the Security Council has determined whether or not Iraq is complying with its undertakings, and that will likely force the U.S. to accept a two-step approach. Other states skeptical of U.S. motivations given that its stated objective is to seek regime-change in Baghdad will seek to soften terms that they see as designed to provoke a crisis.

Rather than simply a forum for coordinating positions, the UN has become the venue for a battle between contending ideas of how to deal with Saddam Hussein. The U.S. position remains one of demanding regime-change — underscored in flippant comments Tuesday by White House press secretary Ari Fleischer to the effect that the cheapest way to disarm Iraq would simply be the assassination of its leader. But even among those willing to pursue disarmament, the a priori goal of "regime-change" is not widely shared, and language as intemperate as Fleischer's — and more sober comments by other Administration officials suggesting that action may be necessary no matter what the outcome of the inspection process — is likely to reinforce suspicion that the U.S. is simply trying to trigger an internationally-sanctioned invasion. But the position of the Russians and others that no new resolutions are necessary is likely to reinforce U.S. and British impatience with the UN. President Bush on Tuesday again urged the UN to "show its backbone," and vowed to work to "put a little calcium there." And, of course, it was the threat of unilateral U.S. action that got the Security Council even considering the issue at all right now. Which is why even as negotiations continue on the text of resolutions both on Capitol Hill and at the Security Council in New York, there's unlikely to be any letup in U.S. and British military preparations for the worst-case outcome.