How Long Will Bush Wait for the UN?

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Bush and Congress reached an agreement on using military force in Iraq

Taking the Iraq issue back to the UN last month allowed the Bush Administration's hawks and doves to finally speak in a single voice: Saddam would have to submit to UN disarmament resolutions, or else. But the unsatisfactory (for the President) workings of diplomacy in New York and the favorable tide of politics in Washington D.C. have now conspired to throw up a new question for the President to answer: Is the U.S. position an ultimatum to the UN itself to accept U.S. terms for Iraqi disarmament, or else step aside?

Congress moved closer Wednesday to approving a resolution that would authorize President Bush to attack Iraq if he deems such action necessary to protect U.S. security and enforce previous UN resolutions — even if the UN itself demurs. Administration officials have repeatedly emphasized in recent weeks that the U.S. ultimately retains the right to take whatever action as it sees fit to implement the UN demands on Iraq even if such action has not been authorized by the Security Council. And the tenor of the President's message to the UN has been, Do what we now ask of you, or you make yourselves irrelevant.

The test of the administration's intentions is likely to come in negotiations currently under way over a new UN Security Council resolution being pursued by the U.S. and Britain. Washington was never going to be satisfied with simply resuming the inspection system previously agreed between Iraq and the Security Council, which, for example, restricts inspectors' access to eight of Saddam's "presidential sites." It was no surprise that Secretary of State Powell warned Tuesday the U.S. would do whatever it could to thwart a resumption of inspections on flawed terms, insisting the inspectors be mandated by a new Security Council resolution clearly setting out strict terms and deadlines for Iraqi compliance before they return to Baghdad. But the draft resolution Washington has circulated reads more like the scenario for creating a de facto beachhead in Iraq for a U.S.-led invasion force. It speaks of inspection teams accompanied by foreign troops based inside Iraq, who would have the power to declare "exclusion zones" around suspect sites anywhere in the country and bar Iraqi officials from entering; of giving officials from the U.S. and other permanent members of the Security Council the same rights and powers as UN arms inspectors and allowing those countries to order specific inspections; of taking Iraqi officials and their families out of the country for questioning, and so on. The draft also renders military action automatic if Iraq fails to comply.

The chances of Baghdad accepting such terms are obviously negligible. And the chances of persuading the Security Council to endorse them may not be all that much better. Russia, France and China remain strongly opposed, and all three have the power of veto at the Council. Most of its members don't share Washington's policy of "regime-change" in Baghdad, and are wary of being used simply to set up a legitimate pretext for an invasion already in the works. At the same time, of course, the Security Council members are also painfully aware of Washington's power to implement President Bush's implied threat to render the UN irrelevant by simply ignoring it. And no matter how deep their differences with Washington, they'd rather see the U.S. remaining inside the international system than formally tossing it out to pursue a Pax Americana. Somewhere between those two impulses is a compromise, originating with France but with Russia showing signs of support, that involves passing a resolution toughening the terms of arms inspections (although still likely to fall well short of demanding that Iraq permit foreign troops to establish bases on its territory), but postponing the authorization of force to a second resolution that would be adopted in the event of Iraqi non-compliance.

So the question now becomes whether Washington sees its draft resolution is a negotiating position, or a take-it-or-leave-it offer to the UN. And diplomats report getting mixed messages on that question from the Bush administration, with the State Department reportedly more inclined to negotiate a consensus in the Security Council in the coming weeks, while more hawkish elements hope to truncate the diplomatic detour on the road to a war they see as inevitable.

The imminent congressional resolution looks likely to authorize President Bush to make the choice between continued diplomacy through the UN or going to war. Bush warned Wednesday that if Saddam fails to disarm, "war may become unavoidable." He's been saying similar things for months, of course. The difference, now, may be that soon that call will be the President's alone to make.