Iraq: Now For the Security Council

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Congress passes a joint resolution to support Bush in the use of force against Iraq

Even as President Bush was securing authorization from Congress to use force against Iraq, he was looking ahead to the UN. Although the House and Senate voted overwhelmingly to give the President the authority he had long sought to go it alone on Iraq, the Security Council remains far more resistant to White House demands, and the Administration is hoping the threat of unilateral action will scare the international community into accepting the U.S. position. But Congressional authorization to bypass the UN is also likely to reopen the debate among Bush's advisers over just how far to pursue the diplomatic option.

The U.S. and Britain insist that before UN arms inspectors can be sent back to Iraq the Council must adopt tough new inspection terms and authorize an automatic military response if Saddam fails to comply. Russia has been the most vocal opponent of this view, urging immediate resumption of inspections on the basis of existing resolutions. France has supported the principle of a new resolution closing the loopholes, but insists on keeping the authorization of force for a second resolution if the Council itself determines Saddam is not complying. The resolution being demanded by Washington, they say, would effectively cede to the Bush Administration the role of judge, jury and executioner.

France and a number of other Council members have also refused to endorse some of the inspection terms proposed by the U.S. that they view as designed to be rejected by Baghdad. Chief among these is the demand that Baghdad allow foreign military units to set up bases inside Iraq and send troop contingents along on inspections. Negotiations between France and the U.S. have failed to resolve the deadlock. Still, there are signs that a consensus is possible over a compromise that sets Iraq tougher new inspection terms — such as requiring that Baghdad make a declaration of all of its current non-conventional weapons stockpiles and programs and submit to an intrusive (although not armed) anywhere-anytime inspection regime. Such a resolution might also fudge the issue of authorizing force by hinting at consequences for failure to comply. The question facing the Bush Administration: Whether it needs to accept compromises and delays at the UN now that the President has congressional authorization to act outside of a UN mandate if he sees fit.

War on Iraq's ongoing coverage of the U.S.-Iraq conflict

 After Saddam
Who will step in to fill the void?

 Tools of the Hunt
 On Assignment: The War

 Perry: Street Fighting in Karbala
 Robinson: Chaos at a Bridge
 Ware: Last Stand for Saddam

 When the Cheering Stops
Jubilation and chaos greet the fall of Saddam's regime, leaving Iraqis and Americans puzzling over how to rebuild the nation
 The Search for the Smoking Gun
 Counting the Casualties War in Iraq
Taking the Iraq issue back to the UN has always been, from the Bush Administration's point of view, a compromise. It bridged the positions of the hawkish elements reluctant to allow diplomacy or renewed arms inspections to slow the momentum towards invasion, and moderates who warned that the only basis for building international support and legitimacy for a campaign against Saddam is to make the central issue the danger posed by Saddam's defiance of UN disarmament resolutions. The threat of the U.S. acting alone if the UN demurs has proven remarkably effective in spurring the Security Council back to action on Iraqi disarmament, because while most members of the Council remain opposed to a war and to Washington's demands, they're equally reluctant to see the UN rendered irrelevant by a unilateral U.S. invasion. Congressional authorization has therefore significantly strengthened the administration's bargaining position at the UN. Expect to see the President in the days and weeks ahead emphasize that Congress has already given him all the authorization he needs to go to war.

That, of course, could simply be a bargaining tactic aimed at forcing Security Council members to accept Washington's demands. And it could signify a genuine intent on the part of the President to take matters into his own hands. The deeper question facing the President is to what extent he still needs UN authorization politically, despite the congressional vote. The Administration is certainly aware that the extent of congressional support for the war resolution was determined by the administration's decision to work through the UN to achieve maximum support for any move against Iraq. And opinion polls continue to indicate that the American public is more comfortable waging war on Iraq with UN backing and a wide coalition than doing so alone.

Abroad, UN authorization is an important precondition, even if only as a legal and political fig leaf, for most countries likely to support a U.S. invasion. Many U.S. allies are resigned to the inevitability of an invasion, and many of those who have opposed it all along may feel obliged to support once it begins — not that their skepticism is insincere, but simply because their primary concern is stability and as U.S. allies they'd have an overriding interest in seeing the war won quickly and decisively. Further, many of the key foreign players in this conflict, from France and Russia to Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have a strong commercial and political interest in influencing the shape of a post-Saddam order in Iraq.

For Bush Administration hawks, however, there are two flaws in pursuing the UN route. The first is that the international body does not share Washington's policy of regime-change, and is concerned only with disarmament. That gives Saddam plenty of wiggle room by simply playing ball, unconditionally for now at least, with any new inspection regime. The second flaw is that a UN process is likely to delay a showdown, particularly if arms inspections are actually resumed. The case for urgency may have less to do with any immediate concerns about the state of Saddam's weapons programs — the CIA this week signaled there's no imminent threat of Iraq attacking U.S. interests — than with the level of support for a war. Both Bush and Tony Blair have made their case against Saddam, and there's little reason to believe, unless Saddam does something insanely provocative now, that public support for a war will actually grow from its current levels. But there are grounds for suspecting that a long delay in the corridors of diplomacy, renewed arms inspections and new eruptions of Israeli-Palestinian violence and al-Qaeda activity in the Gulf and elsewhere may see domestic and international support for an invasion begin to ebb. So, the net effect of the congressional resolution offering Bush the authority to determine Iraq's fate may force him, fairly soon, to make the decision that defines his presidency.