Behind the UN's Iraq Showdown: Who's in Charge?

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The United Nations Security Council at the U.N. headquarters in New York

Despite five weeks of tortuous negotiation, the UN Security Council remains unable to agree on the text of a new resolution on Iraq. The sticking point: Who will be empowered to judge whether Saddam Hussein is complying with renewed arms inspections — the Security Council, or the White House?

The U.S. and Britain are piling on the pressure for the adoption of a single resolution that sets out terms for new inspections and gives some form of green light for military action if Baghdad fails to comply. Emphasizing that his patience is wearing thin and that unilateral action remains an option, President Bush warned Tuesday that the "UN must act now or be relegated to nothing more than a debating club." But most other Council members, led by veto-wielding France and Russia, remain determined to avoid endorsing language that could in any way be construed by Washington as sanctioning an attack on Iraq before the UN itself has ruled on whether Iraq is cooperating satisfactorily with renewed arms inspections.

Although the Bush Administration has softened some of its original demands and dropped the phrase "all necessary means" from its proposed or-else clause, the Russians and French are suspicious that Washington intends to use such a resolution as sufficient grounds to attack Iraq when the White House decides that Saddam is not cooperating.

Underpinning the dispute are different views on the question of arms-control and "regime-change." The Administration has maintained all along that Saddam Hussein is an incorrigible scofflaw, and that the world will only be safe from his weapons of mass destruction once he's removed from power. But most U.S. allies don't share Washington's perception either of the threat posed by Saddam or of "regime-change" as the solution, which is why the Bush Administration found it necessary to take the matter back to the UN. The logic: If Saddam remained in breach of Security Council resolutions, the international community would have no choice but to authorize an invasion to enforce its own writ. UN authorization would also create essential political cover for some skeptical allies to sign on for an invasion. That meant the starting point was to send UN arms inspectors back to ascertain whether Iraq has indeed continued to develop weapons of mass destruction. While that point is broadly agreed, the breakdown has been over the terms of those inspections, and how to proceed if they're blocked, with the Russians and French leading a Security Council majority leery of being used simply to create a "trigger" mechanism for an invasion few Council members believe is a wise or prudent course of action. Indeed, the Administration may have erred by calling for an open debate on Iraq at the Security Council last week, because it created a platform for the overwhelming majority of UN member states to speak against invasion and challenge the U.S. position.

Mindful of allied concerns, the traditionally plain-spoken President Bush on Monday displayed some of the semantic gymnastics more familiar from his predecessor by suggesting that "regime change" could simply mean compliance with UN demands — if Saddam ended his wicked ways, his regime would have changed, right? That followed comments on Sunday by Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to the effect that the U.S. priority was simply getting rid of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.

Lest these signals of moderation send the American public the message that war may not be necessary after all, the White House sent out Press Secretary Ari Fleischer to make clear that for the Bush Administration, Iraqi compliance remains "the mother of all hypotheticals." And since then, the message to the UN has been, to quote President Bush, "If the United Nations can't make its mind up, Saddam Hussein won't disarm, we will lead a coalition to disarm him for the sake of peace." Diplomats at the Security Council tell TIME they believe there are divisions in the Bush Administration over how far to accommodate European concerns.

It was Bush's threat of unilateral U.S. action leaving the UN on the sidelines that got the Security Council to take up the Iraq issue last September and the Administration may now be hoping that reminding member states that Washington isn't bound by their consensus may pressure them into adopting a satisfactory disarmament resolution. The Administration's parallel assertion that Saddam will never comply implies that the UN process, in Washington's mind, is intended primarily to prove to the rest of the world that there is no alternative to invasion. But for many Europeans and Arabs, the UN process remains their best hope of pressuring Saddam to do what it takes to restrain the U.S. from a war they fear could cause more problems than its solves.