Why Bush Struggles to Win UN Backing

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An Iraqi military police guards a military facility where banned missiles are being destroyed under UN supervision

The Bush administration has always insisted it doesn't need UN permission to invade Iraq. President Bush has never left any doubt that the outcome of Security Council deliberations won't stop him from acting to eliminate what he perceives as an imminent threat to U.S. and allied security. When Bush first raised the issue at the UN Security Council last Fall, he did so in the form of a challenge to the international body — follow us to war, or render yourselves irrelevant. And his administration underlined the point by deploying an invasion armada and planning for a U.S.-administered post-Saddam Iraq. The two-track policy of using the UN process as a means to build diplomatic support for a war already in the making may have helped build domestic backing for an invasion — and chief weapons inspector Hans Blix has affirmed that the military buildup has been the key factor promoting Iraqi cooperation — but the sense of inevitability about the war may have backfired on the international stage.

This week's failure by the U.S. and Britain to win backing for a UN ultimatum to Iraq authorizing force if Baghdad fails to meet a 10-day disarmament deadline underscores the fact that the UN process has, if anything, weakened rather than strengthened international support for a war. Halfway through March, the supposed critical climatic window for military action is closing fast and the UN Security Council looks unlikely to authorize force against Iraq anytime soon. Nobody expected the French and Russians to be brandishing a veto this late in the game, much less the failure of the Bush administration to persuade the likes of Chile, Cameroon, Guinea, Angola and even Pakistan to declare unambiguous support for the U.S. position. And few would have predicted that U.S. vessels would, at this stage, be stuck in Turkish ports awaiting a change in heart of the reluctant Turkish parliament on making their territory available for a northern front.

Suddenly, even Britain, the Bush administration's stalwart ally on Iraq, is looking a little shaky — a fact underlined Tuesday when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested the U.S. may have to consider going to war without the British troops currently deployed alongside the American invasion force. Prime Minister Tony Blair faces a high level of opposition from within his own party to invading Iraq without UN authorization, and he may not survive politically if he goes ahead without UN backing. Failure to pass a compromise ultimatum resolution setting a longer deadline and making specific disarmament demands of Iraq will leave Blair — and possibly other key European supporters of the U.S. position, such as Spain and Italy — deeply mired in domestic political crisis.

The reason for the administration's difficulties may be, in part, the nature of the evidence revealed by the UN process. The Bush case for war against Iraq is premised on the idea that not only has Saddam failed to complete the disarmament required of him by the Gulf War truce, but that he is actively pursuing new chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs; and that these, together with what Washington insists is an alliance between Iraq and al-Qaeda, represent a clear and present danger to U.S. security.

But the inspection process has tested some of these claims, and in the process undermined the Bush administration's case. The inspectors found that Iraq has failed to destroy or account for substantial the stocks of chemical and biological weapons left over from its war with Iran, but they have found nothing to back claims of current, active chemical, biological or nuclear programs. Inspectors have made clear to the Council that they have investigated a number of U.S. and British allegations and intelligence tips, which came to naught. The inspectors are not saying Iraq has disarmed, and they're setting specific disarmament targets such as the destruction of the al-Samoud 2 missiles whose range exceeds UN limits. But the inspections have done little to support the U.S. characterization of Saddam as a growing or imminent threat to Western and Arab security. For many the reluctant Council members, a war becomes permissible only if the threat posed by the regime in Baghdad is greater than the risks attached to an invasion. When they hear President Bush, regardless of the findings of the inspection process, speaking of regime-change and evil, and of a grand design to remake the Middle East, their skepticism is deepened.

The Bush administration's patience for the UN process is almost certainly finite. Polls find that half of America's electorate is ready to go to war without UN backing and a growing number express frustration with the UN. Once the bombs are flying, support for the action will almost certainly increase. And some of the morbid symptoms of the war are already upon America — a plunging stock market, a soaring oil price and continued anxiety over terror attacks. That and the onset of Iraq's sweltering spring months are likely to create pressure for action. But that pressure may be felt more strongly in Washington than at the UN.