Bush vs. Chirac: The Sequel

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Bush waits to address the 58th U.N. General Assembly

President Bush's return to the United Nations was always going to be a dialogue of the deaf: Washington's critics in the international forum believe the U.S. went to war in Iraq with neither good reason nor international mandate, and they believe that postwar events have vindicated their opposition; President Bush has no doubt he did the right thing, and the logic of domestic politics required that he forcefully restate his reasons — anything less would have played into the strategy of those Democratic Party hopefuls who hope to make electoral hay out of America's growing anxiety over the burden of managing postwar Iraq.

So, the President went in swinging, citing alleged links to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction as the reasons for the invasion of Iraq, which he proclaimed among other things, was intended to uphold the credibility of the United Nations. Overthrowing the tyrant has freed the Iraqi people and the left the Middle East safer, he insisted. But the absence of evidence showing that Iraq maintained weapons of mass destruction or al-Qaeda links, and the ongoing security crisis in post-Saddam Iraq has, if anything, amplified criticism over Washington's decision to launch a war without Security Council authorization.

Speaking before Bush, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned that world peace was imperiled by the doctrine of preemptive action promoted by the Bush administration, but he urged those critical of U.S. unilateralism to offer a multilateral alternative through the UN that would nonetheless take effective action on issues such as terrorism and proliferation. Following Bush's address, French President Jacques Chirac did not pull his punches either, slamming the U.S. for going to war without UN mandate and warning that this approach risked "anarchy." Still, like Bush, Chirac emphasized the need to focus on international cooperation to achieve an acceptable outcome in Iraq. And on that front, while important differences remain, they're unlikely to break out into another round of diplomatic hostilities of the sort seen before the Iraq war.

Despite reiterating its case for war, the U.S. was never going to persuade France, Germany, Russia, China and much of the rest of Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America that it had made the correct choice. Instead, the focus of intense diplomatic negotiations at the UN this week is on enlisting help to ensure the best possible outcome in the postwar. And on that score, the French have already signaled their willingness to cooperate, or at least to refrain from throwing up obstacles. President Chirac has promised that France won't veto a new Security Council resolution being pushed by the U.S. to enable a U.S.-led international security force.

The meeting on the sidelines of the General Assembly Tuesday between Presidents Bush and Chirac failed to resolve the differences between the two sides over restoring Iraqi sovereignty, and the role to be played by the United Nations. But this time, the French will simply abstain if their concerns can't be accommodated.

U.S. officials have chided the French for setting unrealistic deadlines a speedy transition to Iraqi self-rule. But while the French may give some ground on the question of how quickly to empower Iraqi institutions, they may dig their heels in on the questions of who is in charge in the interim. The French and other Europeans insist that the UN, rather than U.S. administrator Paul Bremer, be placed in charge of the transition in Baghdad; a position rejected by Washington.

Central to both questions is the issue of legitimacy: The reason the French and other European and Arab allies are so apparently obsessed with issues of sovereignty and UN control is precisely that they see the current occupation as lacking legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis, and therefore inherently unstable. While President Bush may cast the U.S. as liberators promoting freedom in the face of resistance by terrorists and "holdouts of the former regime," those on the other side of the debate fear that hostility to the U.S.-led occupation is drawing even ordinary Iraqis with no ties either to the Baath party or the Islamist movement to support the insurgency. And those concerns are likely to be exacerbated by this week's decision by Bremer and the Iraqi Governing Council to privatize all of Iraq's economy except for the oil industry — the idea that decisions that will have a profound impact on Iraq's future are being taken by an occupation authority and a body of Iraqis of its own choosing will further alarm many UN member states.

In the American narrative presented by President Bush, the U.S. acted decisively while others dithered in the face of danger, and now it is nurturing an exemplary democracy in a region mired in autocracy and economic stasis. But for many other UN member states Iraq is not free but occupied without international consent. And the President's suggestion in passing that the Palestinians ought to learn from what the U.S. is doing and jettison their elected leader, Yasser Arafat, won't have helped him persuade the skeptics. At the UN, after all, Bush is even more isolated on the question of Arafat than he is on Iraq — last week's General Assembly resolution demanding that Israel refrain from acting against the Palestinian leader saw only four countries voting against: the United States, Israel, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia. And, if anything, many UN member states may be more inclined to the link Iraq and the Palestinians on the grounds that both are under occupation.

Despite ongoing differences over Iraq, however, the U.S. may yet get the Security Council resolution it seeks authorizing an international force. That's because the invasion is a fait accompli, and the French have nothing to gain, this time, by using the veto. The U.S. is now in the supplicant role, and even armed with a new UN resolution, Washington will struggle to persuade reluctant nations to send troops and money to ease the burden of occupation on a fiscally and militarily stretched America.

India, Pakistan and Turkey may have previously cited absence of a UN mandate as a reason to keep their troops at home, but their calculations were primarily domestic. Such sweeteners as this week's $8 billion in loan guarantees from the U.S. Treasury to Turkey may help persuade Ankara to send some 10,000 troops — to the alarm of the Kurdish parties on the Iraqi Governing Council — and South Korea may be persuadable to add to its current deployment of 700 non-combatant troops, if the price is right. Prospects of getting significant forces from Pakistan and India appear more remote, right now, and nobody at the Pentagon is expected a UN resolution to bring a flood of peacekeepers. Similarly on the question of funding: Even if European governments were more sanguine about the U.S. reconstruction effort, the state of the world economy and security prospects on the ground in Iraq may limit the extent of financial assistance the Bush administration is able to garner.

So, while President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, has long advocated a postwar diplomatic strategy of punishing France for its opposition to the war, the French and other critics may see the burden of occupation being shouldered mostly by the U.S. as punishment enough for Washington's going it alone with a narrow coalition.