Azores Summit a Wise Move for Bush


Mar 16, 2003

This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune on March 16, 2003.

Sunday brunch in the Azores. Dinner at the lysé Palace in Paris? The first is on President George W. Bush's agenda; if the second were, it might become a decisive step in the diplomatic "end game" on Iraq.

The president's trip to the Azores is a "council of diplomacy" on a new U.N. resolution demanding that Iraq promptly give up all weapons of mass destruction—or else. But why bother? Bush has made clear he is prepared to invade Iraq if Saddam Hussein remains obdurate. Congress formally delegated authority to him last October; in November the U.N. Security Council passed its 17th resolution of condemnation; and American public opinion supports whatever the president now decides.

The reason for this 11th hour diplomacy lies not in necessity but in wisdom: the costs of not taking that route and the benefits of doing so.

First is the value in trying, one last time, to show Saddam Hussein that he has only one decision left to make: to disarm or be destroyed. This message is also directed at senior Iraqi military leaders—that they have one chance to save their skins, by turning against the tyrant. Thus President Bush is wise to seek support for a new U.N. resolution; even if he fails, he will further underscore that he is prepared to act even without it.

There is precedent for this last-minute, high-profile summit. In January 1991, Secretary of State James Baker met in Geneva with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz—with little hope that Iraq would voluntarily withdraw from Kuwait—in order to show the American people and the world that the United States was making one last try for peace.

This time, the message of "one last try" is again directed at a domestic audience, where, if the president decides on war, the American people would clearly prefer that it be done pursuant to a U.N. resolution or at least with as much international support as possible. The message is also directed at members of the Security Council that have not committed themselves to voting "yes" on a new resolution.

As the first step, a U.S.-British-Spanish resolution would have to gain nine affirmative votes from among 15 Security Council members. If that were achieved, the focus would shift to three countries (besides the United States and Britain) that can veto a resolution. China has indicated it will abstain; Russia, with a long list of things it wants from the United States, is unlikely to cast a veto by itself. This leaves France, whose president, Jacques Chirac, said last week he would veto a resolution "authorizing war."

But as often happens in intense, high-stakes diplomacy, none of the key players has yet turned over his hole card. Despite their rhetoric and the abuse leveled at them, the French in the end do not want to see U.S. leadership damaged, or the NATO alliance, or the United Nations, or their own capacity—under the right circumstances—to cooperate in the aftermath.

But now that Bush has said he will decide on war or peace regardless of what others say or the U.N. does, France can ask for concessions as the price of a new U.N. resolution, provided it does not thereby cause the United States to abandon the effort. Indeed, to show France its leverage is limited, Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that the United States might simply bypass the U.N.

Bush has two other reasons to seek a new U.N. resolution. One is to help Britain's prime minister, Tony Blair, the linchpin of international support for the United States. Blair is under the most intense political pressure at home and faces major defections in his ruling Labor Party. He knows that a war is as unpopular in Britain as elsewhere in Europe. By dramatically meeting with Blair and Spain's prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar—going "the extra mile" for peace—President Bush is thus trying to provide political help for them at home.

In addition, since 9/11, Bush has gone through an intense learning experience about the world and demands placed on his leadership—an experience faced by other American wartime presidents. He cannot want war if the United States can achieve its irreducible objective—Iraq's disarmament—through peaceful means. He cannot want to go to war without the maximum possible support from the American people and a quiescent—but far from convinced—Congress.

He must understand that having a viable NATO alliance and United Nations are important for America's future. And even if he did not understand all this—and his recent diplomacy indicates that he does—he must count the cost of the crisis' aftermath, war or no war.

It is already inescapable that the United States will be deeply engaged in the Middle East far into the future. It will be expensive—very expensive. If there is war, U.S. occupation troops will be in Iraq for years—with, if possible, troops from other countries. There must be masses of civilian administrators, and the United States lacks sufficient people with the language and other skills to do it alone.

That means having friends and allies for the aftermath. And that means—within limits—compromising on the modalities of a U.N. resolution and the time limit of demands on Iraq to disarm. Thus Tony Blair suggested this past week that Saddam Hussein be required to meet six "tests." These include his giving a TV speech renouncing weapons of mass destruction, letting 30 Iraqi scientists testify to U.N. inspectors in Cyprus, accounting for missing biological and chemical agents, and explaining a drone aircraft that might be used for biological warfare.

Strikingly, this was a modest list of demands. It clearly reflects Britain's preference to avoid war, if possible; and what has long seemed to be Blair's "good cop-bad cop" role with France's Chirac, to the same end.

For their part—once the message is separated from the messenger—the French and their legion of European supporters worry that war could increase terrorism, not decrease it; they want assurances that the United States will persevere in rebuilding of Iraq in the aftermath of a war; that a war on Iraq is not a prelude for war on others, beginning with Iran; that the United States will share with its allies the making of decisions and not just burdens; and that Bush will press on with Israel-Palestinian peacemaking, overwhelmingly viewed in Europe as critical to reducing support for terrorism.

On this last point, Bush on Friday repeated his personal commitment to prosecuting peace: no coincidence, but a calculated—and sensible—part of the diplomatic endgame.

After brunch in the Azores, therefore, Bush and colleagues should fly to Paris. They have nothing to lose. If Bush embraces the British "tests," is clear about America's future Mideast policy, and pledges renewed U.S. commitment to internationalism and the rule of law, Chirac may still reject a U.N. resolution—and thereby accept responsibility for failure.

But if Bush, Chirac, and the others can agree on the means to disarm Iraq and also lay the basis for tomorrow's cooperation in the Middle East and the Western alliance, dinner at the lysée will be prove to have been well worthwhile. And Bush will have made the grade as the statesman the world needs in the American president.

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