The United States has returned to the United Nations Security Council, seeking another formal resolution to demand that Iraq promptly comply with 17 previous resolutions—or else. This may seem unnecessary, overkill, or just a nuisance. But it is not: it is a political necessity as President Bush leads the United States—and the world—into the end game on Iraq.
It can be argued that the United States already has sufficient U.N. authority to lead a coalition of countries into combat if Saddam Hussein refuses to meet conditions already imposed on him. Security Council Resolution 1441, adopted unanimously Nov. 8, contains a long litany of requirements; and it clearly "recalls" that "the Council has repeatedly warned Iraq that it will face serious consequences as a result of its continued violations of its obligations" —in diplomatic parlance, a threat of war.
By this logic, there is no point in the United States' putting itself again at the mercy of 14 other countries on the Security Council, most of which are only there for two-year terms. Worse, the United States might convey weakness; its resolution could be vetoed by one or more of three permanent Security Council members that oppose U.S. policy (France, Russia, China); and it could therefore find itself with less legitimacy to act than it seems to have now. Thus, if the new resolution is rejected and President Bush decides that war is necessary, both U.S. moral standing and the U.N.'s reputation could be damaged needlessly.
This is a reasonable lawyer's brief, but it is political and diplomatic nonsense. The Bush administration is asking for another U.N. resolution precisely because this is not about lawyering or holding countries to a decision they made months ago, before current developments—including the final realization that war, with its attendant horrors, costs and consequences, may now be unavoidable. The United States has a doleful experience of holding lawmakers to account for what many later felt was a "decision in haste" which they then "repented at leisure." Congress rushed through the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in August 1964, and, for the next seven years, Presidents Johnson and Nixon regularly cited it as continuing authority to prosecute the Vietnam War.
President Bush has wisely chosen not to accept the lawyer's brief but rather to seek reaffirmation by the Security Council that its members—who stand in stead for the rest of the world body—are still prepared, if need be, to see the line crossed to conflict. For Bush to have done otherwise would be implicitly to accept the charge that support for whatever he decides he must do has been dwindling, that he has not done enough "to show a decent respect to the opinion of mankind."
Of course, the U.N. Security Council is not a body of Solons or Solomons, judiciously deciding on the best means to disarm Iraq. It is a political body, with all of the push and pull that term implies. The United States, along with its supporters, Britain and Spain, must convince other Council members that the American president should be given broad backing for the course he will soon decide upon: continued U.N. inspections or war.
The Security Council has 15 members, 5 with vetoes (United States, Britain, France, Russia, China), and 10 that vote but cannot veto (Angola, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Chile, Germany, Guinea, Mexico, Pakistan, Spain and Syria). For a resolution to pass, the United States must first secure at least 9 of the other 14 votes. It can count on Britain and Spain. But Syria will likely vote "no;" and Germany will abstain, as—at this stage—likely will France, Russia and China.
That leaves 7 countries, and the United States must gain the votes of at least 6. The wooing, with all diplomatic and economic instruments, has thus begun. Angola has tied its vote to securing a U.S. aid package. Bulgaria's leaders were feted last week at the White House and understand that last year's invitation to join NATO must still be ratified by the U.S. Senate. Chile, remote from the Persian Gulf, has no cause to oppose the United States.
Four other countries are more problematic—and the United States can afford to lose only one. Pakistan increasingly depends on the United States for economic support; but it also risks backlash from its restive, Muslim population. Mexico is piqued by what it believes are broken pledges over undocumented Mexicans in this country. And both Cameroon and Guinea, francophone countries with close ties to Paris, will be pressed by France to say, at least for now, that they will abstain or vote "no."
Yet despite this gloomy arithmetic, it is doubtful that, in the end, a quorum of second-rank countries will defy the United States and cause it to fail the "test of 9 votes."
But what of the three wild-card, veto-wielding, permanent-member states?
China has an intense interest in Persian Gulf oil, but it also critically depends on economic ties to the United States, so it has signaled that it will not veto. Vladimir Putin's Russian Federation has deep reservations—not the least solidified U.S. power in the Middle East and environs; but he is unlikely to jeopardize his relationship with President Bush by casting a veto and will seek compensation for not doing so.
That leaves France, which has angered the Bush administration by delaying NATO's contingency planning to defend Turkey and by intense criticism of U.S. Middle East policy. But it is not a sure bet that, in the end, Paris will deny Washington its U.N. resolution.
Judging from past French behavior, more likely will be a theater of French demands, cosmetic U.S. compromise, and agreement in the last act. Furthermore, messages France is conveying to Washington have strong resonance in Europe, including among governments formally in the U.S. camp. On behalf of a broad body of opinion, the French question whether the potential cost of war is worth it—including a possible increase in terrorism and "anti-Westernism" among Muslim populations. They point to the weak U.S. follow-through in post-conflict Afghanistan and wonder whether Washington will have staying-power in an occupied Iraq; they are discomfited by commentary suggesting that Iran is next on a U.S. "hit list;" and they are not convinced of U.S. commitment to prosecute Israeli-Palestinian peace, whose absence most Europeans believe is a seedbed for terrorism.
The United States could offer reassurances in most of these areas—and on Israel-Palestine peacemaking, President Bush did so in a speech Wednesday. It would not be surprising if, in U.N. bargaining, the United States adopts some of the less-objectionable language in a joint French-German-Russian memorandum.
Still, the United States may not get the U.N. resolution it wants; President Bush may still have to make his fateful decisions without renewed U.N. validation. But this is not likely, as members of the Security Council ponder the consequences for the United Nations—already damaged by the struggle over Iraq— and for long-term relations with the world's sole superpower.
Then the president would be wise to repeat the effort at home: seeking a second congressional resolution, to show the American people and the world that here, too, he still commands the political support he must have for long-term success in the Middle East.
Robert Hunter served as U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998 and is currently a senior adviser at RAND, the public policy research institute.
This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union Tribune on March 2, 2003. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.