Can Powell get the U.N. to vote for war?

Politics and policy.
Feb. 5 2003 7:07 PM

Security Council Score Card

How Powell did at the U.N.

In his presentation to the U.N. Security Council Wednesday morning, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell sought to convince the council of three things: 1) that his evidence was solid and damning; 2) that Iraq's current level of cooperation was unacceptable under Security Council Resolution 1441, thereby justifying war; and 3) that this failure to cooperate rendered inspections futile, clearing the way for an imminent war decision.

After Powell spoke, representatives of the remaining 14 council members delivered their preliminary judgments of his presentation. Their comments on the three key questions, summarized in the table below, indicate that Powell succeeded on the first question and gained the upper hand on the second but failed to attract enough support on the third. The bottom line is that the council's sanctions on Iraq will stay in place, and if the United States can wait, the council (as presently constituted) will eventually authorize war. But if the United States insists on going to war now, it will have to do so without that authorization.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Here are the three crucial issues and range of positions (with corresponding symbols) taken by council members on each of them.

EVIDENCE
-  Powell's evidence is disputable.
0  No comment on the validity of the evidence.
+  Iraq must answer questions raised by the evidence.
++  The evidence is compelling.

COOPERATION
-  Iraq is already cooperating.
0  Iraq must do more to cooperate.
+  Iraq's level of cooperation is unacceptable or insufficient to make inspections work.
++  Iraq's level of cooperation violates Security Council resolutions.

DEADLINE
-  Let inspections continue permanently.
0  Let inspections continue indefinitely.
+  Given Iraq's failure to cooperate, more time won't help.
++  Set an imminent deadline for giving up on inspections and resorting to force.

The council has five permanent members and 10 temporary members. To pass a resolution explicitly authorizing the use of force against Iraq, the United States needs to win nine votes among the 15 members and avoid a veto by any permanent member. The positions taken by the 15 members in response to Powell's presentation break down as follows.

PERMANENT MEMBERS

 EvidenceCooperationDeadline
China000
France++-
Russia0+0
U.K.++++++
U.S.++++++

TEMPORARY MEMBERS

 EvidenceCooperationDeadline
Angola++0-
Bulgaria++++++
Cameroon+00
Chile+++++
Germany++00
Guinea000
Mexico000
Pakistan+00
Spain+++++
Syria---

Let's tally the results and see where the United States now stands. On the question of evidence, Powell wins big. Ten of the 15 members believe either that his evidence is compelling or that the burden is on Iraq to rebut or explain it. This represents a crucial reversal in the council's thinking. Until Wednesday, most comments from permanent council members had focused on the lack of evidence against Iraq, implicitly placing the burden of proof on the United States. Powell has shifted the scrutiny and the burden back to Saddam. This is an important defensive victory. It takes pressure off the inspectors and prevents Saddam from getting rid of them until he affirmatively meets a standard of verification.

On the question of cooperation, the consensus is even stronger. Of the five permanent council members, none says Iraq is cooperating sufficiently, and four say Iraq's level of cooperation is unacceptable. Of the 15 total members, five say Iraq's level of cooperation violates Resolution 1441 (three of these members explicitly call it a "material breach")—a verdict that implicitly justifies the use of force. Two others, while avoiding legal language, say this level of cooperation is unacceptable; seven more say it needs to improve. In sum, to establish that Iraq's current level of cooperation violates Resolution 1441 and justifies military action, the United States now needs to win over the two members who call Iraq's behavior unacceptable, plus two of the seven who say it must improve. Again, from the U.S. standpoint, that's enormous progress. A few weeks ago, most council members seemed to agree that Iraq's provision of access to inspection sites amounted to sufficient cooperation. Iraq counted on that standard to suffice. It no longer does.

But on the question of deadlines, Powell comes up short. Only three of the 15 members support a specific deadline (the United States has already given up; Britain and Bulgaria want a decision by Feb. 14), and only two more favor an imminent deadline in principle, on the grounds that further inspections are pointless unless Iraq changes its attitude. That leaves the United States six votes shy of the nine needed to authorize war now and four votes shy of the nine needed to impose an imminent deadline. Three members seem to be out of play since they describe inspections as a permanent solution, making war impossible. That leaves the United States with only seven countries from whom to get the six remaining votes for immediate war now or the four remaining votes for an imminent deadline. In addition, one permanent member, France, is among the countries calling for permanent inspections, raising the possibility that it might veto a resolution to end them.

So here's the score on Powell's presentation. He has trapped Iraq in an inspection regime until it comes clean, and he has put the United States within striking distance of the votes needed to declare that the status quo justifies war. But if he wants those votes, he'll have to wait.

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