The U.N.'s latest Iraq failure.

The U.N.'s latest Iraq failure.

The U.N.'s latest Iraq failure.

Military analysis.
Feb. 14 2003 7:11 PM

Stalemate

The U.N. fails its latest test on Iraq.

Today's session at the U.N. Security Council proves, once and for all, what has been increasingly clear for the past couple of months—that the United Nations will not be an instrument for war against Iraq. The session might also lead one to conclude, though more tentatively, that any future U.N. resolution that threatens the use of force should not be taken seriously by anyone, least of all the country being threatened. The situation has come down to this: Some members of the council are in favor of going to war, some members are not, and this score card is now fixed; no amount of debate, no further mountain of intelligence data, no further discoveries in Iraq itself are likely to alter the alignment.

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The Security Council is sometimes dismissed as a "debating society." But that's an insult to debaters everywhere, judging from its discussion this morning of the latest report by chief weapons inspector Hans Blix. Blix himself cut not just a softer but a less serious profile than he did the last time he addressed the council. At that earlier session two weeks ago, he sternly stated, "Iraq appears not to have come to an acceptance, not even today, of the disarmament that was demanded of it." Today, Blix issued nothing remotely resembling such a warning. (One theory has it that Blix is fed up with the incessant pressure that he's come under from Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to toe the Anglo-American line. Certainly, his briefing today was sprinkled with an unusual array of subtle digs, and even a slap or two, at the Bush administration.)

To the contrary, Blix only mildly chastised the Iraqis for failing to answer every question he'd asked of them and played up their most trifling gestures as major diplomatic advances. He noted with baffling satisfaction that, whereas Iraq used to field five "minders" to keep track of each U.N. inspector, the ratio is now down to an even one to one. He reported that during his meeting in Baghdad last weekend, Iraqi officials gave him documents purporting to back up their claims that they had long ago destroyed their vast holdings of nerve gas, anthrax, and other biological weapons. Blix allowed that this cache contained "no new evidence" but argued that its mere presentation "could be indication of a more active attitude." Saddam Hussein's recent formation of an Iraqi government commission to search for still-hidden illegal weapons was taken by Blix as a "welcome" development and a "useful tool" to help his own inspectors. Blix further said that a letter from Iraq's national monitoring director, naming another 83 scientists who supposedly participated in the unilateral destruction of chemical weapons in 1991, "appears useful and pertains to cooperation on substance." (Two weeks ago, he said Iraq was cooperating only on process, not on substance; this letter, apparently, persuades him that Saddam is now cooperating on both levels.) He added, in what can only be read as a parody of diplomatic politesse, "I trust that the Iraqis will put together a similar list of names of persons who participated in the unilateral destruction of other proscribed items, notably in the biological field."

Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, came off even more timidly. Noting that the IAEA has now interviewed four Iraqi atomic scientists with no "minders" present (though each of the scientists did bring along a tape recorder), ElBaradei declared that these meetings "reconfirmed [Iraq's] commitment to encourage interviews." Early this morning, a few hours before the council's session, Saddam Hussein issued an executive order banning the importing and manufacturing of weapons of mass destruction. ElBaradei hailed the decree as "a step in the right direction." (Blix at least had the decency to say he had not had time to study the diktat.) ElBaradei allowed that "a number of issues are still under investigation" and that he is still awaiting more data on Iraqi weapons programs, past and present. But he concluded that inspections will be expanded "in the coming weeks."

The roundtable comments from the Security Council's members perpetuated the charade.

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Igor Ivanov, Russia's foreign minister, took heart in the reports of four scientist interviews without minders, the formation of the Iraqi weapon-search commission, the Saddam decree. "We simply cannot ignore these new facts," he said. "There is movement in the right direction."

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin concurred. "The inspections are providing results," he said, adding, "One may judge them inadequate, but the results are there." U.N. Resolution 1441, he claimed, calls for inspections to continue until they no longer produce results. Therefore, he concluded, "Let us give the U.N. inspectors the time they need."

This line of reasoning is not only an argument for permanent inspections (and a permanently deferred enforcement of U.N. resolutions), but also a thorough misinterpretation of Resolution 1441. Nowhere does that resolution say war is an option only after inspections have been utterly exhausted. Rather, it states a) that Iraq is already in "material breach" of several U.N. resolutions going back to the 1991 cease-fire; b) that the Security Council is giving Iraq one more chance to comply with its obligations; and c) that if it commits another breach—by failing to disarm completely, by making false statements or omissions in its stockpile declarations, or by failing to provide inspectors with "immediate, unimpeded, unconditional, and unrestricted" access to everything and everybody they want to see—then there will be "serious consequences."

Nobody today, except the Iraqi ambassador, tried to claim that Iraq has fulfilled its obligations. Nobody tried to argue that "serious consequences" means something other than military action. Nobody disputed that, just three months ago, the council's 15 members passed Resolution 1441 unanimously—not casually or unwittingly so, but after seven weeks of negotiations, in which Secretary of State Colin Powell altered the language to meet French reservations. Powell looked clearly flummoxed during his turn for comments today. One question he should have asked de Villepin: "Why did you sign Resolution 1441 in the first place if you never had any intention of carrying out its enforcement clause?"

Finally, the French and Russian arguments constitute, in effect, a notice to Saddam Hussein that, as long as he keeps making trivial gestures and meaningless decrees (preferably on the eve of Security Council sessions), he can—at least as far as the United Nations is concerned—sleep soundly at night and get away with whatever he can manage. Jack Straw, the British foreign minister, made the point: If the council backs away from the resolution, the disarmament of Iraq "will get very much harder," not easier. Certainly, to the extent Saddam has made serious steps in the past, they have come when he feared his foes were getting serious.

But now Bush is in a serious fix. He has pledged to oust Saddam by force, with a "coalition of the willing" if the Security Council does not come along. He seems determined to get the operation underway in a few weeks, perhaps on the next moonless night. But, as some officials privately admit, this is a risky business. Almost certainly, the ad hoc coalition (which, militarily, consists of the U.S. armed forces and a few units from Britain and Australia) will be enough to win the war, but—given America's standing in the Arab world these days—it may lack the diversity, the clout, or the resources to keep the peace afterward. If the war goes spectacularly well, this may not matter; France, Germany, and Russia can be expected to scramble onto the postwar brigades to avoid being deprived of a share of the spoils. But if the war goes badly, we'll be out there on the cliff with no cover. If it inspires terrorist reprisals, we (and London) will take the hit alone.