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Iraq: Bush Winning Support For UN-Backed Action

  • Andrew Tully

A week ago, U.S. President George W. Bush faced skepticism and even opposition from foreign leaders and members of the U.S. Congress to the possibility of military action against Iraq and ousting its president, Saddam Hussein. By the end of the week, however, Bush was gathering foreign support for pursuing a United Nations mandate for going after Saddam.

United Nations, 16 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush appears to be prepared, if not determined, to go to war with Iraq, with or without the formal support of the United Nations Security Council.

For months, Bush has been discussing a decade-old U.S. policy of overthrowing Saddam Hussein as president of Iraq. Many observers questioned his sudden interest in Saddam as Washington pursues its campaign against international terrorism.

Some American allies and members of the U.S. Congress, even those from Bush's Republican Party, said there was no evidence linking Saddam to the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001.

Eventually, it became clear that the Bush administration was focusing on Iraq because Saddam has repeatedly violated the terms of the cease-fire that ended hostilities in the 1991 Gulf War, most notably his refusal to readmit UN inspectors to search for weapons of mass destruction.

Bush says that when the Gulf War began, under the auspices of the UN and the military leadership of the United States, Saddam was about a year away from developing a nuclear weapon. According to Bush, the war severely stalled Iraq's weapons programs. But he said there is no reason to believe that Saddam has not made up for lost time in the nearly four years since the inspectors were last allowed in Iraq.

Despite this argument, Bush continued to face resistance, both domestically and from foreign governments, to the idea of resuming hostilities with Iraq. These critics agreed that Saddam is a dictator but said the United States has no right to decide unilaterally which heads of state have a right to power, and which do not.

These critics said Bush's attitude toward Iraq shows the same unilateralist approach that he took in refusing to ratify treaties that most other governments have embraced: the Kyoto treaty on the world environment; the Rome Statute, which set up the International Criminal Court; and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on nuclear weapons.

In recent weeks, however, Bush began a campaign to win support for action against Iraq. He began to court the U.S. Congress and to consult closely with America's allies overseas.

Last week, French President Jacques Chirac, in an interview in the American newspaper "The New York Times," suggested that the United States ask the UN Security Council to impose a three-week deadline on Iraq to readmit the inspectors. If Hussein does not meet that deadline, Chirac said, it would then be up to the Security Council to decide whether to resume hostilities.

In that context, Bush went before the UN General Assembly to lay out his intentions. But before Bush spoke, the General Assembly -- opening its 57th session -- heard from Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who carefully outlined the rights and responsibilities of both the United States and Iraq under the UN Charter. "Any state, if attacked, retains the inherent right of self-defense under Article 51 of the [UN] Charter. But beyond that, when states decide to use force to deal with broader threats to international peace and security, there is no substitute for the unique legitimacy provided by the United Nations," Annan said.

Minutes later, Bush stepped to the podium and reminded the gathered diplomats that the day before, his country, and the world, had observed a solemn day of remembrance on the first anniversary of the 11 September terrorist attacks. Then he said it was time to move on from the sorrow and take on new challenges, specifically the challenge of Iraq.

Speaking forcefully, Bush listed the many Security Council resolutions that Hussein has defied since his defeat more than 11 years ago in the Gulf War. He challenged the United Nations to enforce its own resolutions, or to stand aside and let the United States act on its own. "Iraq has answered a decade of UN demands with a decade of defiance. All the world now faces a test and the United Nations a difficult and defining moment. Are Security Council resolutions to be honored and enforced or cast aside without consequence? Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?" Bush said.

Bush's remark appeared to be a reference to the League of Nations, created after World War I with the same mandate as the United Nations: to prevent war. But the League of Nations became powerless as it failed to enforce the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which forbade Germany to rearm. Today, many view the League of Nations as the very definition of irrelevance.

In his address to the General Assembly, Bush said the UN must act to see that a man whom he calls a modern tyrant does not have the opportunity to rearm. "We know that Saddam Hussein pursued weapons of mass murder even when inspectors were in his country. Are we to assume that he stopped when they left? The history, the logic, and the facts lead to one conclusion: Saddam Hussein's regime is a grave and gathering danger," Bush said.

After Bush's address, his secretary of state, Colin Powell, began meetings with foreign counterparts at the United Nations in an effort to win a Security Council resolution setting a deadline for Iraq to readmit weapons inspectors. The results appeared to be immediate.

Russia, which has long maintained commercial ties with Iraq, issued a stern statement saying Hussein would face unspecified "consequences" for defying UN resolutions.

And in their own speeches before the General Assembly, or in comments to reporters, national leaders and diplomats generally applauded Bush's effort to act within the United Nations.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw pledged his country's full support of whatever Bush decides to do. This was not surprising, given that his prime minister, Tony Blair, has said Britain is prepared to pay what he called a "blood price" to maintain its special relationship with the United States, just as many American soldiers had lost their lives in defense of Britain and other European states in two world wars.

Just as unsurprising was the reaction of Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohamed al-Douri. He said Bush's speech had no credibility, and accused the United States of being more interested in Iraq's oil wealth than the security of the world.

Most of the other reactions stopped short of full support of Bush. But many other countries welcomed Bush's appeal for UN support.

In some cases, this had to be encouraging to the U.S. administration. For example, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had previously declared his government's opposition to military action against Iraq. But on 12 September, Schroeder's foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, indicated at least a small shift in Germany's stand. "[Bush's speech] hands over the responsibility for the coming developments to the Security Council. The Security Council now has an opportunity it can use. It will be anything but easy, but I believe it should take advantage of this opportunity, although the conditions set out in the [U.S.] president's speech are very demanding," Fischer said.

Probably most typical were the reactions of Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the president of Latvia, and, Valdas Adamkus, the president of Lithuania. In his address to the General Assembly, Adamkus said: "It is regrettable that a member of this great body of the United Nations does not uphold its commitments and the underlying principles of this organization. The Iraqi regime must allow unrestricted access for the United Nations inspectors to resume their work. We should exert all the pressure to ensure this. Indeed, this is a test case of our solidarity and unity as an international community," Adamkus said.

Shifts toward support of a UN-approved military action against Iraq included a statement by Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, that any member state of the world body, including his own, would be obliged to support it. But in an interview with CNN on 14 September, al-Faisal said his country would still oppose any unilateral U.S. action to drive Hussein from power.

The key to international support for a military strike against Iraq is the UN Security Council, whose five permanent members are the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China. Bush can count on Britain's support, and Chirac has already signaled France's likely agreement. Russia's statement on Iraq's continued defiance makes it appear to be behind UN-sanctioned military action. Only China's stand remains unclear. So far, Beijing has been urging a diplomatic solution. Bush also needs the support of the U.S. Congress, politically, if not constitutionally. The U.S. Constitution says explicitly that Congress has the right to declare war, but it does not say the president, as commander in chief of the U.S. military, must get such a declaration from Congress before going to war. However, under the War Powers Act, enacted in 1973, the president is required to get congressional approval for any military action that lasts more than 60 days.

But Bush's recent consultations with congressional leaders, coupled with the shift in the opinions in foreign governments, has left little official opposition to his plans for Iraq. For example, Tom Daschle (Democrat, South Dakota), the leader of the Democrats in the Senate who normally oppose Bush's policies, said there may be questions from Congress about how such a war might be conducted. But Daschle stressed that this does not mean that Congress would not approve the president's effort.

As last week ended, it appeared that Bush believes war is inevitable. Speaking in New York on Friday before returning to Washington, the president said he does not expect Hussein to obey a Security Council resolution that he readmit the inspectors. "I am highly doubtful that [Hussein] will meet our demands. I hope he does, but I'm highly doubtful. The reason I'm doubtful is that he's had 11 years to meet the demands. For 11 long years he has basically told the United Nations and the world that he doesn't care," Bush said.

Further evidence that Bush is preparing for war is that the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, said the Defense Department soon will probably move the headquarters of the Central Command, which covers Iraq as well as Afghanistan, to the Gulf state of Qatar from its current base in the state of Florida.

Last November, the United States moved 600 military officers to Qatar as part of an exercise, but Myers said Friday in Washington that they probably will stay there for the foreseeable future. Now the Bush administration is considering how it might deploy up to 100,000 troops in the region and is awaiting the decision of the UN Security Council.