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UN: As Diplomacy Winds Down, Damage Control For Council Seen As Crucial

  • Robert McMahon

The failure of the United Nations Security Council to reach a unified position on Iraq has raised concern that its credibility has been damaged at a critical time. In particular, UN experts say the relations of two key members -- the United States and France -- will need to be repaired in order for the council to play a constructive role in Iraq's future and cope effectively with other crises.

United Nations, 18 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Only four months ago, a unanimous United Nations Security Council called for tough new weapons inspections in Iraq, in what was seen as a triumph of both U.S. and French diplomacy. But now diplomacy on reaching a common position on Iraq is nearly exhausted amid bitter divisions between the United States and France over the results of those inspections.

U.S. and British diplomats yesterday announced that they would not be seeking a vote on their draft resolution to authorize military action against Iraq. They singled out France's veto threat, saying it had undermined the negotiating process.

But French officials stressed that it was the will of a majority of council members not to impose a military solution when UN inspections were seen as working.

There is concern about lasting damage to the UN Security Council, where France and the United States are permanent members. Their engagement will be needed not only on dealing with a postwar situation in Iraq but also on antiterrorism measures, on which France has provided key assistance, and on dealing with North Korea.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the latest developments marked a defeat for the UN Security Council. "The UN is an important institution, and it will survive, and the United States will continue to be an important member of the United Nations and its various organizations. But clearly, this is a test, in my judgment, that the Security Council did not meet," Powell said.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called the end of diplomatic efforts a disappointment, saying "war is always a catastrophe." Annan yesterday ordered the evacuation of UN staff from Iraq, including weapons monitors, peacekeepers, and those who run the crucial oil-for-food program.

A number of UN experts interviewed by RFE/RL regretted what they saw as missed opportunities for the Security Council to come to a common agreement.

Brian Urquhart is a former UN undersecretary-general and a veteran of numerous crises handled by the UN. He said the U.S. goal of replacing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, as opposed to the council's stated mission of disarmament, caused difficulties for a number of members. "Regime change has always been the real objective of the Bush administration, and it unquestionably is not the real objective of a great number of other countries, who regard regime change as a precedent which could become very difficult if it started to be applied -- after Saddam Hussein is gone -- to all sorts of other countries," Urquhart said.

Urquhart and other experts said the council deliberations were further complicated by the fundamentally different views held by Washington and Paris on the aims of Resolution 1441. The resolution, approved in November, did not list a timeline for decisions, calling instead for Iraq to face "serious consequences" if it failed to cooperate fully with inspectors.

Urquhart said the U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf area has unquestionably brought about a number of concessions from Baghdad. He said France, Germany, and Russia may have counted on that pressure to secure full compliance from Iraq on disarmament issues.

From the time Resolution 1441 was adopted, the United States and France appear to have misinterpreted each other, says David Malone, a former Canadian ambassador to the UN and president of the International Peace Academy. "The French believed the Americans would now support a process of inspectors and give it all the time it needed to either succeed or fail. The Americans, I think, felt that the French, in the logic of 1441, accepted that this was a last warning and would agree after some months of Iraqi noncompliance to call an end to the inspection process," Malone said.

Instead of rallying to the U.S. position threatening force, France became the leader of a group of states promoting an extended inspection program. Russia had also threatened to veto the U.S.-British-Spanish draft, and China had consistently supported more inspections. But, unlike France, they were careful not to antagonize Washington, Malone said. "The Russians and the Chinese, both of whom have a very active agenda with Washington, while disagreeing with it on Iraq, seemed very keen to preserve their working relationship, and I think [they] have succeeded," Malone said.

U.S. officials also have their own misguided diplomacy to blame for the impasse, says Simon Serfaty, director of the Europe program at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. Serfaty faults Washington for not making a proper effort to make its case with its skeptical European allies before asking them to support a war with unknown consequences.

But Serfaty said the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush had reason to be frustrated with France for engaging in antiwar campaigning. "What ought to be resented with regard to the French attitude is not that they said no. It is rather that they were so active in making sure the rest of the world, too, was saying no," Serfaty said.

What is needed now, Urquhart said, is for council members to end their public feuding. Despite criticisms of the Security Council's effectiveness, Urquhart said the body can play a very useful role in Iraq's future. "It's an institution which you can either use and make work or you can fail to make work, and at this particular point they've failed to make it work, but that doesn't mean they've got to junk it so they can't use it another time. I think that would be very stupid," Urquhart said.

The final chapter of preventive diplomacy on Iraq is likely to close this week at the United Nations. France proposed a meeting of foreign ministers for tomorrow to hear a report from chief weapons inspector Hans Blix on key remaining disarmament tasks for Iraq. It was not immediately certain who would attend, although Russia and Germany supported the idea. News reports quoted close aides to Powell saying he would not attend.