Congress vs. UN: Rift Widens
Iraq deal passes in Security Council, but agreement rankles restless US lawmakers.
Kofi Annan has cleared one hurdle - the United Nations Security Council - in winning broad-based support for his pact with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But the UN secretary-general is quickly learning there's another major player he must reckon with: the United States Congress.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Annan's accord has prevented for now another shooting war in Iraq, but it is still under attack on Capitol Hill. Republicans in particular criticize President Clinton for "subcontracting US foreign policy" and letting Annan take the lead in resolving the weapons-inspections dispute.
Officially, Congress has no role in this deal, and members recognize there may be little they can do to change it. But congressional discontent has become more pronounced in recent days, and in the longer term lawmakers may have the leverage to compel the White House to revise its policy toward Saddam.
Many on Capitol Hill now call for a switch from a "containment" policy, in which the US and its allies wall off Saddam and wait however long it takes for him to fall from power. They propose instead a "roll back" policy, in which the US takes open and perhaps covert measures to undermine the Iraqi regime.
"I acknowledge that there are not any good or easy choices when it comes to Iraq," Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi said March 2. "I just fear ... maybe we have chosen not the best of those choices. I'm still concerned the administration doesn't seem to be focused, as it should be, on long-term planning."
Senator Lott lists a number of ways Congress could influence US foreign policy toward Iraq. Among them are "funding for a Radio Free Iraq; increased sanctions enforcement to cut off illegal revenue; increasing monitoring of the food-for-oil [program]," which many suspect Saddam is using to fund weapons programs instead of buying food and medical supplies. Others suggest recognizing and funding a provisional government made up of the Iraqi opposition.
Lott also endorses a proposal by Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania to seek Saddam's indictment as a war criminal, which would allow him to be arrested and brought before a UN tribunal. A Senate subcommittee held hearings this week on whether Saddam can or should be overthrown.
Certainly, Congress in the past has used its power of the purse and its lawmaking authority to influence US foreign policy. It refused to allow the US to join Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations, denied President Ford's request to save South Vietnam, and forced an unwilling President Reagan to impose economic sanctions on South Africa.
Wary of 'one-world government'
The current dispute plays out against the reemergence in American politics of a neo-isolationist sentiment that sees US participation in international organizations as a threat to national sovereignty.
A hard-line statement of this view comes from conservative Sen. John Ashcroft (R) of Missouri, who is weighing a 2000 presidential race. "US foreign policy should not be subcontracted to Kofi Annan or written at the United Nations," Senator Ashcroft says. "America should not sacrifice another ounce of her sovereignty to the architects and acolytes of a one-world government."
Congress's criticism of Annan and his pact with Saddam is pointed. Many lawmakers complain that the UN-Iraq agreement rewards Saddam for agreeing to do only what he was already supposed to be doing. And they charge Annan with naivet in dealing with the Iraqi leader.
Show it the money
The Iraq deal - and lawmakers' dissatisfaction with it - does little to improve already-strained relations between Congress and the UN. Congress is still balking at forking over some $1 billion in delinquent US payments to the world body, mostly for peacekeeping operations in Bosnia, Somalia, and elsewhere. Congress has resisted paying the money until it sees progress on UN administrative reforms and staffing cuts.
A strenuously negotiated compromise between Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina and the Clinton administration, which includes most of the money the administration wants, got caught in a House dispute over abortion and international family-planning policy last fall. Last week, Senator Helms fired off an angry letter to Lott, complaining that the White House now has "27 new demands" that threaten the compromise.
Of course, the UN deal with Iraq has its defenders on the Hill. "This agreement, backed up by the use or the threat of force, would allow us the access [to suspected weapons sites] that we did not have before," says Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota. But he echoes the view of almost everyone in Washington that the real test of the deal is yet to come.
Should the agreement Annan negotiated with Saddam succeed, the UN's image and the administration's case for debt repayment would be strengthened on Capitol Hill, says a US official.
"The jury is still out on whether [the deal] will help us or hurt us," the official says. "Initially, because some senators took some hard shots at Kofi, it may have given us some short-term difficulties. But as people understand the deal ... and if it works, then it will help us, as the UN would be demonstrating its usefulness in protecting our interests."
* Staff writer Jonathan Landay contributed to this story.