Why pragmatism is new watchword at UN

Bitterness of prewar debates is absent from discussion over lifting Iraq sanctions.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As the Security Council votes as early as today on a resolution setting the terms for the international community's postwar role in Iraq, businesslike pragmatism has replaced the high emotion of the UN's prewar debate.

Gone are the impassioned pleas for action or for giving peace a chance, replaced by complex and technical discussions of administering Iraq's oil wealth. The spectacle of foreign ministers pleading with each other on a first-name basis on global television is only a memory.

But behind what one UN official calls "a new businesslike environment" linger questions and indeed worries about the exercise of American power and its impact on the international security system. Still shell-shocked by the US decision to go to war without UN backing, many countries are watching for signs of the effect the American victory will have on the postwar international order.

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"Before the war, the debate was over issues that went right to one's core beliefs, it was war and peace, and after four or five often highly emotional ministerial meetings, it was exhausting," says an official from one of the European members of the Security Council. "Now the questions before the Council are more technical, and since everybody would like to see democracy and a free economy established in Iraq, there's a common objective."

Adds a Bush administration official close to the UN deliberations, "The general feeling is, We've got important issues to take care of, so we can't let whatever bitter feelings are hanging on get in the way."

Still concerns about US power

It's the common goal that is making for a much more cooperative atmosphere, all sides agree. But officials here also say some countries are formulating their positions on postwar-Iraq issues with the US - and its decision to go to war outside the UN framework - still very much in mind.

"The ambassadors that were on the 'losing side' in effect don't want it to become a general rule that if you don't get your way on the Security Council, then you just ignore it," says a UN official. As a result, the US in some ways continues to be the big motivator for Council members' actions, just as it was before the war.

France, which led the opposition to war, has been noticeably subdued in the postwar discussions. But Council observers say the prewar debate's fallout has been particularly tough on the Council's smaller members. Mexico has quieted the passion it exhibited in its antiwar stance, analysts say. And Chile - which has seen the timetable for a free-trade agreement with the US pushed back in the war's aftermath - is reassigning its UN ambassador.

As the Council considers the Iraq resolution sponsored by the US, Britain, and Spain, other countries on the 15-member Council are worried about two "precedents" their actions could set. One concerns what in effect would be new international rules that the resolution would create for an occupying power. The other has to do with "what some ambassadors are carrying in the back of their mind," one official says, that failure to go along with the US could prompt it to go ahead in Iraq without a resolution.

That looks unlikely to happen. None of the Council's five permanent members is threatening to use its veto, and the US is holding out hope of achieving a 15-0 vote.

The complex document sets the terms for Iraq's administration over an undefined interim period, until a legitimate and democratic Iraqi regime can take over the reins. The resolution defines how Iraq's oil revenue would be used and establishes an independent UN representative to oversee the international community's role in rebuilding Iraq.

US compromises

Since introducing the original text earlier this month, the US has accepted a number of key changes that have been well- received by Council members. Among other things, the changes extend the life of the UN-administered oil-for-food program from four to six months. They also clear the way for honoring billions of dollars in contracts signed with Saddam Hussein's regime, an issue of particular interest to Russia, and raise the stature of a new Iraq UN post.

"The US is seen as trying not to strike a take-it-or-leave-it stance, and that's encouraging this mood in the Council to heal past divisions," says Farhan Haq, an aide to Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The revised resolution also specifically refers to the work in Iraq of UN weapons inspectors, saying the Council will "revisit the mandates" of UN inspections regimes at some future date. The US said Tuesday that it would now welcome the return of the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect nuclear sites in Iraq.

That decision, while unrelated to the UN resolution, is nevertheless expected to further help its passage. US officials say they realize the Iraq resolution is being closely watched as a potential bellwether of future US dealings with the world. "We're working hard to address countries' concerns where we can, and we think that's helping with cooperation," says the administration official.

Scrutiny for a superpower

But from the US perspective, the role of the world's only superpower is always going to come in for special scrutiny. "A lot of what we saw in the prewar debate had other motives behind it, a lot of it was countries wanting to constrain the US," the official says.

The war has certainly not erased but only altered that preoccupation with American power.

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