In a move certain to increase the pressure on the United Nations, President Bush asked Congress Thursday to endorse the use of force against Iraq.
"If you want to keep the peace, you've got to have the authorization to use force," said Mr. Bush, adding, "If the United Nations Security Council won't deal with the problem, the United States and some of our friends will."
But the US is going against the institutional grain of the international organization, and its recent history of dealing with Iraq.
Baghdad has already acquiesced to weapons inspections "without conditions" in at least dozen UN resolutions since the Gulf War. The failure of 11 years of resolutions to get Iraq to disarm, say some experts, is due in part to a UN ethos of avoiding conflict.
"The UN is a gentleman's club and talk shop, based on the conviction that you can solve all problems through discussions, negotiations and cajoling," says David Phillips, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "That's certainly true at times. But when a member-state is prepared to violate the collective will of the international community, you need more than empty words. The UN has to walk its talk."
That's why the US wants a resolution with "teeth, and that's the bottom line," says Robert Wood, a spokesman at the US Mission to the UN.
The parade of post-war Iraq resolutions began in 1991, with Baghdad already under economic sanctions for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. In April 1991, Iraq agreed to Resolution 687, which mandated, under international supervision, the total "destruction, removal or rendering harmless" of its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles of 100-mile-plus range that could tote such weapons.
This resolution formed the basis of all subsequent resolutions. None, though, included a provision referring to Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which sanctions the use of force to enforce a resolution. Without a credible threat of consequences, US officials say Iraq consistently "deceived, delayed and disregarded" its obligations in the face of UN Special Commission inspectors (UNSCOM).
To this end, Iraq has been assisted by its friends.
The UN itself is entrusted "to maintain international peace and security." But for a more accurate gauge of how business there is conducted, analysts say "follow the money." Iraq's allies are typically either owed debts by Baghdad, dependent upon the Arab world's oil, or hold other major economic interests in the region.
Armed conflict with Iraq would undermine all that.
Take Russia. Moscow is owed roughly $7 billion in Soviet-era debts and is on the verge of signing a $40 billion economic package with Baghdad. "From our standpoint, we don't need any special resolution," Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Wednesday. "All of the necessary resolutions on that score do exist."
The 15-member Security Council has authorized member states to use force in Korea in 1950, against Iraq in 1990, and in Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, and East Timor in 1990s. In some cases, these were peacekeeping missions. But critics note that the decisionmaking structure means that powerful states take action against smaller states. Only the five permanent members the US, France, Russia, Britain, China have the power to veto a resolution.
As one UN official conceded: "The UN is a membership organization that's as strong as its members want it to be."
To be fair, analysts note, Hussein has had little incentive to comply with UN resolutions, once the Clinton administration indicated sanctions would last until Hussein's ouster and Congress in 1998 passed the "Iraq Liberation Act."
The Act called for the "United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime."
Indeed, after former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter quit his post in 1998, he accused both Washington and the world body of having themselves impaired inspections the former to provoke a confrontation, the latter to avoid one and to get back to doing business with Iraq.
The entire UNSCOM team was withdrawn ahead of four days of American and British airstrikes (not UN sanctioned) in December 1998 against alleged Iraqi weapons facilities.
The Clinton administration's anti-Hussein drive eventually lost momentum. Iraq has repeatedly called for the end of economic sanctions, claiming they caused poverty and disease. But in the past four years, the UN has been very quiet about Iraq. "It suited all member-states to put Iraq on the back burner," said David Malone, president of the International Peace Academy and former Canadian ambassador to the UN. "They feared a confrontation would spin out of control into the rest of the region."
Now that the Bush administration is devoting attention to the first spoke of the "axis of evil," there's again bustle about Iraq at the UN. Bush's speech, Secretary-General Kofi Annan suggested, "galvanized the international community."
Mr. Annan's comment was revealing, say observers. The UN has little impact on international peace and security without a shove from Washington. "If the Security Council is going to act, it's going to be because the US finds multilateralism is in its interests and encourages it to act," Mr. Phillips says. "When the US doesn't, the UN flounders and becomes ineffective."
As for Hussein, analysts expect more of his bob and weave. "This is a guy who thinks solely in terms of relationships of strength and responds only to the imminent threat of military action," Mr. Malone says. Despite the UN's delight that Iraq appeared to relent on inspections, "there will definitely have to be an implied threat, otherwise the Iraqis will consider themselves quite successful in having temporized."