At UN, strong incentive to compromise on Iraq

Secretary of State Powell will speak at the UN next week, stressing Iraq's hiding of weapons programs.

The discord at the Security Council over a war with Iraq may sound fierce. But, if recent history is any indication, the key member nations are likely to find harmony in the coming weeks, experts say.

France has threatened to veto an attack; Russia and China are also cautious about US war plans; and the US and Britain talk of "going it alone" without the other members.

But diplomats and observers say neither a veto nor a go-it-alone outcome is likely. For all five nations, which each hold veto power on the council, there is great incentive to reach a compromise.

"The veto is a very risky strategy, pregnant with consequences," says David Malone, a former Canadian ambassador to the UN and the president of the International Peace Academy. "In the past, there's always been a sense of mutual accommodation among the permanent five Council members. And relations of each of these countries with Washington are much more important than any of their relations with Iraq."

For George Bush and Tony Blair, getting the Security Council's imprimatur would help them justify a war to skeptics among their constituencies. A UN endorsement of an attack would also likely firm up support in wobbly front-line states like Turkey, say analysts.

Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to make a presentation at the United Nations next Wednesday, stressing the extent to which Iraq has been concealing its illicit programs.

While France may appear firm in its convictions, there are reasons it might yield, among them: A veto that drives away Washington and London will likely relegate Paris to the sidelines during any attack and diminish its influence in the Middle East, where France has significant oil and other interests. France may also fear US revenge in the future - for example, if Paris seeks help with peacekeeping in Ivory Coast, where France is intervening in a civil war.

France hasn't rejected military action outright, observers note - only a hasty decision to go to war. Following the report by chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix Monday, the French UN ambassador lobbied to give inspectors "several weeks" or "a few months" more to complete their work. This dovetails with the Bush administration's apparent willingness to hold off a few more weeks - if for no other reason than to get its full arsenal into position.

Germany, which assumes the rotating Council presidency on Feb. 1, has joined France as outspokenly antiwar. Unlike the French, however, Germany does not possess veto power.

As deliberations over war continue, the Security Council's credibility and role are at stake.

Before the 1999 NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia, Russia's threat of a Council veto in defense of its Slavic Serb brethren saw Washington turn to NATO military alliance to drive Serb forces out of Kosovo. And the US has steadfastly kept the Council at arm's length during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, assuming for itself the crucial role of third-party mediator.

But on Sept. 12 of last year 2002, President Bush, under domestic and international pressure, made the UN instantly "relevant" again by imploring it to "enforce its own resolutions" against Iraq. Two months of negotiations over a new Security Council ultimatum for Iraq were then conducted under the specter of a French veto and US unilateralism. In the end, Washington got much of what it wanted in Resolution 1441, passed unanimously on Nov. 8. A similar scenario may now be unfolding, say UN observers.

For the other key members of the Security Council, the question, since the demise of the cold war balance, has been this: how to influence the world's one economic and military superpower.

"Does the UN become irrelevant if members feel they have to go along with the US all the time? The answer is clearly yes, it does," says James Paul, executive director of the Global Policy Forum. "This is the rock and the hard place that UN members find themselves between, that the UN is seen as a tool of the US."

Security Council diplomats opposed to Washington have been buoyed by US public opinion polls indicating that Bush has not convincingly made his case for war - or that strident European opposition has made many Americans leery of going it alone. But after the president's State of the Union address Tuesday, US opinion appeared to shift. According to a Gallup poll of speech watchers, 67 percent of those surveyed said Bush has made a convincing case about the need for the US to take military action against Iraq. Before the speech, the same group had been about evenly divided.

Polls show that large numbers of Britons demand UN support before any invasion of Iraq.

"In a democracy, the government leaders have to run for reelection," says a European diplomat on the Council who opposes the US stance. "When you have strong opposition to war, of course this impacts the elected leaders of those societies."

However, Blix's report Monday also undercut the position of Iraq's sympathizers: His catalog of Iraqi obstruction and omissions placed it at odds with Resolution 1441.

The French threat to veto is "run-of-the-mill diplomatic bargaining" and Council members don't have much leverage over the US, said James Lindsay, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "When the US says we can do this without you, it is not an idle threat. The calculation in the White House is that public opinion will rise and fall on how well the war goes, not on which international institutions blessed it."

But the US should be careful not to alienate other members of the Security Council, says Jeff Laurenti, executive director of policy studies at the United Nations Association, a think tank.

"If America goes it alone and gets itself into trouble, who among those it cold-shouldered at the UN would step up tomorrow to pluck its chestnuts out of the fire?"

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