As the UN Security Council meets Friday to hear from chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, it is more divided than ever over Iraq - raising deep questions about the international community's ability to take on the world's knottiest security issues.
Mr. Blix's most recent public pronouncements indicate he will give the council an update that finds "genuine disarmament" is occurring under his inspectors' direction in Iraq. But he will also lament that Iraqi cooperation is still not what is necessary for quick and verifiable completion of the inspectors' task.
Such a mixed finding - by now a Blix hallmark - seems unlikely to sway many votes in the 15-member council or to relieve the stalemate dominating it for the past six weeks. Consequently, the scenario will likely play out that many have expected all along: the United States abandons the UN disarmament process to fight a war with Iraq largely on its own and without a UN mandate. That would be further evidence, experts say, of how some of the world's key multilateral institutions are losing their ability to meet major challenges.
"This is a very serious test of the international security system," says Andrew Kuchins, a foreign-policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "The repercussions will be considerable, but not necessarily irreparable - especially if the war follows the best-case scenario of a short conflict, and the US executes more successful diplomacy for reconstruction."
If the US does go to war with only a small coalition, "the UN will survive, but the Security Council will be tremendously weakened," says James Phillips, a Mideast expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. The Iraq conflict has shaken not just the UN, but "NATO has been weakened; the EU [European Union] is also wounded by its rifts over this," Mr. Phillips adds. "This demonstrates the weakness of collective security and other multilateral arrangements at a time when more countries are looking at these issues from the national-interest perspective."
American officials, in particular Secretary of State Colin Powell, are still claiming publicly that they're optimistic about achieving the minimum nine votes needed to pass the resolution the US, Great Britain, and Spain have introduced to the council. That resolution finds Iraq has "failed" to disarm and indirectly authorizes the use of force to disarm it.
The US and Britain say they will call for a vote next week, although Secretary Powell is still leaving the door open for withdrawing the resolution based on the impact of Blix's report.
But with France and Russia saying they will "not allow" passage at this moment of any resolution that authorizes the use of force - signaling their readiness to use their veto power as permanent council members - any hope of finding the unity on Iraq that reigned briefly last fall looks dim.
Why, in the end, has stalemate prevailed in the international security system on Iraq? On one side, critics fault the Bush administration and the US for bullying smaller countries, resorting too quickly to its unparalleled military might. They also point to a pattern of unilateralism that has not won the US many friends when it has gone looking for them.
Carnegie's Mr. Kuchins, just back from Moscow, says, for example, that while Russia's leaders would prefer not to go against Washington, they also feel Russia has got little in return for the concessions it has made to the US in the past year.
On another side, and particularly in the US, blame is assigned to France, for placing its own interests above international security concerns. Also faulted is the penchant of powers like France, Germany, Russia, and even China for making this more about the need for limits on American power than about a dangerous and destabilizing Iraq.
What is clear is that the deep divisions are playing into Saddam Hussein's hands.
"The division of the council is very very awkward for us," Blix told a roomful of journalists at the UN Wednesday. The chief weapons inspector said it is only the threat of force - backed by a council that unanimously voted last November in favor of the new inspections regime he heads - that has elicited what he considers an ever-increasing level of cooperation from Iraq.
Efforts are still afoot to rescue some semblance of unity on the council. The British, keen to salvage a resolution that would give Prime Minister Tony Blair some cover at home, are floating the idea of giving Iraq some fixed and brief period for fully disarming. The thinking is that guaranteeing Iraq a final three days to a week to disarm would allow undecided countries to tell antiwar populations at home they had not voted for war.
"This could be the fig leaf that countries that want to support a resolution need in order to minimize their political costs at home," says Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
Yet while that might sufficiently fudge the war issue for some countries, it's unlikely to smooth over the deep cracks in the international community. This conflict "shows how limited the UN really is at resolving international security issues," Mr. Walt says. "It's still essentially a tool that powerful countries use to get what they want."