Power plays at UN

With African countries wavering, prospects dwindle for US and Britain to win 'moral victory' at the UN.

Whatever happens in the end, the fight at the United Nations over what to do about Iraq has produced a moment of impassioned global debate rarely seen in world history.

It has been a case of the democratic process, with all its foibles and frustrations, writ large - of impassioned speeches cutting to the core of how the world should work, of backroom lobbying, of late-night phone calls among heads of state, of opportunistic compromise and resolute conviction.

For some, the seemingly endless debating and arm-twisting for votes smacks of cynical power politics. For others, it marks the waning of the 15-member Security Council as a relevant referee of global problems.

But others, taking a longer view, say the UN's handling of the Iraq crisis to this point represents progress for the concept of collective management of the world's security challenges. "This is what the UN was set up to do," says Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey. With this debate, "the UN is demonstrating it is more relevant than it ever has been."

Freed from the binds of the cold-war's East-West divide, the Council from this viewpoint is, for the first time since it was created nearly 60 years ago, struggling to enforce its own demands on an aggressorstate. And it is trying to do that through international consensus and with respect for the views of members both great and small.

The debate may be frustrating to some world leaders and seem time-consuming to the public. But Dean Slaughter says the fact that global powers, including the US, are sticking with it demonstrates the Council's relevance. "All you have to do is compare this with 40 years of international crises" beginning with the Cuban missile crisis, she adds. "The UN simply wasn't involved."

Importance of being earnest

For other experts, the Iraq debate, no matter what the denouement, has already cemented the importance of collective international response to global security challenges.

For the "first time in the history of this kind of action you have two major powers - the US and Great Britain - pushing for [the UN] to play this role" of enforcing its own terms for peace, says John Norton Moore, director of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia. "That represents some progress. If we didn't have [the UN], we would have to invent it."

At the White House, however, officials are placing even more pressure on the 15-member Security Council by saying it risks committing the same errors it did in the 1990s, when it sat out such devastating international crises as Kosovo and Rwanda.

Faced with mounting pressure to put off a proposed deadline of March 17 for Iraq to disarm, Bush administration officials said yesterday that any extension of the deadline past a few days - perhaps to March 21 - would not fly. They also said the council will be called on to vote on a new resolution this week.

With three key African countries indicating they would abstain without key changes in the resolution, prospects for the US, Britain, and Spain to win the minimum nine votes for their resolution dimmed. British Prime Minister Tony Blair continued to insist that a majority vote, even in the face of vetoes from France and Russia, would constitute a moral victory for the forces seeking to keep up pressure on Saddam Hussein to disarm.

"My concern is if countries talk about using a veto in all sets of circumstances, the message that sends to Saddam is: 'You're off the hook,' " Mr. Blair said in London. "I hope we won't talk about vetoes ... but rather we try and find common ground that allows a way through."

Among suggested areas for compromise: a clearly defined list of demands for Mr. Hussein to fulfill, and a slight extension of the deadline for full compliance.

At mercy of small nations

Some critics of the UN process, particularly in the US, say the problem with putting off war plans in the search for international consensus on the Security Council is that it leaves US action at the mercy of inconsequential countries, which happen to be on the Council at this point as rotating members.

But others counter that winning over a wide range of views and countries is neither a waste of time nor groveling, but simply politics and democracy on a global scale.

"To those who think this is ineffective or dirty politics, I suggest they look at our own Congress," says Slaughter. "Of course, there's all kinds of arm-twisting and backroom dealmaking, but that's the nature of politics. And the fact we're seeing it in the Security Council is progress, and suggests the Council's growing relevance."

To be sure, the UN must be more than a "talking society," says Virginia's Dr. Moore. But he adds that the passionate discussions taking place in the Council and the struggle to enforce past resolutions suggest the Council members, no longer seeing themselves as simply part of an inconsequential debate club, are determined to be effective.

The end result, he says, will be a strengthened international body - and a US that understands better the necessity of working within international organizations. "It's not just about the UN. We should be learning the importance of working more closely with other bodies as well," he says, like leading the Organization of American States to resolve the civil conflict Colombia.

Slaughter says that no matter what rhetoric is coming out of the White House, the fact the US went to the UN in the first place - and has stuck things out this far to insist on a council vote on a resolution this week - is a truer indicator of the importance of international support for American action.

"Even if we go to war with a majority that has been vetoed, that's still saying we played it out in the international arena," she says. "And that will be critical for what comes after a war"

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