Why US treads rough road toward UN backing in Iraq

As talks continue in New York, interests of big powers are at odds in ways that go beyond the situation in Iraq.

As world leaders debate a new United Nations resolution that could bring more countries into security and rebuilding tasks in Iraq, much of the talk is of what's best for the Iraqi people.

But underlying the discussions are conflicting national interests and concerns about setting precedents in international affairs that are leaving interest in the US-sought resolution only lukewarm.

"What we're witnessing is a struggle for power," says James Lindsay, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "The US wants to retain control of the Iraqi operation while sharing the burdens, while the others aren't sure how much they want to get involved, especially if it means placing a UN imprimatur on an action many of them opposed."

The discussions, which shifted to Geneva last weekend at a summit of the UN Security Council's five permanent members, return to New York as the UN's annual General Assembly gets under way this week. President Bush - who last year challenged the international body to remain "relevant" to international security affairs by taking on Iraq - is scheduled to address the General Assembly at its opening session next Tuesday. Some countries hope the Iraq resolution can be settled by then.

But negotiations are hitting rough waters. For many countries they are about much more than simply helping Iraq. For anyone with a memory of the prewar diplomatic wranglings over Iraq, that might sound familiar.

To the extent the current negotiations are focused on the exercise and limits of American power, they resemble the winter and spring debate, which for many countries ended up being more about the US - and what message it might take from a "yes" vote in the Security Council on war - than about Iraq itself.

Key difference from prewar vote

That is true again, some analysts say, though perhaps with a key postwar difference.

"The resentment against American unilateralism is no different today, but what's new is the evidence the US can't do it alone, it needs the international community to get Iraq right," says Hurst Hannum, an expert in international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, part of Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

But Mr. Hannum, who just returned from work in India - a traditional participant in peacekeeping forces that the US would like to see send troops to Iraq - says the nations being wooed are not seeing the changed US approach that would make them eager to sign on.

"I get the sense that countries are avoiding the temptation to say 'I told you so' to the US about Iraq, they're looking at things now and they realize no one has an interest in seeing the situation get worse. The world looks willing to help," he adds, "but not under the conditions the US is trying to impose."

The US insists that any UN-authorized forces in Iraq report to an American military commander - a condition that bothers few countries and which reflects past UN peacekeeping operations, where the country providing the largest force maintains military command. Rather, it is American unwillingness to give up much in terms of political decisionmaking that is holding things up.

The US argument, in effect, is: We sent our troops in harm's way and opened our treasury to do something that benefits the world, so we should make the decisions.

The world's reply: But you want us to help police and pay for the aftermath because you've found you can't do it alone, so we should share in the decisions as well as the burdens.

Countries that help pay for Iraq's reconstruction also want to share in the economic benefits that would flow from a rising Iraq. "Of course business interests are part of this," says Thomas Henriksen, a foreign policy analyst at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif.

Much has been made of France's financial ties to Iraq before the war, but France is not the only country keeping an eye on how the economic advantages that flow from Iraq's reconstruction will play out. British Prime Minister Tony Blair - Bush's closest ally in the war - has come under criticism domestically for following America's lead without watching out for Britain's interests. The criticism has grown as the bulk of postwar oilfield and other reconstruction contracts have bypassed British firms.

Mr. Henriksen says that political interests of a country such as France, a former colonial power with a certain idea of its role in the world, explain its actions as much as economic concerns.

"The French see themselves as playing the counterweight to American power. They want the European Union to develop in that role, and they gain a certain amount of sympathy from around the world in promoting that position," he says. In the face of an American empire seen to be spreading its wings, "It's a way of retaining some of the old empire in informal ways."

A deal that may not happen

Some experts believe the underlying concerns of both the US on one side, and the nations it is asking to join it in Iraq on the other, may be such that no new UN resolution will be possible.

"This is different from last year," says Mr. Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations, when the Security Council unanimously passed a resolution to return weapons inspectors to Iraq. "At that time, everyone was hoping they could sway the others on what would follow, but there's no such motive here now."

Instead, Lindsay adds, most countries believe they can afford to hang tough because the US is in a new position of asking others for help. "And from the administration's perspective, it may be more important to be seen by the American public as seeking a resolution that would usher in international help, than to actually cede the power that would allow it to get one."

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