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The question is whether the invasion will be unilateral and rip up the U.N. Charter, or whether it has a U.N. resolution behind it—and the odds are that it will. This will not be because Colin Powell’s forensic advocacy, let alone George Bush’s intellectual prowess, has convinced delegates of the morality of the case. Powell’s February 5 presentation of “evidence” was not an ultimatum to Iraq—but a message to other Security Council members about the inevitability of an attack. The United States is prepared to wreck the organization if it does not get its way.
None of the Security Council members believe Saddam Hussein is “innocent,” but they are understandably reluctant to have him found guilty and executed on Bush’s unsubstantiated word, especially when they are being insulted and threatened by diplomats of the caliber of Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz or John Bolton, whose professional forebears probably negotiated the beginning of the Hundred Years War.
However, under Powell’s influence, and facing the increased resistance engendered by such tactics, the administration has finally admitted publicly that it would indeed like a second Security Council resolution to support the war. Powell calculates that many other Security Council members will, no matter how reluctantly, prefer to see a U.N.-mandated operation they are uncomfortable with than the even more odious precedent of a unilateral pre-emptive strike. Just as they greeted with a sigh of relief Bush’s initial announcement last September that he was prepared to go the U.N. route, they will rationalize this one. If you jump on board a moving juggernaut, you have more chance of a say in how it is driven than if you are under the wheels.
It is worth remembering how we reached this point. It is now just over a year since George W. Bush perplexed the world with his discovery of the “axis of evil.” Consider that when the axis was unveiled, the countries of the world were in unprecedented and, in most cases, genuine unity with the United States over the “War on Terror” following September 11.
Now, wherever there are cracks in the global body politic, the United States has turned them into chasms. It has split the European Union, hamstrung NATO, and has the United Nations wallowing between the Scylla of impotence and the Charybdis of complicity. Long-standing U.S. allies like France and Germany are seething with rage under a barrage of gratuitous insults from the Bush cabal and their supporting chorus in the media. A British prime minister, who is a member of the Socialist International, stands with the political descendants of Mussolini and Franco to push for a pre-emptive war.
The effects are so far-reaching that it almost looks like a cunning plot to destabilize the world—but in fact is the result of the incompetence, irrationality, arrogance and insularity of the Bush administration.
Only Colin Powell has sounded as if he were on the same planet as the rest of us. So most friendly countries have seen it as their task to boost Powell as the voice of reason in the Bush cabinet. In doing so, they almost certainly misread his intentions. They saw him as the man of peace, holding back the baying dogs of war in the administration. In fact, he is better cast as the tortoise in the Aesop’s fable, whose slow but sure progress will in fact win the race over the impatient—and, frankly, stupid—hares like Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Bolton. The secretary of state wants a regime change in Baghdad and is prepared to go to war if that is the only way to do so. Where he differs from the chicken hawks in the administration is that he would prefer to do it peacefully or, failing that, at least “legally” through the United Nations.
Powell’s motivation seems to be both principled and pragmatic: He is aware of the importance of international law, not least for a country invoking it as the reason for going to war. And being less geographically challenged than his cabinet colleagues, he realizes a U.N. resolution is the best way to secure the support of Iraq’s neighbors, from whose territory a successful assault must be launched.
Other countries have responded to Powell’s rationality and diplomacy, and it was a triumph for him that the Security Council unanimously backed Resolution 1441 in November. Whenever he could, he stuck to the official story that military action against Iraq would be a regrettable consequence of the failure of Saddam Hussein to disarm in accordance with Security Council decisions. With that factual and legal logic, he was able to seduce the allies gradually until he almost certainly had the votes ready for war at the first overt sign of Iraqi intransigence.
But whenever he got the diplomatic ducks in a row, suddenly the chicken hawks would appear and frighten them off. Other cabinet members would pipe up with views that other governments considered illegal and even irrational. They or the president would announce that the purpose was not just disarmament, but “regime change.” In the name of disarmament, they openly discussed the use of nuclear weapons. The rest of the Bush administration insisted they did not need a further mandate from the United Nations to attack Iraq. Indeed, some of them dismissed the idea that they needed a U.N. mandate at all—past, present or future.
Occasionally they invoked humanitarian intervention, since as Bush pointed out to the United Nations last September, Saddam Hussein is a bloodthirsty tyrant. This only hardened Russian and Chinese opposition. The idea of democratization is even more risible. There is no way the United States wants a Shia majority in Iraq. And using the Turkish military to put pressure on its elected government to support an invasion, when 85 percent of Turks oppose it, does not set a very good democratic example.
Then, of course, an attack is sold as part of the war on terrorism, since Baghdad may at some point pass on its weaponry to terrorists. Iraq was behind September 11, Bush hinted, and if Americans believed him, no one else did. One hopes for Powell’s reputation as the sane one that he was loyally following someone else’s script when he tried to prove the al-Qaeda connection to the Security Council.
Whatever the rationale, the administration also had to glide past the question of priorities. Why assemble a quarter of a million troops to go after Saddam Hussein while Osama bin Laden is happily addressing the world and North Korea openly announces its intention to build nuclear weapons?
Various artificial deadlines provoked upsurges of impatience among the hawks. As the Iraqis first accepted the resolution, then allowed inspectors, the gnashing of teeth became audible. A continuous susurrus of complaints from “White House sources” accused the inspectors of indolence, inefficiency and even hinting at outright collusion with Iraq. The inspectors, meanwhile, complained about the lack of information coming from U.S. intelligence.
Then came Hans Blix and Mohammed ElBaradei’s report on their inspectors’ work. If they had reported serious non-cooperation from the Iraqis, a resolution would have been forthcoming. Some reporters allowed their enthusiasm to run away with them and glossed Blix’s report as contradicting Powell’s evidence. In fact, Blix makes plain that he thinks the Iraqis are hiding weapons programs, hence his mantra that Baghdad is cooperating in form but not substance. And he knows that only the build-up of U.S. forces got the inspectors back into Iraq in the first place.
The issue is “due process,” which Washington wants to suspend internationally, just as John Ashcroft wants to do at home for everyone but Enron executives. While the U.S. press present Germany’s Gerhard Schröder and France’s Jacques Chirac as “isolated” (and belittle their filibustering alongside Belgium at NATO meetings), opinion polls show that more than three-quarters of the European Union, including the populations of Britain and Spain, agree with them. Indeed, although you would never guess it from watching CNN or FOX News, a majority of Americans may think along similar lines.
That brings us back to the United Nations. The Bush administration hates to admit it, but a U.N. resolution would do much to neutralize the opposition. The phone calls to presidents and prime ministers of the Security Council members have already begun. Despite the self-contradictory, irrational and antagonistic messages Bush has been sending the world, he has won the argument. Misreading Teddy Roosevelt’s dictum, he has raved and shouted—but he remembered to bring the big stick. (Not to mention Time Warner and News Corp. to spread the message.)
France and Germany are not arguing about the guilt or innocence of Saddam Hussein, but about the behavior of the United States. And they have every reason to do so. The administration is trying to frame a guilty man and lead a lynch mob to execute him. The opposition wants at least to try alternative means of containment and disarmament. But in the end, by signing on for Resolution 1441, they did agree to the possible use of force when other methods failed.
Diplomats who have seen the draft resolution being prepared say that it is unlikely to include any explicit references to authorizing occupation. While the White House happily plans for an American vice-royalty, the State Department may soon be pointing out the need for yet another U.N. resolution to put a light-blue fig leaf on the occupation. While oil is not the determining factor in the administration’s irrational obsession with Iraq, it will certainly be a major detail. The Russians and French, having demonstrated their principles, want a pipe into the oil trough.
But peace marchers, beware. It is one thing to defend the law, quite another to align with the target. When the allies do go in, they will almost certainly be welcomed by many Iraqis. They will almost certainly find weapons programs, and may even find them dropping on their heads as they invade. Defectors and scientists will pour out of their labs, eager to tell all in return for amnesty. Awareness of these likelihoods will help pull over the middle ground in the Security Council as the inevitability of an attack dawns.
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