The heated transatlantic argument over how to disarm Saddam Hussein's Iraq is approaching a climax. After Chief U.N. Weapons Inspector Hans Blix briefs the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 14 on Iraq's cooperation -- or lack thereof -- the squabbling council members will have to settle down and decide what to do.
The options range from giving weapons inspectors substantially more time and resources, as the French, Germans, Russians, and Chinese are demanding, to a unilateral U.S. declaration that Iraq is in "further material breach" of Security Council resolutions. That would be the trigger for a Washington-led attack on Baghdad soon.
In between these positions, however, remains one last diplomatic move that the Bush Administration still would like to pull off: a new Security Council resolution effectively authorizing the use of force against Saddam. Britain, America's leading ally in the debate over Iraq, would likely propose the resolution, which would build on the toughly worded document passed by the Council in November, known as 1441. That required Iraq to cooperate in eliminating its weapons of mass destruction or "face serious consequences."
Both Britain and the U.S. would then wage the intense diplomacy necessary to win backing for the resolution. "We will push very hard if we think it's a winnable objective. A second resolution could be very useful, especially if it yields an international coalition," says an Administration official. Nine of 15 Security Council members would have to approve, with no vetoes from the three "permanent five" members currently opposing the war: France, China, and Russia.
It would be an uphill fight. But there are numerous reasons why the Administration thinks one more diplomatic push for U.N. backing for war is worth it. Apart from the political cover it would give President Bush, a new resolution would also help British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Australian Prime Minister John Howard combat domestic critics of war.
A resolution "goes to bolster world opinion and most importantly helps shore up Middle Eastern and Arab support," says Isobel Coleman, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
DIPLOMATIC DANCE SCHEDULE.
Less discussed, but no less important, are the "day-after" issues, which could be easier to tackle if the U.S. has the backing of a resolution. These could include everything from peacekeeping to dealing with up to $60 billion in Iraqi foreign debt. "The prospects of success in terms of a more secure region are greater, and the risks are diminished, if there is broad support," says Samuel R. Berger, National Security Adviser in the Clinton Administration.
The diplomatic dance is likely to play out by March. That's about as long as the Administration is expected to give Saddam to act on his very last chance to disarm -- and the Security Council to agree to a new resolution. The U.S.'s backers in the diplomatic corps think that may be enough time to swing France, Russia, and other key opponents on the Security Council -- or at least to get them to abstain on a vote, especially if Saddam is still stalling the inspectors.
If not, barring a sudden change of heart by Saddam or a coup against him, the U.S. and Britain will then lead its "coalition of the willing," with or without a new U.N. resolution. That may leave the Security Council wondering what role it has left to play.
By Rose Brady
With Stan Crock in Washington and Pete Engardio in New York