We Forgot the Russians

Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Fellow - The Council on Foreign Relations

March 23, 2003

With our nation at war and our troops risking their lives, it might not be thought opportune to examine what the Bush administration could have done better along the way. Nevertheless, having failed to gain a majority in the U.N. Security Council in favor of the use of force, the United States now finds the legitimacy of its actions questioned by many in the international community. What was lost at the United Nations in the days before the war will need to be regained in coming weeks, because once Saddam Hussein is gone we will need international support for the transition to stable, representative government in Iraq. Without it we run the considerable risk that our well-meaning efforts will come to be seen as a military occupation to be resisted rather than assisted.

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged this necessity at their Azores summit. American and British diplomats are now approaching the Security Council for access to the billions of dollars of escrowed Iraqi oil-for-food money to feed some 60 percent of the Iraqi people.

If we are to rebuild an international consensus, however, we need to understand how we lost it. The convenient explanation is to blame the French, and they certainly deserve all the criticism they are getting for their determined 12-year diplomatic effort to let Hussein off the hook.

But blaming the French doesn’t explain our failure to isolate them—or their success in isolating us in the Security Council. If everyone else had been on board, the French wouldn’t have dared block the resolution. The reality is that the French were in respectable company: The Russians and the Chinese were also prepared to veto; the Mexicans, Canadians and Chileans—our closest friends in this hemisphere—were not with us.

The failure lay not with the French but with the way we ignored the Russians. Remember Vladimir Putin? Up until last week, his alignment with the United States was the single greatest achievement of this president’s personal diplomacy. Despite the Bush administration’s trampling of Russian interests in abandoning the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Putin made a personal decision to forge a strategic partnership with the United States. On that basis, the Russian president was willing to abandon decades of Soviet and Russian support for Hussein.

In the 1990s such an approach was inconceivable. The Yeltsin government, under the guidance of longtime Middle East hand Yevgeny Primakov, developed a strategic as well as commercial rationale for maintaining close ties with Baghdad. But after 9/11, Putin developed a very different strategic calculus—that Russia’s future lay in partnership with Washington, not Baghdad.

It certainly helped that Bush reassured Putin that Russia’s commercial interests in a post-Hussein Iraq would be preserved and showed greater sympathy for Putin’s Chechen predicament. But without the shift in Putin’s strategic conception, the Russians would never have voted for Security Council Resolution 1441. And that shift made it at least possible for Bush to have brought Putin around on the second resolution rather than watch him turn and support the French conception of constraining the American “hyperpower.”

The problem with our diplomacy was not that we tried and failed but that we didn’t try at all—until it was too late. The Bush administration simply assumed that Putin was in the president’s pocket and took him for granted. Even last week, when the president appeared to begin the effort to repair the damage in the Security Council, he chose to fete the president of Cameroon at a private White House dinner. Where was Putin? Left clamoring from the sidelines for the president’s attention by personally criticizing our actions in Iraq.

Why is Russia so important? Because effective diplomatic strategy in the Security Council is based on a simple mathematical calculation. There are five permanent, veto-wielding members. On Iraq, we go into battle with two votes (United States and Britain). We need one more vote to have a majority of the permanent members. Once we have three votes we almost automatically get four, since China usually sides with the majority. Once we have four, France is isolated and the nonpermanent members then have the cover to join with the heavyweight majority. In those circumstances France would not have dared veto.

Instead of focusing on Russia we compounded our error by attempting to bludgeon the nonpermanent members into voting with us. But with the big five so split, and a majority of them opposed to us, the smaller fry did not dare to choose sides. And it didn’t help that we turned a tin ear to their concerns, dismissed their efforts at compromise with disdain, and showed a wooden-headed determination to ignore the impact of international public opinion on the calculations of their democratically elected leaders. Little wonder that, despite the investment of presidential prestige, we started with four votes and ended with four votes.

It’s too late to salvage the Security Council consensus that would have legitimized this war against Iraq. But it’s not too late to start rebuilding an international consensus around the twin objectives of providing a better, more democratic future for the people of Iraq, and promoting a more peaceful and safe Middle East. Putin shares those objectives, not only because of Russia’s economic stake in Iraq, but also because Moscow is keen to be a constructive partner in the effort to put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the path to resolution.

Pursuing freedom in Iraq and Middle East peace will promote the values that the rest of the world admires in American foreign policy. We should not wait for the war to end to begin the effort to rebuild an international consensus on these bases. And this time, we should start by lining up the Russians.