By gaining unanimous support for a UN resolution giving Iraq one “final opportunity” to disarm, President Bush has completed a subtle, but nevertheless remarkable shift in U.S. policy toward Iraq. For many months, U.S. officials from the president on down have insisted that regime change was the only sure way to deal with the threat posed by Iraq—that Saddam Hussein could never be trusted and therefore had to go. But now Mr. Bush has conceded that it is possible for Saddam to stay in power as long as his regime is “cooperative in disarming.”
Friday?s Security Council vote vindicates President Bush?s decision to take the Iraq issue to the United Nations. Until his mid-September speech to the General Assembly urging the United Nations to stand up to Saddam Hussein and make sure he complies fully with its resolutions, the administration had given every indication that it had no interest in working with the UN. In January, President Bush put the world on notice that Iraq and other members of the “axis of evil” posed a “grave and growing danger”—one that seemingly required the removal of their evil regimes. By June, the president had promulgated a new doctrine that justified moving preemptively against tyrants like Saddam.
In August, Vice President Dick Cheney pushed the argument further, essentially saying that the time for diplomacy had passed. Warning that Iraq might acquire nuclear weapons “fairly soon,” Cheney criticized proposals to send UN inspectors back to Iraq. “Saddam has perfected the game of cheat and retreat, and is very skilled in the art of denial and deception. A return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of his compliance with UN resolutions. On the contrary, there is a great danger that it would provide false comfort that Saddam was somehow ‘back in his box.'”
President Bush’s decision to ignore Cheney’s advice and instead try to set up an effective UN inspection regime reflected growing unease, both abroad and at home, with U.S. policy toward Baghdad. America?s major allies, including Great Britain, all argued that bypassing New York would provoke a backlash around the world against American unilateralism. Several Middle Eastern countries pegged their willingness to aid a U.S. invasion of Iraq to securing the Security Council’s blessing.
At home, Congress had pushed the White House to go to the UN even as it authorized the president to go to war, if necessary alone. Poll after poll revealed that the America public felt even more strongly on the need to secure broad international support for a second Gulf War. And key Republican elders—including the national security adviser and two secretaries of state who had served President Bush?s father—publicly questioned the wisdom of ignoring the United Nations.
Eight weeks of difficult and often tortuous negotiations at the United Nations finally paid off. Much of the world now stands behind the United States in offering Saddam Hussein a stark choice: either give up your weapons or we will force you to give up your power.
However, in leaving the choice up to Saddam rather than up to us, President Bush has modified his policy in one crucial respect: the United States will now take “yes” as Saddam’s answer to the disarmament question the new UN resolution poses. There will be no war if Iraq cooperates with UN inspectors and fully disarms. And although regime change will likely remain official U.S. policy, the administration will have ruled out using force to achieve that goal.
This change represents a significant victory for the approach Secretary of State Colin Powell has quietly but persistently advocated. Powell is known to be skeptical about a war, and he has long seen disarmament as an alternative. This is not a view shared by many of his administration colleagues, who, like Cheney, fear that Saddam will use his skills at cheat and retreat to frustrate new inspections.
And in fact, if Saddam is true to his past, he will provide the United States with good reason to go to war and remove him from power. That is one reason why the change in the administration’s approach to Iraq was an acceptable one.
But the change was nevertheless important, for having gone to the UN and worked diligently to get overwhelming support for a new resolution, if war becomes nevertheless becomes inevitably, it will enjoy far greater legitimacy than if the United States had followed the advice of those who argued that Washington should go it alone.