Friday’s UN Security Council vote produced what once seemed unachievable: a tough new demand by the world community that Iraq allow unfettered inspections to ensure the complete disarmament of its weapons of mass destruction.
The vote shifts all our attention from New York to Baghdad. What will Iraqi President Saddam Hussein do now that he is faced with a choice between retaining his weapons and retaining his power? The decisions he makes in the next few weeks could present President George W. Bush with tough choices of his own.
The unanimous vote for the resolution vindicates those advisers, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who believe that gaining international support for presenting Hussein with a tough choice would strengthen Bush’s hand in securing Iraq’s disarmament or, if it comes to that, in going to war against Iraq.
Still, it is too early to declare victory. Bush may have only succeeded in postponing the day of reckoning on the dispute with the other members of the Security Council – and among his own advisers. As the UN moves to implement its resolution, these differences could reemerge—sooner, perhaps, than many think.
Hussein could make Bush’s job easy by refusing to accept the new weapons inspections regime. Should Hussein openly spurn the UN, the president’s advisers will unite in recommending war. With the credibility of the UN on the line, most member states will, though perhaps reluctantly, follow suit.
Conversely, Hussein could decide to save his regime and come clean on a program of weapons of mass destruction. Having sold the new resolution as giving Hussein “a final opportunity to comply,” the administration would find it hard to justify war if he does that.
If the past is any guide, though, Hussein is far more likely to respond by promising publicly to cooperate and working privately to block weapons inspections. That could easily put Washington at loggerheads with much of the rest of the world, and many administration officials at odds with each other.
Assume, for instance, that Iraq agrees to give a final accounting of its weapons of mass destruction, as required by Friday’s Resolution 1441, only to repeat its previous claims that it does not possess any. The United States and Britain will argue that this clearly violates the UN’s demand that it disarm and provides the grounds for war. Other Security Council members, however, are likely to argue that such a declaration makes it more important to proceed with weapons inspections.
Or assume that Baghdad admits in its final declaration to possessing weapons of mass destruction, but reports amounts short of what U.S. and British intelligence believe its possesses. And then in subsequent inspections Iraq’s cooperation is good, but not perfect—it grants access in one case, temporarily denying it in other cases, but overall allowing inspectors to get on with the business at hand. Again, the Security Council—and possibly the administration itself—will likely divide over how to respond.
What makes these disputes possible is fundamental disagreement over the problem that needs to be addressed. For many in the Bush administration, the problem is Hussein’s regime. It threatens the United States and its allies. Only his removal will end the threat. But for much of the rest of the world, and some in the administration such as Powell, the problem is Hussein’s weapons. From this perspective, thorough inspections that will do away with much of his arsenal and that will greatly hamper his efforts to build new weapons may well be enough. A defanged Hussein would remain an evil dictator, but one unable to cause harm beyond his borders.
So Bush’s diplomatic travails have not yet ended. By going to the UN, he has won international backing for a strong inspection regime. But he has yet to gain agreement on what degree of Iraqi non-cooperation would justify war. The president will have to make his case by drawing clear red lines beyond which Hussein cannot be allowed to go.
These should emphasize America’s interest in seeing Hussein disarmed, and not leave the impression that Washington is interested only in finding excuses for going to war. Anything less would leave others convinced that the eight weeks of negotiations in New York were little more than political window dressing and the grievances that other countries feel toward the United States would only continue to grow.