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“It was the first hopeful moment I’ve felt since 9/11,” gushed columnist Tom Friedman in The New York Times, “It was the first time since then that the world community seemed to be ready to overcome all of its cultural, religious and strategic differences to impose a global norm.” The Russian news service Pravda was even more optimistic, writing, “The dawn of a New World Order has broken.” Friedman and Pravda are not alone; the unanimous passing of UN Security Council Resolution 1441 mandating inspections in Iraq or else is making a lot of people loopy. After all, joy isn’t normally the appropriate emotion when the government of Syria says it agrees with you.
It must be said that even a hawk can find something to like in the text of the resolution. Inspectors will be able to go anywhere and talk to anyone they want—in the safety of a foreign country if necessary. Iraq can’t so much as tell a lie without breaking the letter of the resolution. In sum, it prescribes precisely the kind of inspections regime Saddam cannot allow to occur.
But to recognize that the resolution is useful for the goals of U.S. foreign policy does not lead to the conclusion that we are witnessing the final vindication of collective security. Let’s not forget that the United States explicitly threatened the council to go to war unilaterally, which would have made the U.N. Security Council irrelevant, unless it passed a new resolution. Many of the countries that voted for the resolution, Russia and France for example, did not and still do not want regime change in Iraq if that means war. They voted for the resolution because to do otherwise would likely have brought war immediately on U.S. terms—and with it the end of their hopes for oil concessions (France) and repayment of Iraqi debts (Russia). The multilateralist crowd hasn’t been able to resolve the paradox that it took a credible threat of U.S. unilateralism to create the new U.N. framework.
The most difficult part of the negotiations leading up to the vote related to the enforcement mechanism. The United States, which wanted Iraqi noncompliance to automatically trigger war, was opposed by a French-led coalition. In true U.N. fashion, the problem was solved through willful ambiguity. The United States says that any violation would justify military action even without further resolutions. Other members of the Security Council think that any use of force has to be authorized by the council.
Even more disturbingly, there is no consensus of what constitutes a material breach of the resolution. The United States, for example, maintains that attacks on U.S. or British airplanes patrolling the no-fly zone, one of which happened just last Friday, could trigger war. After all, the resolution commands Iraq to not “take or threaten hostile acts against…any member state taking action to uphold any council resolution.” But almost no one else agrees.
It is possible that Saddam will do something so brazenly in violation of the resolution that the entire world will unite in righteous harmony to smite down the evildoer. But though Saddam is nutty enough to get himself in this situation in the first place, he’s also clever enough to realize that his best chance of survival is to avoid handing the United States clear proof of his guilt. After all, a guy who kills his family and barricades himself in his house is insane, but when the SWAT team shows up he’ll stay away from the windows all the same.
There are plenty of potential rifts lurking behind the unanimity of the 15-0 vote. Russia, for instance, claims that it is worried inspections will not be sensitive to sovereignty and culture. Perhaps Russia’s leaders, who ordered a 1999 assault on the Chechen capital of Grozny that turned an entire Muslim city to rubble, really are concerned about sensitivity. More likely they want to water down the inspection process to avoid conflict between the inspectors and Iraqi officials.
By U.S. accounting, Iraq may already have violated the resolution in its first report to the Security Council. When the report came on Wednesday, the relevant clause accepting inspections was couched in a nine-page tirade against the United States that denied the existence in Iraq of any weapons of mass destruction. By producing evidence that Iraq has any remaining stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons, a relatively easy task, the United States can create a case for war at any time it pleases. Since our allies will not accept that case, however, we will find ourselves in the same position we were in before the resolution.
In the absence of clear Iraqi noncompliance, the resolution will only delay the day when the Bush administration has to present the world with the choice many nations have sought to avoid—cooperate or consign yourself to irrelevancy. Believing that war is necessary, I don’t have a problem with that. But those who expect it to herald a new era of international relations will be disappointed.
Ebon Y. Lee ’04 is a government concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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