Take it to the Security Council

By Richard Holbrooke
Tuesday, August 27, 2002

The road to Baghdad runs through the United Nations Security Council. This simple truth must be recognized by the Bush administration if it wants the international support that is essential for success in Iraq.

To build such support, a new Security Council resolution is necessary, one that authorizes the use of force if Saddam Hussein refuses to allow an airtight weapons inspection regime -- no-notice inspections anywhere, anytime. Such a resolution would provide those nations (Turkey, Britain) that want to support an effort to remove Hussein a vital legitimizing cover for action, and put great pressure on those (Germany, France, Saudi Arabia) that are wavering or opposed.

Although the Security Council was in large part a creation of U.S. efforts at the end of World War II, few Americans today understand the enormous force, both moral and political, that a Security Council resolution authorizing military intervention carries in the rest of the world. Such a resolution mobilizes international opinion, forces concerted action and can mute much criticism. It can be sought without any weakening of the president's ability to act directly if vital national security interests are at stake; if achieved, it greatly strengthens America's hand.

The first Bush administration understood this perfectly in 1991, perhaps partly because George Herbert Walker Bush had once served as the American ambassador to the United Nations. Secretary of State James Baker and the American ambassador to the United Nations, Thomas Pickering, skillfully built international support through votes in the Security Council before Operation Desert Storm.

Today, unfortunately, Washington has a different attitude toward the United Nations. Bypassing the Security Council is obviously tempting for an administration that, with the exception of Secretary of State Colin Powell, shows little respect for the United Nations and has weakened it by unnecessary fights over secondary issues and periodic gratuitous insults.

But a campaign against Saddam Hussein cannot be waged without allies, and from Britain to Turkey the governments the United States needs most are facing growing domestic opposition over Iraq. Last month a senior adviser to British Prime Minister Tony Blair told me bitterly that Washington "was giving Blair nothing" in return for Blair's unstinting support, even as British domestic opposition to Blair's pro-American position was growing.

Some will argue that because existing Security Council resolutions dating back to 1991 have been clearly violated by Hussein, there is already, in Baker's phrase, "sufficient legal authority" to sanction the use of force against the Iraqi regime.

This argument may have some merit in legal circles, but it has none in political or practical terms. As Baker himself recently noted, predicating action against Hussein solely on existing Security Council resolutions will not be enough.

Washington policymakers have three core concerns when they discuss the Security Council route: first, that Iraq will agree to inspections and then cheat (again); second, that Russia or France will water down any resolution to the point of meaninglessness; third, that the resolution will not authorize regime change but only some lesser goal such as the elimination of weapons of mass destruction.

On the first point, Russia, France and China are the key countries; any one of them could block Security Council action by using its veto power. But if the new Bush-Putin relationship is worth anything, Moscow should support a tough regime; it has already indicated readiness to do so in private. As for France, it will undoubtedly play its normal role as a difficult and contentious ally, but in the end, it will not stop the concerted will of America and Britain. If London aggressively supports Washington, a resolution strong enough to lay the basis for action will be achievable. China will have its qualms, but it will not use the veto against the rest of the international community.

So the betting here is that effective American diplomacy -- including the direct involvement of the president, as was famously illustrated by the personal coalition-building efforts of the senior President Bush -- would result in a Security Council resolution strong enough to lay the basis for immediate military action if Iraq violated it, as it has violated previous resolutions. If, however, such a resolution cannot be achieved, the administration, having made a best-faith effort in the Security Council, will be in a much stronger position to garner international and domestic support for action than if it had never tried at all.

On the issue of American objectives, this administration has (rightly) called for regime change. Unfortunately, few other nations in the world, and especially in the region, will openly subscribe to such a goal. Other nations will probably seek to limit any resolution to the issue of weapons of mass destruction.

This is, however, less of a problem than it initially may appear. If military action against Baghdad begins, it will soon become evident that it is impossible to eliminate weapons of mass destruction without a change in regime.

Given that the Iraqi military is only one-third the size it was before the last war, and American forces far stronger, the odds favor an American success. But no one can foresee clearly what will occur once a war starts. Will there be an assassination, a rebellion, a crumbling of the Iraqi military, a quick victory that preempts Iraqi missile attacks on Israel, a protracted struggle, or something worse? Whatever happens, once launched, the effort against Saddam Hussein cannot be stopped until its goal is achieved and the overwhelming power of the United States has prevailed.

The president will have American support for the difficult decisions he will soon have to make, but it would strengthen his position greatly if he remembered the importance of using every nonmilitary tool at his disposal to build international support -- starting with the U.N. Security Council.

The writer was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Clinton.

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