Give diplomacy more time

By Richard Holbrooke
Saturday, September 7, 2002

Since I wrote on this page Aug. 27 that "the road to Baghdad runs through the United Nations Security Council," I have been repeatedly asked what would happen if Washington were unsuccessful in an effort to gain Security Council approval for an airtight weapons inspection regime and authority to use force if Iraq refused the inspectors or cheated again. Wouldn't a failed effort in the United Nations weaken the United States?

I continue to believe that the United States can achieve the necessary Security Council resolution. But what if that judgment is wrong? What if Russia, for example, refuses to support a strong resolution?

As it happens, there is an important precedent from recent history. The details of this virtually unreported incident, which took place during the 1998-99 Kosovo crisis, laid the basis for military action against Slobodan Milosevic and Serbia. This history could provide the Bush administration with a useful insight regarding the current argument over going back to the Security Council.

As Milosevic brutally cracked down on the Kosovar Albanians in the summer of 1998, the United States sought European support for concerted action. The Russians flatly objected, threatening a veto in the Security Council. Yet the Europeans, led by Tony Blair's government, demanded U.N. approval before any military action, much as they are now doing over Iraq. Meanwhile, more than 125,000 Albanians took refuge in the forests of central Kosovo; if they remained there into the bitter Balkan winter, many were certain to freeze to death.

In October 1998, President Clinton sent me to Belgrade with instructions to seek an agreement that would send international "monitors" to Kosovo, allow the refugees to return home, withdraw most of the Yugoslav security forces, and start a political dialogue between Belgrade and the Albanians.

By the fifth day of our negotiations it was clear that we needed a credible threat of military action; Milosevic, counting -- as Saddam Hussein probably does now -- on the protection of a Russian veto, was playing games.

With this background, I broke off the talks in Belgrade to join Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for a meeting with the foreign ministers of the so-called Contact Group (Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia) in the VIP lounge at Heathrow Airport outside London. This dramatic four-hour meeting was to resolve the battle over a Security Council resolution in a manner with direct relevance to today's debate over Iraq.

As commercial jets roared overhead, the Europeans asked the Russian foreign minister -- then, as now, Igor Ivanov -- to agree to a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force. Ivanov said he could not do so. The German foreign minister, Klaus Kinkel, almost begged Ivanov to give the Europeans something, anything, to justify collective action by NATO; it was needed, Kinkel explained, under German interpretation of international law. The British, French and Italian foreign ministers supported Kinkel, but Ivanov continued to state, politely but flatly, that he could never agree.

It was clear to Madeleine Albright and to me that Ivanov was saying that Moscow knew it could not stop collective military action (in this case by NATO) but that Russia could not formally endorse such action. Go ahead, Ivanov seemed to be saying, but not with Russia's explicit approval.

It took our European colleagues awhile to arrive at the same conclusion, but after several hours, even Kinkel understood that we now faced a simple choice: Act without the Security Council -- or don't act at all. The fact that we had made a serious effort to obtain Security Council approval but faced a certain Russian veto was vital; it allowed our European allies, led by Tony Blair, to support NATO action without prior Security Council approval.

Strengthened by a new solidarity from the Contact Group, I flew through the night back to Belgrade to tell Milosevic that NATO was prepared to proceed with or without Security Council approval. To make the point even clearer, we armed and positioned warplanes in both Italy and Britain, let the press observe our preparations for war and gave new authority to the NATO commander, Gen. Wesley Clark.

Milosevic got the message. The resulting agreement, in October 1998, allowed more than 100,000 refugees to return home and introduced as many as 2,000 unarmed international monitors into Kosovo. In early 1999 Yugoslav security forces took new repressive actions in Kosovo. In March, I delivered a final ultimatum to Milosevic, which he rejected. Within 36 hours NATO had begun its successful air war -- without Security Council approval.

Making allowances for the vast differences between Yugoslavia and Iraq, Washington confronts a somewhat similar structural situation today. In the end, I am confident that most of our key allies, led again by Tony Blair, will support us. But if the administration refuses to try the Security Council route, it will weaken its position and lose support unnecessarily. Even an unsuccessful effort to obtain an airtight resolution will strengthen international support for Washington, which could then be based on earlier U.N. resolutions that Saddam Hussein has repeatedly violated.

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

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