The Bush administration went in to Friday's U.N. Security Council meeting believing it was poised to shift the chamber's attention from diplomacy toward imminent war against Iraq. Instead, it was hit by demands for more time and more talk.
Following a glass half full-half empty assessment of Iraqi cooperation by chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, country after country declared that even if Iraqi behavior was still far from acceptable, enough progress had been made to warrant extending the inspection effort. A number of countries whose votes the administration thought it had pocketed joined those calling for council unity and patience.
Senior administration officials insisted they would forge ahead with plans to introduce a new resolution at the council early next week. But they acknowledged that the tenor of Blix's remarks and the subsequent outpouring of resistance to early military action may have limited U.S. options.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell "is going to have to come back tonight and we're going to have to think about it," a senior administration official said. Before Friday, the administration had held out hope that, even if it could not avoid a veto for a resolution to authorize the use of force, or even to declare that Iraq was in "material breach" of the inspections resolution unanimously passed last November, it could achieve the moral equivalent of victory with a solid majority of votes.
Officials said Friday that the most viable route now may be a resolution that sets a deadline for Iraqi cooperation with a specific set of demands and leaves open the question of what comes next. France, the most adamant opponent of imminent military action, agreed that Iraq should not be given unlimited time, and called for a meeting of Security Council foreign ministers on March 14 "to judge the progress made and what remains to be done."
Blix himself said that the main holdup was a lack of full Iraqi cooperation, and said the inspectors' task could be completed in "a short time" if Iraq would simply provide "immediate, active and unconditional cooperation." But no one else's timeline seemed to be as urgent as Washington's, and President Bush seemed closer than ever to ordering an attack on Iraq without U.N. approval. So far, only Britain and Australia have committed troops to such an effort.
In many ways, Friday's council session seemed to confirm the worst nightmares of senior administration officials, including Vice President Cheney and the Pentagon's civilian leadership. They argued last summer that any involvement with the United Nations would ultimately hamstring U.S. freedom to launch an attack on Iraq at what it saw as the optimum moment, before the Iraqi summer heat began in late March.
Powell had championed the need to form the broadest international coalition possible, and argued that a strong case against Iraq would bring the world to agreement, as it had done for Bush's father in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
But even Powell seemed on the defensive Friday, as both Blix and a number of council members challenged the strength of the evidence the secretary put forward in a presentation to the chamber last week. Powell acknowledged Friday that he was "pleased there have been improvements" in some aspects of Iraqi cooperation. But he insisted, along with Britain and Spain, that no one could argue that Baghdad had complied with last November's demand for "immediate, active, unconditional, full cooperation."
Blix offered two bright spots for the administration. Even with more time and resources, he said, "it is not the task of inspectors" to find Iraqi weapons of mass destruction or other prohibited items. "Iraq itself must squarely tackle this task and avoid belittling the questions" it is being asked, he said.
He also set in motion a series of events that could produce an unarguable, visible violation by Baghdad. He said he would call for the destruction of Iraq's Al Samoud 2 missile, along with 380 newly purchased engines for that missile and additional equipment, which had been found in violation of previous U.N. resolutions.
Blix told the council he intended to "communicate these findings . . . to the Government of Iraq," along with a reference to his authority to order them destroyed. A letter over Blix's signature will be sent to Baghdad early next week, according to one U.N. official.
As the buildup of U.S. and British troops continues on Iraq's borders, the destruction of these missiles would carry serious implications for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's ability to resist an invading force. The impact on his military power may be even greater if further inquiry determines that a second missile that is already deployed to Iraqi army units, the Al Fatah, is also capable of exceeding U.N. limits on its range and must be destroyed.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin agreed that "the unauthorized programs must now be dismantled in accordance with Mr. Blix's conclusions." In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that destruction of the missile system "remains an important test" for Iraq, but was far from the final one.
Iraq's U.N. ambassador, Mohammed Douri, gave the council a preview of Baghdad's arguments against their destruction, noting Iraq had disclosed the existence of the missiles, along with the fact that they had exceeded the permitted 150-kilometer range in test firings. But he said the missiles that had already been deployed were not in violation, and invited inspectors to conduct random test firings.
All 15 council members, plus Douri, spoke at Friday's meeting following Blix's presentation. Many foreign ministers and ambassadors expressed alarm over the increasingly public divisions among the council's five permanent members, with the United States and Britain on one side, and France, Russia and China on the other.
Although the Bush administration had expressed increasing confidence it could garner enough votes to claim majority agreement to war, only Britain, Spain and to some extent Bulgaria, seemed ready Friday to take that step.
Guinea and Chile, which the administration has counted on its side, deplored the international tension that the council's disagreement was causing and referred to a recent call by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan for unity. Angolan Ambassador Ismael Gaspar Martins, whose president received what administration officials thought was a persuasive telephone call from Bush just this week, said Blix's report was "a beacon of hope that we can indeed save the world from an imminent conflict."