Six months after President Bush first appeared before the United Nations and urged a confrontation with Iraq, the United States appears to have lost diplomatic ground, not gained it, leaving it in a precarious international position as it prepares to launch a war.
A resolution authorizing military action has been blocked at the United Nations not only by permanent members with veto power such as France and Russia but also by close U.S. neighbors such as Chile and Mexico. Some of the president's closest allies, British Prime Minister Tony Blair foremost among them, are in desperate political straits over their support of Bush's Iraq policy, a key reason why Bush will hold a summit today with Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.
The groundwork for the diplomatic impasse confronting the United States was laid from the moment Bush took office, according to diplomats, analysts and some administration officials. They point to Bush's conviction in the primacy of U.S. power and his administration's early skepticism of international organizations and commitments.
But these officials add that the problem was exacerbated by a series of missteps that occurred after the president decided in September to seek U.N. approval for his Iraqi policy, including what some acknowledge was a lackluster diplomatic effort by the president and some of his senior foreign policy advisers. The administration did not help itself, some Security Council members say, by signaling early on that it would not be deterred from what many governments viewed as a preset timetable for war.
"Could we have done the diplomacy better? Absolutely," an administration official said. "We were perceived as heavy-handed."
Indeed, Bush has been unrelenting in his rhetorical and military buildup for a possible war, but his diplomatic efforts have appeared half-hearted. Last weekend, while Blair was working the phones -- he spoke to 30 heads of state in six days -- and French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin was traveling to the capitals of uncommitted Security Council members, Bush made no visits or phone calls.
By the time Bush addressed the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 12, the administration had angered its allies by its dismissal of the global warming treaty, the international criminal court and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. Even so, diplomats said, the administration likely would have won a second U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing military action if it had shown a little more patience and more willingness to address the concerns of other member nations.
"The bottom line is the U.S. will not move," a Security Council diplomat said. "Even the French might move if there was something to move to."
A senior official from the administration of Bush's father, who led allies against Iraq in 1991, said, "They've used unilateral tactics with a multilateral strategy. If your strategy is to go for U.N. support, you need to use U.N. tactics."
In fact, the current administration proceeded down a military track at virtually the same time it proceeded with diplomacy, creating an inevitable clash of interests and leaving many foreign diplomats believing the administration's appeal for U.N. backing was a fig leaf to cover a preordained decision to use military force against Iraq. In the view of other countries, the administration short-circuited the U.N. weapons inspections by arguing that the inspections could not be allowed to drag on because the U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf region had proceeded too far to turn back from war.
"Back in August, wittingly or unwittingly, the president accepted two totally incompatible strategies," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The administration achieved a 15-to-0 vote in the U.N. Security Council in November for a resolution that restarted the weapons inspections in Iraq and gave Iraq a final chance to reveal whether it possessed weapons of mass destruction. But that resolution papered over strong differences within the council, laying the seeds for the current impasse.
U.S. officials had won support for the resolution by arguing that the best way to avoid war was to support it. French officials date their break with the administration to mid-January, when U.S. officials signaled they were prepared to end the inspections only weeks after they had started. "There was shock and surprise," a French official said. "It was a signal that for Washington the time of inspections had almost ended."
U.S. officials argue that it is clear that France -- which has led the U.N. opposition to U.S. policy -- always intended to block a war, and that no amount of diplomacy would have bridged the gap. A senior official said the administration could be faulted for not grabbing at opportunities and for not showing a greater commitment to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in a bow to European public opinion. But he said it would not have made a difference.
"If we were diplomatically perfect, I'm not sure it would have fundamentally changed the outcome," he said. "The goal is not to reach consensus at any price." Foreign diplomats dismiss this as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The French official insisted that France would have supported the use of force and even participated in a military coalition if the United States had shown more patience with the inspection process. "What could have been claimed as victories were always denounced as deceptions," because the United States refused to budge from its timetable for war, the official said.
Bush's diplomatic efforts are particularly striking in contrast to those of his father, who assembled a worldwide coalition to attack Iraq 12 years ago. Bush's father had a much easier case to make, since Iraq had invaded Kuwait and was threatening Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally. By contrast, the current President Bush is trying to win support for a preventive war, arguing the Iraqi government is a potential danger to the world.
Yet, the first Bush administration appeared to work with greater skill and sophistication to ensure worldwide support for its policy, diplomats, analysts and former U.S. government officials say. Secretary of State James A. Baker III crisscrossed the globe, and President George H.W. Bush spent hours on the phones with foreign leaders in the months leading to the war. In the process, the administration won victories in the Security Council endorsing the confrontation with Iraq.
The president and senior officials in the current Bush administration spend less time on the phone or on the road, They appear more comfortable issuing demands than asking for help or bridging differences, diplomats and U.S. officials said. The summit will be Bush's first overseas trip in four months. He has not spoken to French President Jacques Chirac in more than five weeks.
Baker, in contrast to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, was almost constantly on the road before the Gulf War, flying at one point from the Middle East to Colombia to make the U.S. case to a Security Council member. "It was a very different level of activity, much more face-to-face than long-distance," said Dennis Ross, who was director of policy planning for Baker. "It was a way of demonstrating to those publics and those leaders that we were interested in their concerns."
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said the two Iraq buildups cannot be fairly compared. "It's easier to see an invasion of Kuwait. It's harder to see an attack coming," he said. "September 11th may not have changed much for France. It's changed everything for President Bush."
The decision by Turkey's parliament to reject a U.S. request to station troops in the country is another example in which the current administration has asked for more and expended less effort.
In 1990, Baker made three trips to Turkey in five months. Bush's father called the Turkish leader 55 to 60 times after Turkey agreed to shut down an oil pipeline to Iraq before the Persian Gulf War began, said Morton Abramowitz, then U.S. ambassador to Turkey. The Turkish parliament was asked to open its bases to the United States after the bombs began to fall.
This time, not only did the United States want to insert 62,000 troops in Turkey, but also it demanded a vote when the United States insisted it was trying to disarm Iraq peacefully; Turkish officials said administration officials demanded a vote as quickly as possible. Turkish officials made one trip to Washington, but Powell didn't visit Turkey once during this period. Bush had three calls or meetings with Turkish leaders, according to White House records.