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Volume 2, Number 42               November 24 - 30, 2002            Quezon City, Philippines

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Middle East 

UN resolution: Dangerous ambiguity

By Ian Urbina
Asia Times

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The UN Security Council has finally passed an Iraq resolution, with France, Russia and China on board. For now, the diplomatic tussles are finished. Still, it may be worth considering what was, and remains, at stake in all the diplomatic wrangling.

Clearly, the most immediate threat is that the US will invade without further UN approval. Though Washington insisted that the final resolution draft include the wording "Iraq has been and remains in material breach of its obligations", the next line gives Iraq "a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations". However, what is not offered anywhere in the draft is a clear, unequivocal statement that the UN has final say. The resolution calls for the UN "to convene immediately upon receipt of a report [of Iraqi non-compliance] in order to consider the situation "

But there is no reference to a council decision being required to determine whether or not an Iraqi violation noted by arms inspectors constitutes a "material breach", and if so what the appropriate response should be. The resolution's "severest consequences" language is vague enough that if the US perceives a violation, it can react unilaterally and directly with force, only later to claim that it was within the bounds of the law.

A diplomatic precedent

This sort of interpretive maneuver is not without precedent. In 1998, when the UN Security Council passed a resolution endorsing Kofi Annan's negotiated stand-down with Iraq, the resolution at that time also called for "severest consequences". At the close of those negotiations, every council ambassador except that of the US said explicitly that use of the term did not constitute an automatic authorization of the use of force for any country or group of countries. The US ambassador, Bill Richardson, alone of all the council, said, "We think it does authorize immediate unilateral use of force." Above and beyond the prospect of a potentially massive war, the larger issue at stake is the status of UN authority. The recent diplomatic skirmishes are, in part, a fight over whether the US is willing to recognize the centrality and legal sovereignty of the Security Council to handle not just Iraqi disarmament but international peace and security issues generally. In the present resolution, the US clearly does not recognize this authority, instead maintaining a fully instrumentalist view of the international body.

For the US, this position is quite clear: the UN is to be respected only in so far as it overlaps with plans set in Washington. US Secretary of State Colin Powell has stated the matter plainly: "If Iraq violates this resolution and fails to comply, then the council has to take into immediate consideration what should be done about that, while the United States and other like-minded nations might take a judgment about what we might do about it if the council chooses not to act." In other words, the US will subjugate itself to the UN - that is, force will subordinate to law - only when it is useful.


Geopolitics rarely features beneficence and many of the staunchest critics of the US resolution had nakedly pragmatic motivations at stake in the fight over the Iraq resolution.

In the case of Russia, Iraq presently owes that nation about US$8 billion. Baghdad also recently signed a $40 billion oil development agreement with the Russian government. The US has attempted to reassure Moscow that those transactions would be respected and debts paid under any new administration in Baghdad, but skepticism remains. Russia is also suspicious of the extent of US ambitions, and there are real fears of encirclement by American military bases from Central Asia through the Gulf. Other chips in the bargaining include America's support for Russia's World Trade Organization and a quieter US State Department when it comes to Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya and Georgia.

For the French, economic factors may also be relevant. Paris certainly does not want to be left out of the post-Saddam order, especially when it comes to its oil concessions. But the economic variable should not be overstated. The country's exports to Iraq make up only 0.2 percent of the total, and imports from Iraq are only 0.3 percent of France's total trade. More important here is a general weariness of US unilateralism.

China has also played hard to get. Beijing hopes for the United States to look the other way when it comes to the Chinese crackdown on Muslim minorities in its Western provinces. A softened stance toward the Tibet issue would be an added plus. Even better would be if the US leaned on the Dalai Lama to lighten up in his public pressure campaign. China's support of the war on terrorism has already gone a long way in easing prior tensions over the downing the US spy plane and Bush's dogged pursuit of a national missile defense program.


Behind the scenes, other matters were also at issue. Partially at stake was the extent of the US ability to exert effective pressure on its fellow Security Council members. Much like the lead-up to the Persian Gulf war in 1991, the recent diplomatic struggle was a test of whether the world's sole superpower could bring to bear sufficient economic, military and political influence to quickly transform the myriad skeptics into a coalition of supporters.

The tactics in this effort are hardly new. In 1990, George Bush Sr wielded cheap Saudi oil for nations such as the Soviet Union, whose economy was in utter shambles. On Bush's request, the Saudi foreign minister hustled to Moscow to offer a billion-dollar deal before the Russian winter set in, and Mikhail Gorbachev promptly dropped all prior dissent.

Elsewhere, other carrots were dangled: arms packages for militarizing states such as Ethiopia and Columbia; debt forgiveness like the $14 billion provided to Egypt (then the most indebted country in Africa). All came through in the months immediately preceding the war. Iran's first World Bank loan (of $250 million) was approved on the day before the ground attack in Iraq. US diplomats went to China, whose veto was feared, asking them to name the price. Beijing was still under the cloud of the Tiananmen Square incident, but diplomatic rehabilitation was fast on the way as the White House soon announced a visit from the Chinese foreign minister.

Of the available sticks, the most famous was that used on Yemen. The sole Arab nation in the Security Council, Yemen voted against the war, joined only by Cuba. Moments after the vote, a US diplomat, unwittingly caught on an open microphone, commented to the Sana'a representative: "That will be the most expensive 'no/ vote you ever cast." Three days later, the US axed its full aid package of $70 million to the country and Saudi Arabia expelled 800,000 Yemeni workers from its territory. The country's economy took an immediate nose-dive.

It's far too soon to know what carrots were offered this time. But there are indications that the stick has already struck in some cases. Mauritius, which holds Africa's seat on the Security Council and which was perceived by many as a critical swing vote, felt the force as its UN ambassador made the mistake of not openly backing Washington's position. After being immediately recalled home and given a stern talking to from the nation's prime minister, the ambassador was subsequently dispatched back to New York to vote in favor of the resolution. Mauritius's aid agreement with the US requires the impoverished country to vote with the US in any multilateral scenario.

For the time being, all is quiet at the UN, and the US has its hard-fought resolution. Though most agree on the inevitability, no one knows what the trigger will be or when it will fire. But when it does, the diplomatic wrangling will begin anew, but with the stakes even higher. And by that time, the US forces may already be on the ground.

2002 Asia Times Online Co Ltd. All rights reserved


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