The Magazine

ADRIFT IN THE GULF

Mar 23, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 27 • By JOHN R. BOLTON
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Since the Baghdad deal between Saddam Hussein and U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan on February 23, analysts have waited to see how Iraq would treat U. N. weapons-inspection teams. The early results are in, and, unsurprisingly, the Iraqis have posed no major obstacles to inspectors. At least until some American military forces are withdrawn from the region or the United Nations stumbles onto a research, storage, or production site for weapons of mass destruction, the Iraqis will, on the surface, appear to comply with the deal.


The real action in the last three weeks, however, has been on the political and diplomatic fronts. There, in a shift little noticed in the United States, the initiative has moved away from Washington and toward those who oppose the use of force against Iraq, in particular the United Nations. Annan drove this point home on March 8 when he asserted, on the strength of nothing but his own opinion, that the United States "would be required" to consult with the Security Council before using force against Iraq. Just three days later, President Clinton bent his knee by saying, "Of course we would consult. It would be unthinkable that we wouldn't." Annan has also said unambiguously, " We should look down the horizon to post-crisis Iraq and see where we go from here."


As his confident statements demonstrate, Annan is now a leading international player in the Persian Gulf. He has clear ideas about the outcome he wants, is moving vigorously to implement them, and is riding a wave of international acclaim unprecedented for a secretary general since Dag Hammarskjold. The other principal player, President Clinton, to this day has not clearly defined his objectives in the Gulf. Increasingly distracted by his personal political problems, he has reverted to the inattention to foreign policy characteristic of his administration. It does not bode well for the United States that the president's ability to direct even his inadequate policy of containment is slipping from his hands. Already, the administration has moved from reluctantly accepting the Baghdad deal to embracing it.


Annan has quickly consolidated his position. First he named undersecretary- general Jayantha Dhanapala to superintend the diplomats who will accompany the U.N. inspectors to the Iraqi "presidential sites." A former Sri Lankan ambassador to the United States, Dhanapala is an expert in international arms control and experienced in U.N. diplomacy. Then Annan appointed Prakash Shah, former Indian ambassador to the U.N., his special representative to Iraq, serving as his "eyes and ears." In an interview with the Financial Times, Annan characterized his appointment of Shah as filling a "major void," adding that "until now we were dealing with [Iraq] as if the relationship was concerned only with disarmament and humanitarian assistance and nothing in between."


Dhanapala and Shah are both bright, highly competent, and energetic diplomats steeped in the U.N. culture. They are self-starters, who would not have accepted these new responsibilities -- nor would Annan have chosen them - - if they were content simply to be new potted plants on the U.N.'s shelves. To the contrary, these diplomats form the core of a new Annan team that could tip the balance of initiative not only away from the United States but even away from the Security Council.


The Russians, meanwhile, have made their own play, proposing four new deputy chairmen for Richard Butler, head of UNSCOM, the U.N.'s weapons- monitoring operation in Iraq. These new deputy chairmen would come from the four permanent-member countries on the council. Until now, the sole deputy chairman has been an American. Ever-helpful France convinced the Russians to back down to two deputy chairmen, but Moscow is asserting vigorously that the new slot should be filled by a Russian.


Whether or not the Russian play succeeds, the appointment of Dhanapala and Shah has accomplished several objectives that almost certainly amount to setbacks for the United States. First, UNSCOM chairman Richard Butler and his American deputy have been effectively "layered": Dhanapala's diplomats have been inserted into UNSCOM as watchers for the U.N. Secretariat (and probably for Iraq), and Shah's presence gives the Iraqis another channel of communication to the secretary general when they don't want to go through Butler (which is almost always). This may seriously constrain U.N. inspectors in the coming critical months -- or even silence what has been the relatively aggressive (if not always successful) voice of UNSCOM in U.N. deliberations.