The Magazine

The U.N. Trap?

From the November 18, 2002 issue: What does the Iraq resolution really mean?

Nov 18, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 10 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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PRESIDENT BUSH'S resounding victory in last week's midterm elections was, among other things, a remarkable expression of national support for the course the president has steered in the war on terrorism. And, of course, that includes the president's Iraq policy. Time and again as he toured the nation providing invaluable support to Republican candidates, President Bush made clear to voters that he intended to take action against Saddam Hussein. If it is true, as we believe, that Bush's stature as commander in chief helped put Republicans over the top, it is also true that the president's commitment to Saddam's ouster is part of what has defined his execution of his duties as commander in chief. One might add that the most significant legislative action during this election campaign came when Congress gave the president authorization to use force to remove Saddam.

So now the president has cleared all the hurdles. He has won congressional authorization. He has received as much of a mandate for the use of force as any president could expect in a midterm election. All that remains is to go through the motions of U.N. inspections before the president orders military action to remove the world's most dangerous dictator. Right?

Probably right.

Of the president's intentions we have every confidence. For months he has consistently declared that Saddam Hussein is a dangerous menace who must be removed. No one can doubt that the president means what he says. He has had plenty of opportunity to back away from his tough rhetoric. He has braved criticism not only from much of the rest of the world, and not only from his political opponents in the United States, but also, as one thinks back to last August, from members of his own party, and from those who served his father.

Fortunately, the congressional vote of a few weeks ago and last week's elections pretty much doused whatever fire the critics of August, with the quiet support of some senior State Department officials, had tried to start. Unfortunately, the battle over the president's policy is still not over, and the attempt to derail the president's policy toward Iraq has not completely failed, at least not yet.

We can see the effects of the late-summer onslaught against removing Saddam unfolding before us right now, in the form of the U.N. Security Council resolution passed Friday and the attempt to get U.N. inspectors back into Iraq. We understand and sympathize with those in the Bush administration who believed there was no escaping this diplomatic effort. At the same time, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the weeks of negotiations carried out by the State Department have eroded the president's position, not terminally, but worryingly.

The French government of Jacques Chirac is reported to be "delighted" that over the past seven weeks it has been able to force "a substantial change in the initial U.S. position." As the Financial Times reported from Paris on Friday, the French are congratulating themselves for directing the new Security Council resolution toward disarmament rather than "regime change" in Iraq. And they are right that this is a substantial victory. When President Bush spoke to the U.N. General Assembly back in September, he made clear that his goal was not merely disarmament but forcing Saddam to abide by all U.N. Security Council Resolutions, some of which call for an end to tyrannical oppression of various sorts--effectively a call for an end to Saddam's regime. Today the president himself talks chiefly of disarmament and, at least theoretically, leaves open the possibility that a disarmed and fully inspected Saddam Hussein-led regime will be an acceptable outcome for the United States.

The weeks of negotiations at the Security Council also softened the terms of the inspections. As the Financial Times reports, the French complained that the early American drafts of the resolution "seemed intentionally provocative," designed "to ensure the weapons inspection mission was a stillborn failure." To put it another way, the initial U.S. proposals were sufficiently tough that they would have been unacceptable to a Saddam intent on evading inspections. But over the past few weeks the French and the State Department have worked together to fix that problem. Now Saddam may well accept the inspections plan. What does that tell you?