War Stories

Resolution Dissolution

How the U.S. and France botched U.N. Resolution 1441.

In retrospect, Resolution 1441 was probably doomed to fail. The measure, which demands that Iraq disarm or face “serious consequences,” passed the U.N. Security Council last November by a unanimous vote—an achievement that now seems puzzlingly contradicted by the council’s pending refusal to enforce it. Yet a close reading of the resolution suggests that the inconsistency is less blatant than it may seem. Remember that the U.S. and French delegations negotiated for seven weeks to hammer out a mutually acceptable version. The compromise merely papered over their differences. By delaying rather than settling (or even acknowledging) their fundamental disagreements over what should be done about Iraq, Resolution 1441 has only made that conflict more vicious and possibly irreconcilable.

The resolution declares Iraq to be in “material breach” of several prior U.N. resolutions dating back to the 1991 cease-fire and offers the country “a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations.” To that end, “an enhanced inspection regime” will be set up, in order to bring this “disarmament process” to “full and verified completion.” If Iraq releases false information or obstructs the inspections in any way (and the many possible ways are spelled out in impressive detail), this “shall constitute a further material breach of Iraq’s obligations.”

That is not the end of the sentence, though. It goes on to say that such a breach “will be reported to the Council for assessment in accordance with paragraphs 11 and 12 below.” Paragraph 12 is the kicker. It declares that the Security Council will convene to hear the U.N. inspector’s report, “in order to consider the situation and the need for full compliance with all of the relevant Council resolutions in order to secure international peace and security.”

The resolution then “recalls, in that context, that the council has repeatedly warned Iraq that it will face serious consequences as a result of the continued violation of its obligations.”

There is some subtle but quite deliberate finessing here. Yes, Iraq “will face serious consequences,” but non, the enforcement will not be automatic. The matter must first be taken up by the Security Council, which will “consider” not just “the situation” (vague enough) but also “the need for full compliance.” Full compliance, in other words, is not necessarily required. It will be considered “in order to secure international peace and security.” This provision doesn’t mandate action. Instead it allows a question: Which will more likely promote “peace and security”—going to war or continuing the inspections (however limited the results of the latter may be)?

In short, the basic fissure between the allies remains. The United States gets to declare Iraq in material breach and to threaten its leaders with war if they don’t take this final chance to comply. At the same time, France (which, after all, has veto power) retains the right to keep any move toward war bottled up inside the Security Council as long as its diplomats can manage.

An argument could be made that this finessing was deliberate, that, back in November, neither the Americans nor the French took the prospect of systematic, peaceful disarmament seriously. The resolution, after all, contains not a single word about how this process might take place. There are no timetables, no deadlines, no delineation of priorities. It demands that the Iraqis provide “immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access” to all suspected weapons sites—but it does not demand “immediate, unconditional” disarmament. The document does call for “full and immediate compliance” with U.N. Resolution 687, the original cease-fire measure passed by the Security Council in April 1991. Resolution 687 required that Iraq “unconditionally accept the destruction, removal or rendering harmless” of everything related to its chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs (as well as ballistic missiles with a range exceeding 150 kilometers). But it too laid out no deadline or schedule.

None of this exonerates the Iraqis, who have clearly lied, cheated, and deceived the rest of the world at every chance. Nor does it excuse the French, who have exploited every loophole to evade the fundamental questions of how to deal effectively with Iraq’s misbehavior.

But at the same time, Bush officials have little cause for yelping. They co-drafted these documents; they scrutinized each word of every clause; they could have seen this coming; they might have averted it, had they desired, through further negotiations or subsequent diplomacy. Let’s face it, though: Bush and his entourage saw Resolution 1441 primarily as a way to legitimize the coming war. They figured that Iraq would block the inspections from the beginning (certainly they were surprised when access was granted everywhere without delay or obstruction). And so, if the resolution had some loose threads, if it required another trip back to New York before heading on to Baghdad, no big deal; Iraqi violations would be too blatant to ignore.

This failure to sketch out so much as an outline of the disarmament process, however, proved to be a huge mistake. It has allowed Saddam Hussein to manipulate, even to control, the Security Council’s deliberations. He can throw the council a few crumbs of compliance—the destruction of a few missiles, the handover of a few documents, the issuance of a new decree, whatever he figures might be good enough—and war can be staved off, well within the provisions of 1441.

It is worth wondering what would have happened had the permanent members of the Security Council taken the process seriously from the outset—had they said, for example, “By Jan. 1, Iraq must tell us x … by Feb. 1, Iraq must dismantle y …” and so forth, with a firm proviso that, if a deadline is missed, then “serious consequences” would ensue.

Now that war nears, some members are beginning to propose just such a notion. Canada (though not on the Security Council) has circulated a memo that advocates setting specific timetables and deadlines for Iraqi disarmament. The French, German, and Russian foreign ministers made headlines yesterday by declaring that they “will not let a proposed resolution pass that would authorize the use of force.” However, their joint statement also offered a separate plan for obtaining Iraq’s “full and effective disarmament.” The Security Council, they said, “must specify and prioritize the remaining issues, program by program” and “establish, for each point, detailed time lines.” Possibly in response, the U.N. chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, drew up a list of 29 “clusters” of issues that Iraq must resolve, and started to figure out the order in which it must do so.

There is a glaring omission in the foreign ministers’ statement: It contains no warning of what the council might do if Iraq fails to address the “remaining issues” or meet the “detailed time lines.” Still, it is a potential step toward seriousness, a possible basis for compromise. Will Bush at least examine the notion, test its depths? If he does, and then negotiates the missing clause (outlining what will happen if Iraq fails), it could be the meaningful deal that 1441 wasn’t.

But if Bush ignores it, the diplomatic consequences are pretty clear and, in their own way, serious. With the Franco-German-Russian proposal on the table (and Blix clearly behind it), the resolution that the United States, Britain, and Spain plan to offer—which authorizes going to war now—is almost certain to be not just defeated but crushed.