A New Multilateral Spirit in Washington?

Two technically brilliant speeches opened the 57th General Assembly with appeals to multilateralism and international legality–with, one suspects, different degrees of sincerity. While Kofi Annan held open the possibility that one target of multilateral action could be Iraq–George Bush barely mentioned any other reason.

No matter what the sincerity quotient is, by Monday, Bush had won. It seemed that Saddam was surrendering to the threat of UN action, in which case the U.S. president had shown that tough talk works–or the Iraqi President was also only pretending, in which case the hawks in Washington would have their regime change.

Bush’s “Road to Baghdad” conversion to multilateralism can be timed quite precisely to the previous week. Perhaps not since the enemy changed from Eastasia to Eurasia in mid oration in George Orwell’s 1984 has there been such an abrupt change of line. Until then most of Bush’s administration were threatening unilateral mayhem against Iraq–and then Defense Secretary Rumsfeld pulled his already delivered article from the Washington Post in the first signal that things had changed.

Bush justified some suspicion of how superficial and expedient his new line is the day after his speech, when he guffawed at the suggestion that the U.S. Congress could in any way be influenced by the UN’s decisions.

However, that should not detract from the effect of his policy switch, which has immediately transformed the debate about Iraq. Although it may be looked at as providing a multilateral figleaf for a nakedly unilateral American policy, it still covers the legal bases for most delegates at the UN.

If it was an act, then the President took lessons from the method school of acting, and thought himself into a multilateral position. Kofi Annan’s speech was a pithy and eloquent challenge to unilateralism by major powers, and Bush altered his speech that very morning to harmonize with it and to emphasize his own commitment to the UN.

As a token of the new outlook of his administration, Bush announced that the U.S. would be rejoining UNESCO, which Ronald Reagan had quit almost twenty years ago at the beginning of the Republican hate affair with the United Nations system. Even more surprisingly, the President did not once mention “Axis of Evil” and with memorable chutzpah promoted Iran from being one its components to be the first victim of Iraqi aggression and a continuing victim of “terrorist” groups hosted by Baghdad.

Of course, he did not mention the former American role in supporting Iraq against Iran in that act of aggression, but then, neither did he remember the U.S. refusal to join the League of Nations when he contrasted the authority of the UN Security Council with that body. His references to the Middle East conflict were unlikely to placate Arabs convinced of American double standards. Put bluntly, their unanswered question is why can’t you force Ariel Sharon to admit an inquiry team to Jenin, if you want to enforce entry of inspectors to Iraq.

However, even this was addressed in an oblique sort of way. By stressing the importance of the Security Council, and in effect ignoring the very body he was addressing, the General Assembly, he devalued the bulk of outstanding UN resolutions against Israel which were passed by the Assembly, rather the Council, where the U.S. veto has protected its ally for so many decades.

Taken on its own merits, the American president did make a substantial case against Iraq for its defiance of multiple Security Council resolutions, even if he considerably stretched the already slender evidence of any Iraqi involvement–present or potential–with al Qaeda. While the rest of world is unconvinced that any attack on Baghdad would be part of the “War against Terror,” the Council would almost certainly have garnered more than enough votes for a deadline to Baghdad to admit inspectors under the threat of force–and even now will get one demanding slavish cooperation with them. And the sop to Iran shows some solid strategic thinking on both the military and the diplomatic front.

There are many elements that may go some way to explain the administration’s obsession with Iraq, from family pride, to Israeli wish lists and control of oilfields, but like Star Wars or the obsession with the International Criminal Court, it is difficult to see a solid rational basis for it. Iraq’s threat is neither commensurate with the effort nor are the risks and costs to the U.S. and its allies in the region equal to the rewards. So it is almost reassuring to see signs of rationality, no matter how belated and cynical.

It is difficult to underestimate the effect of Bush’s speech and the new course it signals to UN members. In an ironic way, even for many skeptical delegations, it offers a double boost to international order by simultaneously getting the world’s only superpower from going dingo diplomatically, and promising to curb a recidivist rogue state whose defiance was making the UN look silly.

It is the equivalent of getting a lynch mob pursuing an alleged criminal to suddenly support due process. And most of them certainly would return a true bill of indictment against Iraq if they were to constitute a grand jury. The stretch to link Iraq with al Qaeda is reminiscent of the OJ case–a bigoted and unnecessary attempt to frame a guilty party.

Of course, although he has almost certainly won his majority for an ultimatum to Baghdad, there are messy details to be sorted. What will be the deadline–or the timetable if inspectors go in? Will the resolution or resolutions threaten “serious consequences,” for non-cooperation, spell them out, or authorize states to deliver them? Will force need a second resolution? In the unlikely event that Baghdad actually agrees to admit the inspectors, will the existing agreed timetable for UNMOVIC inspections and certifications stand?

Even before Baghdad offered to let in the inspectors, it was an open question whether the resolution would concentrate on the matter of inspection and disarmament, or would it include all the other deal breakers that the President’s speech specified as necessary for the Iraqi regime to show its desire for peace: an end to oil smuggling, a return of Kuwaiti property and missing prisoners, an end to the repression of minorities? These are the types of details now being sorted out in frantic bilateral consultations and cables between capitals.

It may well behoove friends of international law and order in the U.S., and indeed in the UN to regard Saddam Hussein as a lost cause and concentrate on mitigating the effects on Iraqi civilians, and extracting what benefits it can from this narrow window of multilateralism–before the fundamentalists in the administration are let out of their kennels again.

A relaxation of the campaign against the ICC–surely the best venue to try the Iraqi president if apprehended–restoration of funding to the UNFPA, and indeed full and prompt payment of dues to the UN, were once considered fables. It may seem wishful thinking, but the rejoining of UNESCO as well as the signals to Iran, do show that pigs can indeed fly in formation along the Potomac–as long as they are targeted on Baghdad.