A War Avoided?

Perhaps a war has been avoided. The United Nations Security Council’s unanimous passage of an historic resolution gives UN weapons inspectors “unimpeded, unconditional, and unrestricted access” to anyone and anywhere in Iraq that their search for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) might lead them. The resolution gives Iraq a “final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations.” Resistance is futile. Saddam Hussein has been given seven days to confirm his intention to comply.

Security Council Resolution 1441 states that Iraq has been and remains in material breach of earlier UN decrees. It gives Saddam Hussein thirty days to provide inspectors a complete report of all aspects of is WMD programs, from facilities to personnel. False statements or omissions “will constitute a further material breach” of Iraq’s obligations.

The resolution grants UN weapons inspectors increased authority beyond what they had had in the past including: unrestricted access within Iraq (including to the Presidential Palaces); deployment of UN security guards; the right to declare “exclusion zones” to freeze movement into and out of inspection sites; the right to destroy all prohibited weapons; and more. Iraq even gets to pay for the gas to fuel the inspectors’ helicopters and planes.

Any breach of the agreement will immediately be reported to the Security Council, which will then consider what “serious consequences” Iraq will face.

The Security Council’s decision appears to be a triumph for the United Nations, but it is a triumph fraught with ambiguities as well as possibilities. 1441′s unanimous passage, including the assent of France, Russia, and even Syria, does not signal international consensus, so much as a willingness to interpret the document differently, and resolve the differences if at some later date Iraq violates the agreement. The only thing that all players agree on is that the ball is in Iraq’s court.

The declaration does not specifically authorize the use of force, or unilateral U.S. military action, if weapons inspectors are impeded. This is a win for France, Russia, and the majority of the U.S. public, 60% of which opposes a unilateral invasion of Iraq (83% would favor a multilateral invasion*).

However, the resolution also does not stipulate that the Security Council must pass another resolution to authorize military action. Upon passage, President Bush said, “America will be making only one determination: Is Iraq meeting the terms of the Security Council resolution or not? The United States has agreed to discuss any material breach with the Security Council, but without jeopardizing our freedom of action to defend our country. If Iraq fails to fully comply, the United States and other nations will disarm Saddam Hussein.”

Optimists and skeptics are certain to view this situation differently. If one believes the glass is half full, then the Bush administration, pressured by allies and U.S. public opinion has veered off of its unilateral course and should be commended for working within the international system and helping to restore credibility to the United Nations.

But the glass is half empty if one believes this is the logical extension of a shadow dance begun by the Bush administration this summer after reading polling data clearly showing a strong American majority against unilateral action in Iraq. After reviewing this polling data, the Bush foreign policy team may have concluded additional steps were needed to create adequate window dressing for an invasion–the illusion of working with allies and the UN system.

Does the U.S. support for the UN resolution demonstrate that the U.S. is searching for truth, or is the Bush administration on a course for war (and oil)?

Half full or half empty, it is disconcerting that the credibility and future of the United Nations might well now rest in the hand of two men, Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush, the former who has flaunted international law and the latter whose administration has questioned the very legitimacy of the international treaty system. Either could bring down the delicate system of international laws that have developed over the past century.

If international pressure brought to bear by the United Nations and the United States on Iraq works–if peace is maintained without war–then an empowered UN system, with appropriate checks and balances, given the degree of authority and capacity that Security Council Resolution 1441 has granted to weapons inspectors, could finally delegitimize war as a means of creating political change. We could live in a world ruled by the force of law rather than the law of force.

In the run-up to the passage of this resolution, President Bush, at a fundraiser, said, “I want the United Nations to be an effective body. The United Nations must be willing to uphold [its] resolution[s]. The United Nations must be strong enough to hold Saddam Hussein to account.”

If Bush were serious about wanting the UN to be strong he would support giving the UN its own police forces to thwart aggression before it boils over into war.

And if he really wanted to hold Saddam Hussein accountable, he would support a strong International Criminal Court, instead of trying to eviscerate it.

The future will surely tell what the President’s intentions are, but for now, perhaps a war has been avoided.