As American and British warplanes flew into action over Iraq in December 1998, they blasted away not only Iraqi targets but also the remnants of international consensus. After the Gulf war, the Security Council authorized economic sanctions and intrusive inspections aimed at the elimination of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Most states shared a general consensus that Iraq had violated important international norms and that the sanctions and inspections were an appropriate response. As sanctions exerted an increasingly visible human toll and weapons inspections became seemingly politicized, the United States shifted to a more unilateralist policy oriented toward regime change, in which it preferred to act forcefully against Iraq rather than struggle to persuade international opinion. What began as a policy grounded in international legitimacy degenerated into little more than a strategic game with particularly perverse incentives. Does American isolation suggest that Iraq is “winning”? This conception of Iraqi-American interaction as a “game” hides the suffering of civilians; Iraq’s relative victories in the Security Council game came at the expense of the devastation of its population. Because the inspections regime verifying and disabling Iraqi WMD programs provided the political and even moral justification for the sanctions, this essay focuses more upon the international politics surrounding the inspections than on the sanctions, which other essays in this issue effectively analyze.

Consensus and International Legitimacy

Consensus mattered, at the most basic level, because of the demand for a costly and sustained multilateral sanctions regime linked to an unprecedented, intrusive weapons inspection program. This consensus compelled Iraq to submit to inspections, helped to secure general compliance with the sanctions, kept UN legitimacy at the center of international relations and acted as a check on unilateral Americanaction. In many ways, this should have been an easy consensus to maintain, given flagrant Iraqi human rights violations, pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and non-cooperation with UNSCOM. Nevertheless, over time the interests of member states diverged, as did interpretations of the results of both the inspections and sanctions. Member states had powerful incentives to defect: Turkey’s worries about a Kurdish state and economic losses; Russian and French economic interests and objections to American hegemony; Jordan’s economic needs and domestic sympathy with Iraq; Egypt’s desire to reassert a position of Arab leadership; GCC states’ judgement of the Iraqi threat; and general frustration with the humanitarian impact of the sanctions. A kind of “tipping point” raised the stakes: If even a single key state decided to defect, this would likely trigger a cascade of defections as each state rushed to grab its share of the spoils. The United States exerted considerable persuasion, financial incentives and sometimes naked coercion to maintain cooperation in the face of these growing differences. Without the underpinning of a consensus on the purpose of the mandate, threats and incentives alone likely could not hold the coalition together. As UNSCOM head Rolf Ekeus put it, “The unity of the Security Council was the political fact that sustained the UNSCOM operation and the failure to maintain that unity undermined it.” [1] As an example of the decline of compliance, widely reported increases in oil smuggling since 1997 have accompanied the breakdown of the Security Council consensus.

“International legitimacy” has been routinely invoked by all parties. Defined formally in terms of Security Council resolutions arrived at through correct procedures, international legitimacy at the same time represents a normative ideal open to interpretation. For states being asked to sacrifice their self-interest in the name of international legitimacy, strict adherence to Security Council resolutions became a litmus test for judging both Iraqi and American actions. For Arab states in particular, international legitimacy provided a politically vital
justification for compliance with the sanctions against popular opinion; by upholding international legitimacy against one of their own, the argument went, the Arab states strengthened the case for international pressure on Israel to comply with Security Council resolutions.

The Security Council held mandatory periodic reviews of Iraqi compliance with the resolutions, along with extraordinary sessions to deal with crises. Security Council procedures made it far easier to maintain than to lift sanctions: the default outcome, in the absence of an agreement (majority vote without a permanent member veto), was continuation of the status quo. Highly conscious of the need to maintain a majority in the Security Council, American officials constantly lobbied, consulted with and pressured current and future members of the Security Council. Among the permanent members, only Great Britain strongly supported the American approach, while Russia, France and China began to dissent by early 1994. In addition to the member states, Secretary General Kofi Annan acted in the name of the United Nations, most famously in his personal negotiation of the February 1998 Memorandum of Understanding. Annan’s concern for the independence and integrity of the Security Council often placed him at odds with American officials, who complained that Annan went too far in the direction of endorsing Iraqi arguments.

To what extent should the Security Council’s mandate be equated with international legitimacy? As evidence of the suffering of the Iraqi people became available, international public opinion grew critical of the sanctions, questioning the morality of a policy that was devastating an entire population. Most commentators carefully distinguished concern for the Iraqi people from support for Saddam Hussein’s government, but in practice their sympathy strengthened its hand. American fears of “losing the propaganda war” belittle the efforts of concerned citizens and states to come to terms with a real humanitarian nightmare caused, at least indirectly, by an internationally sanctioned economic blockade. The principled resignations of two heads of the UN humanitarian effort in Iraq, Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, in protest against the impact of the sanctions, revealed the frustration even in the UN bureaucracy. A sense of injustice being done to the Iraqi people generated pressure for change, undermining the legitimacy of the sanctions and emptying the formal consensus of the Security Council of its meaning. In the face of such widespread condemnation, the invocation of international legitimacy or consensus rings hollow.

Keeping It Together

Even as the US tried to keep it together, Iraq focused its efforts on breaking apart the coalition. Playing on the differences in the interests of Security Council members and the “sanctions exhaustion” in the international community, Iraq constantly probed for cracks in the coalition. Russia and France gave voice to these challenges inside the Council. Since only evidence of Iraq’s continued pursuit of WMD could justify the sanctions, the integrity of the inspections regime became highly politicized, especially after Richard Butler replaced Rolf Ekeus as the head of UNSCOM in 1997. Scott Ritter’s confrontational surprise inspections provided Iraq with an opportunity to generate crises that would politicize UNSCOM. The focus on the American members of UNSCOM in 1998 shrewdly played on the growing perception of a divergence between American and international policies; the promise of development contracts after the lifting of sanctions to Russian and French firms played on divergent economic interests. At some points, to be sure, Iraqi actions defied reason. French and Russian officials expressed bewilderment when Iraq ended its cooperation with UNSCOM just when the Security Council was moving toward their position. [2] Indeed, one might argue that the divergent interests of the member states of the coalition led it to disintegrate naturally, and that Iraqi actions only marginally accelerated, and at some points may have actually retarded, its collapse.

The decline of international consensus can be seen in the increasingly contentious public debates about Iraq policy, the shift from unanimity to abstentions and dissenting votes in the Security Council, and American willingness to act unilaterally. Resolution 687 established the bounds of this consensus — shared perception of an Iraqi threat, a clear violation of an international norm, revulsion at the atrocities of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the expectation that it would take little time to complete the work of disarming Iraq — but expressed no intention to change the Iraqi regime or permanently to sanction Iraq. By 1994, this consensus showed signs of strain over the absence of any endgame and the accumulating evidence of an Iraqi humanitarian crisis. In March, for the first time, the Security Council failed to produce a consensus statement during a sanctions review; in October, the French defense minister publicly rejected the American justification for military action against Iraq. [3] French and Russian proposals to establish a mechanism for the lifting of sanctions by certifying Iraq as in compliance with Resolution 687 attracted increasing support in the Security Council. Iraqi defector Hussein Kamil’s revelations in the summer of 1995 of systematic Iraqi deception of the UN inspectors only temporarily checked the disintegration of the coalition.

Dissent became more open in September 1996, when the United States found itself unable to rally allied support for its bombardment of targets in the south of Iraq in retaliation for Iraqi moves into the Kurdish areas. No Arab state supported the bombings, Turkey denied use of its airbases, Russia and France publicly denounced the military action and even Kuwait refused to offer support. Differences sharpened in 1997 as American officials publicly linked ending the sanctions with a change in the Iraqi regime. Russia, France and China increasingly saw the Security Council being held hostage to particular American interests, and the American position increasingly out of touch with international opinion.

Resolution 986, which established the “Oil-for-Food” program, represented the most important American concession to the demands of the international consensus. Recognizing the growing power of concerns about the suffering of the Iraqi people, the United States helped draft provisions for Iraq to sell oil to pay for vital food and medicine. Because Resolution 986 placed control over the oil sales and the expenditure of the revenues in the hands of a UN escrow account rather than the Iraqi government, Iraq resisted its implementation and only began participation in 1997. On various occasions, the US agreed to the expansion of the Oil-for-Food program to deflect criticism or win support, and Resolution 1284 (December 1999) removed the upper limit for sales within the program.

As late as June 1997, the Security Council approved by consensus Resolution 1115 condemning Iraq for “clear and flagrant violations” in response to a report by UNSCOM head Rolf Ekeus. Richard Butler and Scott Ritter’s confrontational style of inspections, at a time of diminishing political consensus, proved more politically explosive and facilitated Iraq’s challenge to Security Council unity. Critics accused Butler of serving American interests in keeping the sanctions in place through perpetual non-certification, while Butler bitterly complained that Iraqi methods left him little choice but to use surprise inspections of highly sensitive sites. Five Security Council members, including Russia, France, China and Egypt, abstained from Resolu- tion 1134 (October 1997) based on Butler’s report on Iraqi noncompliance. The March 1998 Resolution endorsing Annan’s mediation efforts passed unanimously, in a rebuke to the United States. The United States unilaterally reinterpreted the Resolution to claim that it did not require further authorization for the use of force, despite explicit wording to the contrary and the disagreement of all other Security Council members except Britain. [4]

In August 1998, Iraq froze cooperation with UNSCOM and demanded Butler’s replacement. In September 1998, the unanimously approved Resolution 1194, condemning Iraq’s decision to suspend cooperation, pointedly called for a review of the inspections procedures. The US sharply disagreed with Russia, France, China and even Butler over whether compliance with the weapons inspections would allow the lifting of the sanctions. In November 1998, Butler pulled UNSCOM out of Iraq in protest against Iraqi non-cooperation; Iraq backed down in the face of a unanimous resolution, evidently surprised to find the Security Council relatively undivided. A month later, however, Butler pulled UNSCOM back out of Iraq without consulting the Security Council, and the United States and Britain began military attacks without Security Council authorization. Desert Fox, which quite revealingly began during the Security Council deliberations, not only destroyed the existing consensus, but largely excluded even the goal of reconstructing a new one.

Desert Fox substituted a militarized version of containment for the pursuit of international consensus. American and British planes bombed almost daily in response to Iraqi challenges in the no-fly zones. The absence of international consensus has therefore dramatically increased the use of violence against Iraq, with less public scrutiny or oversight, while the sanctions continue. The United States has not completely abandoned the Security Council, relying on the United Nations for enforcing sanctions, stopping the import of dual-use items, administering the Oil-for-Food program and negotiating a renewal of the arms inspection system. Resolution 1284, which replaced UNSCOM with UNMOVIC, a new arms inspections organization with a rather more restrictive mandate, passed over the abstention of the three dissenting permanent members and was not immediately accepted by Iraq. Rolf Ekeus’ candidacy to head UNMOVIC failed, despite — or because of — strong American support; Hans Blix, who was finally selected, has yet to obtain Iraqi consent for renewed inspections. At the time of this writing, there have been no inspections since late 1998, sanctions compliance has declined and regular military engagements have become the rule.

Evaluating International Consensus

By late 1998, the United States found itself acting virtually alone, rather shockingly viewed by international public opinion as the villain in the struggle with Iraq. Resentment of American unilateralism and perceived hegemonic ambitions at the global level, including the NATO intervention in Kosovo and American refusal to pay its dues to the United Nations, conditioned these shifting perceptions of American policy toward Iraq. American policy of “containment plus regime change,” and statements that the sanctions could never be lifted as long as Saddam Hussein remained in power, went beyond the international consensus on disarmament.

Given the perverse consequences of the international consensus, should its decline be seen as a bad thing? Many Americans, critical of Kofi Annan’s “sellout” in February 1998 and furious about Russian and French machinations had come to consider the Security Council to be a burden rather than an asset. The Washington policy debate now largely revolves around whether the United States can best do without the sanctions or the inspections, and the prospects of regime change. This Washington debate largely ignores the implications of going it alone; as Ken Pollack of the National Security Council put it, “Before, we were at odds with Iraq. Now the problem is going to be the allies, and we’ll be in the uncomfortable position of trying to coerce them rather than Iraq.” [5]

Many of the problems with the international consensus derive from a disjuncture between the formal Security Council procedures and international public opinion. Not all consensus is created equally. What began as a convergence of perceived threat, interests and international norms degenerated into a venue for strategic interaction about sanctions and inspections with a particularly perverse set of incentives. The Iraqi people suffered, the United Nations suffered, American foreign policy suffered and the original shared goals were lost in the political struggles. Does this mean that international consensus should not be sought? On the contrary, what is needed is a different kind of consensus, based upon the rational exchange of argumentation in pursuit of collective interests. Such deliberation would have to take into account the vital interests of the Iraqi civilians directly affected by the sanctions, a group whose interests have been little represented to this point, as well as international concerns about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The perverse consequences of the sanctions and inspections regime should not conceal the real virtues of an international forum in which military action and sanctions must be defended before a critical audience.


[1] Rolf Ekeus interviewed in Arms Control Today 30/2 (March 2000).
[2] French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, November 4, 1998, as quoted by Anthony Cordesman, “Iraq in Crisis,” Center for Strategic and international Studies. p. 4. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, interviewed on Russian TV, November 3, 1998.
[3] Francois Leotard quoted in Times (London), October 13, 1994.
[4] Jules Lobel and Michael Ratner, “Bypassing the Security Council: Ambiguous Authorizations to Use Force, Cease-Fires and the Iraqi Inspection Regime,” American Journal of International Law 93/1 (January 1999).
[5] Los Angeles Times, December 23, 1998.

How to cite this article:

Marc Lynch "The Politics of Consensus in the Gulf," Middle East Report 215 (Summer 2000).

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