On September 12, 2002, George W. Bush delivered a forceful address to the United Nations General Assembly to rally support for an American campaign against Iraq. Challenging the UN to enforce its own resolutions, Bush warned the assembled delegates that failure to back the US war against Iraq would condemn the institution to irrelevance. While the speech contained little that was new — most notably, it failed to offer the long-promised evidence of Iraqi nuclear weapons — it did succeed in returning the UN to the center of the developing US-Iraqi showdown. Bush received numerous plaudits, even among those who oppose war, mainly for the simple fact that he approached the UN at all.
After the guardedly positive reception to Bush’s speech, the surprising Iraqi invitation to UN weapons inspectors on September 16 to begin inspections placed the US back on the defensive. The Bush administration reacted skeptically, pressing for a tough new resolution — “within weeks, not months” — that demanded Iraq’s complete and unfettered cooperation. The US blocked the return of inspectors to Iraq without a new resolution, and repeatedly threatened to act alone or with a small coalition if the Council could not come to agreement. After gaining a Congressional endorsement for the use of force against Iraq on October 10, the Bush administration hoped to force the question in the Security Council, but ran into unexpectedly determined French and Russian resistance.
The Security Council’s response reflects a tortured history of deep mutual suspicions and resentments — in particular the implosion of UN Iraq policy in 1998. Bush’s obsessive focus on Iraq evoked sharp memories of years of political turmoil around the humanitarian catastrophe of sanctions and the controversies surrounding the UNSCOM inspections regime. The escalating campaign against Iraq returned the mood to an intense hostility toward US policy reminiscent of the UNSCOM endgame. Memories of US exaggerations, hypocrisy and manipulations about Iraq over the past decade leave most of the world skeptical of the sudden urgency of the Iraqi threat, and deeply suspicious of US motives. Most doubt that the US sincerely means to give inspections the chance to succeed before moving to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Bush’s constantly shifting explanations, refusal to offer compelling evidence for his claims and seeming contempt for international public opinion exacerbate these suspicions. This does not mean that UN member states trust Iraq, or wish to allow it access to nuclear weapons. On the contrary, support for a tough new inspections regime reflects the general disgust with both parties to this interminable conflict.
The contentious debates primarily revolved around who would decide when the time for war had arrived, the US or the Security Council. The US demanded a single resolution authorizing force, while France and Russia insisted that the Security Council render a final judgment on the use of force. The unexpectedly fierce battle over the resolution’s language revealed widespread support for the French position against the American. Indeed, at times there seemed to be greater concern over how best to constrain unilateral American action than over how best to coerce Iraq. The resolution’s unanimous passage on November 8 was a victory of sorts for the administration, with tough demands for Iraqi cooperation and little tolerance for Iraqi defiance. Still, this victory rested on its accommodation of numerous French concerns, particularly the resolution’s commitment to allowing the inspection team UNMOVIC the chance to disarm Iraq without war. Regardless of the precise wording of the resolution, there is still little enthusiasm for, and much suspicion of, the American demand for war.
Going to the UN
The Bush administration turned to the UN out of need, not out of principle. The neo-conservative hawks who dominate Middle East policymaking advised against it, because they worried that the Security Council might succeed in creating an inspections process which was satisfactory to the world, but which fell short of removing Saddam Hussein. They also feared getting bogged down in the prolonged process of Security Council bargaining and losing their political window of opportunity to act. Some who longed for a radical reshaping of the international order hoped to make a principled statement by pointedly ignoring the UN.
Pragmatic war planning, however, soon made it clear that the UN could not be easily avoided. Waging war required at least the tacit participation of neighboring states, which, like many other governments, would rather hide behind a Security Council resolution than openly side with the US. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal stated bluntly on September 15 that “all signatories to the UN Charter, including Saudi Arabia, are obligated to abide by the decision of the Security Council.”  Where Saudi Arabia goes, the smaller Gulf states are likely to follow. Access to Gulf bases would greatly simplify the Pentagon’s war preparations. A wide consensus has developed around the world that despite a general opposition to a war, many will grudgingly cooperate if it is fought under a legitimate UN mandate. Even for a militarily dominant US, such cooperation would be useful. The cost of the 1990-1991 Gulf war was almost entirely paid by its coalition allies. Despite the bravado displayed by Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill when he said that the US “can afford this war whatever the cost,” many Americans worry about an expensive war and rising oil prices during an already difficult recession.  Allies could help defray the costs, as could Saudi cooperation in keeping the oil price down. Perhaps most importantly, the US hopes for a substantial multinational role in the post-war reconstruction of Iraq. This is much more likely to occur if the war is not waged unilaterally.
Polls suggest that the American public values international cooperation far more than does the Bush administration. Support for the war is soft, remaining above 50 percent but conditional upon how the war is fought. An anti-war movement is emerging on campuses and in a wide range of cities, as demonstrated by the October 26 rallies in Washington and San Francisco, which have been described as the largest anti-war gatherings since the Vietnam era. Public opinion surveys show Americans placing remarkable weight on the need for international support: a Gallup poll in September found that 79 percent of Americans would support the war if fought with allies, but only 38 percent supported a war in which the US fought alone. By late October, this number had dropped to 27 percent in some polls. Congressional debates over a resolution authorizing war against Iraq, which passed on October 10, repeatedly invoked the need for prudent action working with allies and through the UN. 
Outside the US, it is almost impossible to exaggerate public hostility to a war against Iraq. In Germany, about to begin a two-year Security Council term in January, Gerhard Schroeder overcame a ten-point deficit to win a narrow electoral victory by embracing a strong anti-war platform. Infuriated American conservatives seemed to forget rather quickly the great political risks Schroeder had taken to send German troops to support the US in Afghanistan. More than 150,000 protesters marched in London on September 28, Italian newspapers reported 1.5 million marching in Rome on October 5, and a number of European capitals joined in the October 26 peace rallies.  Throughout the Arab and Islamic world, hostility toward US policy regarding Israel and Iraq is growing daily, with a popular boycott of American products carrying on against all expectations. Attacks on US troops conducting exercises in Kuwait, protests in Bahrain, a rumored coup attempt in Qatar and the bombing of an oil tanker off the coast of Yemen highlighted discontent with the US presence. In Pakistan, which like Germany joins the Security Council in January, election results announced on October 10 demonstrated widespread and growing support for the pro-Taliban forces supposedly defeated by US military power. Even Mexico initially announced its opposition to US Iraq policy, though it ultimately did vote for the resolution. The extraordinary open debate in the Security Council called by a group of 130 “non-aligned” states led by South Africa on October 16-17 demonstrated near unanimous concern that the US would not give inspections a real chance to succeed.
The opposition to war has more to do with fear of the US and of the destabilizing consequences of a war than with genuine support for Iraq. While there is widespread sympathy for the Iraqi people and their ongoing humanitarian trauma, few really disagree with the assessment of Saddam Hussein as a brutal, unpredictable dictator who should not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. The September 11 attacks gave real urgency to fears about nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorist groups, although few consider Iraq a likely source of such danger, in comparison to Pakistan or the Russian black market, and many fear that a war on Iraq will complicate the global cooperation needed to meet this threat. Many view the new Bush doctrine of preventive war outlined in the National Security Strategy Guidelines published on September 20 as a mandate for unlimited American military action without regard for international law or the UN. The Bush administration worked with the UN on Iraq in part to blunt these perceptions of reckless American unilateralism, and to provide nervous governments with a useful shield against hostile public opinion. US persistence in the long negotiations provided some reassurance, but a quick move to war, even if formally permissible under the text of the resolution, will rapidly restore such fears.
For the Bush administration, as everyone at the UN knows, pushing for a regime-changing war against Iraq represents continuity rather than change. Prior to the terrorist attacks, Bush showed no urgency about the Iraqi threat, and little about Iraq has changed. What changed was not the Iraqi threat, but the political opportunity provided by September 11 for the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration to push for a war that has long been a near obsession in Republican party politics. After the war in Afghanistan had (more or less) been wrapped up, war planners immediately turned to Iraq.
Bush has offered an ever shifting array of justifications for the new focus, reminiscent of his father’s attempts to explain the 1991 Gulf war as something other than a war about oil. High-flown rhetoric about Saddam Hussein’s unique evil proved as useful to the younger Bush as to the elder. Recent Bush speeches are full of lurid tales of the atrocities of the Iraqi regime, including constant references to the use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds — which, embarrassingly, were ignored by Presidents Reagan and Bush at the time because they might interfere with developing US-Iraqi relations.
Bush and his advisers have relentlessly claimed to have “bulletproof” evidence of Iraqi ties to al-Qaeda, but to this point have offered no credible evidence. Nor have they explained why Saddam Hussein, should he acquire a nuclear weapon, would place it in the hands of an unpredictable Islamist network sworn to destroy secular Arab regimes such as his own. For its part, al-Qaeda does not seem troubled by the thought of a US war with Iraq, and may actually welcome it. A tape of al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri released in early October called for new attacks on American targets because “the campaign against Iraq has aims that go beyond Iraq into the Arab Islamic world.”  While Bush argued that the October 11 terrorist bombing in Bali strengthened his case for war on Iraq, much of the world instead suggested that the atrocity proved the need for greater attention to al-Qaeda.
US demands for the enforcement of Security Council resolutions raised unavoidable perceptions of double standards: few could help but notice the extensive list of resolutions which Israel has continued to ignore without penalty. As if to highlight this inconsistency, the Security Council on September 24 passed a resolution, over a rare US abstention, demanding that Israel end its siege of Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah compound and other Palestinian cities. While Israel did grudgingly ease its encirclement of Arafat, it made no moves to end its military reoccupation of the West Bank. During an October 16 meeting with Sharon, Bush raised the specter of a regional war by endorsing an Israeli retaliation if attacked by Iraq, while the Israeli Prime Minister enthused that “we never had such a cooperation in everything as we have with the current administration.” 
Another example of American abuse of the UN came when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld simply made up new justifications for the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq. The no-fly zones have been justified on the basis of Resolution 688 (protecting Iraqi citizens from repression), not Resolution 687 (disarmament and sanctions). While the no-fly zones have not proven particularly effective at protecting either the Kurds or the Shia, since January 1999 their mission has expanded to degrading Iraqi air defenses, pressuring the Iraqi military to engender frustration with Saddam Hussein, and, most recently, training American pilots for the coming war. Rumsfeld’s novel claim on September 29 that the no-fly zones were part of the UN inspections regime baffled the Security Council as well as the UNMOVIC inspectors. 
Stripped of moralizing rhetoric or credible evidence of Iraqi ties to al-Qaeda, the argument for war rests upon frightening warnings about Iraqi pursuit of nuclear weapons and the uniquely undeterrable psychology of Saddam Hussein.  North Korea’s October 16 surprise admission that it had continued its nuclear weapons program strengthened the hawkish position warning about the inadequacies of international monitoring (despite the enormous differences between the intrusive inspections in Iraq and the more voluntary agreement in North Korea), but also cast doubt upon the priority of the Iraqi threat. Bush administration claims that an Iraqi nuclear bomb is imminent have been routinely disputed by nuclear proliferation specialists, the British government and even the CIA. At any rate, concerns about nuclear weapons point more logically toward renewed inspections than toward war, particularly as the CIA has concluded that the only plausible scenario in which the Iraqi regime might use weapons of mass destruction was if it came under direct attack.  Most of the UN believes that the new inspectorate UNMOVIC, with a more expansive mandate and a more credible threat of force behind its demands, could effectively respond to whatever danger Iraq poses. Despite its open scorn for inspections, and its commonly expressed belief that they would fail, the demands of building international support prevented the Bush administration from simply bypassing this strong international preference.
A Rift Never Healed
While most of the UN wants to avoid war, few dispute that Iraq has a long record of defiance of Security Council resolutions, and should be required to comply. Immediately after the Gulf war, Resolution 687 laid down a set of clear benchmarks for Iraqi disarmament. Iraq stalled, deceived and confronted UNSCOM, angering even its supporters with its obstinacy. Despite Iraq’s uncooperative approach, the record shows that UNSCOM succeeded to a remarkable degree in discovering and destroying the vast majority of Iraqi weapons capabilities.  This record offers strong arguments for giving inspections a real chance to operate, particularly given the terrifying potential consequences of war.
The inspections process began to break down in 1997 largely because of UNSCOM’s success, not because of its failure. As long as UNSCOM remained far from being able to certify Iraq as in compliance, it could be useful to both sides. For Iraq, cooperation held out the prospect of getting the sanctions lifted, while for the US it worked to disarm Iraq and to keep pressure on the Iraqi regime. As UNSCOM grew closer to achieving its goals, and adopted increasingly confrontational inspection practices, it became increasingly threatening to the vital interests of both Iraq and the US.
American domestic politics, particularly Republican attacks on the Clinton administration to more publicly support the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, hastened the demise of UNSCOM. On March 26, 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that the United States would not allow sanctions to be lifted as long as Saddam Hussein remained in power. In October 1998, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Iraqi Liberation Act, which made the rhetorical American defection from the Security Council mandate into law. This severing of the mandated link between compliance and the sanctions left Iraq with few reasons to cooperate, and infuriated the other members of the Security Council. As French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine argued, “We cannot have the same people telling us that not the slightest detail must be changed in the [Security Council] resolutions and also announcing or advocating a policy which has nothing to do with the same resolutions.” 
The Desert Fox bombing of December 1998 abruptly ended UNSCOM’s mission, leaving painfully raw divisions within the Council over Iraq policy. These were exacerbated by revelations over the next month that the US had been using UNSCOM to collect intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s regime. Painstaking US and British efforts to rebuild a working consensus on Iraq policy around the “smart sanctions” initiative never entirely healed the rift created by the UNSCOM endgame.
At the UN, the long-standing complaint that the US repeatedly moved the goalposts to avoid lifting the sanctions has been easily transposed to skepticism at the new catalogue of American demands. Remembering the 1990s, other Security Council members ask: after putting so much political capital into the campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein, can Bush take yes for an answer even if Iraq fully cooperated with disarmament? They are not sure, and have crafted the inspections mandate as tightly as possible to avoid war. For the Bush team — as for the second Clinton administration — there is no question of Iraqi compliance, since by his very nature Saddam Hussein is incapable of foregoing weapons of mass destruction. In his speech to the UN, Bush’s long list of demands on Iraq went far beyond disarmament — a full accounting for Kuwaiti prisoners of war, an end to domestic repression, an end to economic interactions outside the oil for food program — setting the bar so high as to make compliance nearly impossible. Bush astonishingly concluded that “if all these steps are taken, it�could open the prospect of the United Nations helping to build a government that represents all Iraqis.” In other words, even if Iraq fully complied, the US would change its regime anyway. Small wonder that many felt that the US was intentionally failing to offer Iraq any incentive to cooperate in order to avoid the possibility that war could be avoided.
Iraq’s strategy has been to keep the mainstream of UN opinion on its side and to isolate the US. Its October 1 agreement with UNMOVIC head Hans Blix on inspections forced the Bush administration to take the politically unpopular step of blocking the inspectors’ return. The Ba’thist regime hastily backed down from challenges to Blix when they found no support in the Security Council. Iraq has expressed a conditional willingness to consider working with the new resolution, despite warnings about using inspections teams for espionage and complaints that the resolution is simply a pretext for war. The November 8 resolution does not fundamentally change Iraqi strategy. All signs indicate that Iraq expects a US attack at some point, and that it hopes to force the US to fight under the most disadvantageous conditions possible. Iraq knows well that most of the Security Council rejects the American claim of an “automatic” authorization for war at the first sign of Iraqi non-cooperation with UNMOVIC. It will most likely continue to look for ways to divide the Security Council with challenges which most will see as beneath the threshold of war in order to provoke the US into acting alone, with few allies and without access to regional bases. The more difficult the fight, the greater the chance that it could be drawn out long enough for something to go dramatically wrong, either in the war itself or in Israel, Pakistan or elsewhere.
The Security Council
The Bush administration’s threats to act alone or with a small coalition brought to the surface deep disagreements about the American role in the UN. Complaints of American “bullying” and refusal to listen to the legitimate concerns of other Security Council members resonate in the corridors of the UN. (12) Almost all want to find ways to force the US to take yes for an answer. Many fear that failing to act effectively would unleash the US to act unilaterally, destroying any remaining restraints on what is increasingly seen as a rogue superpower. The permanent members do not want to marginalize an institution in which they have some power over America. What is more, Iraq’s ongoing defiance of the Security Council is genuinely embarrassing to the institution. The Security Council shares with Secretary General Kofi Annan a powerful interest in keeping the US engaged with the UN. (Annan, for his part, has stayed out of the current wrangling.) These concerns for the UN’s “relevance” were likely the deciding factors in the Security Council’s ultimate backing of Bush’s new resolution.
Tony Blair’s Britain has long been the strongest supporter of US policy towards Iraq, and as in previous negotiations has taken an active role in mediating between the US and the rest of the UN. This close relationship has been less popular with the British than it has been with Americans, however. In the late summer, Blair found himself facing a revolt within the Labor Party. Blair beat back this challenge in the October 3 Labor Party convention, but the experience has made even more clear the need for a UN mandate to convince skeptical public opinion. Public support for war had dropped to 33 percent by October 1.  The much-hyped British dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction turned out to have little new information, and actually undermined Bush’s position by downplaying the imminence of Iraqi acquisition of nuclear weapons. The British press interpreted the dossier as a brief for inspections, not for invasion. Faced with such domestic — and European — skepticism, Blair has been working hard to ensure that whatever action is taken goes through UN channels.  The British see the unanimous resolution as vindication of their advocacy for this approach.
Russia has been seen as a major obstacle to US plans for Iraq, but its actual policy has been nakedly pragmatic. Russia has major economic interests in Iraq, and recently signed a vast new $40 billion oil development agreement with the Iraqi government. Economic considerations alone will not dominate Russian strategy, though; US guarantees that a successor regime will honor Saddam Hussein’s debts and at least some of its contracts should suffice. More important for Russia, as for China and France, is suspicion of the extent of US ambitions, and its real fears of encirclement by American military bases from Central Asia through the Gulf. Even though Russian public opinion solidly opposes a US-led war against Iraq, little of the old affection for the Ba’thist regime remains. After September 11, Russian premier Vladimir Putin dramatically shifted to a pro-American stance, accepting Bush’s abrogation of the anti-ballistic missile treaty and cooperating in Afghanistan, with few political ramifications. In exchange, Putin sought and received an American blind eye toward his war on Chechens, and has recently pushed for permission to extend that “war on terror” into Georgia. The horrifying Moscow hostage crisis, ending in Russia’s gassing of rebels and hostages alike, has galvanized Putin’s regime around the terrorism issue.
China played a relatively low-key role in the deliberations, emphasizing the need to go through the UN but not visibly standing against the US position. From a Chinese perspective, the American focus on Iraq is not such a bad thing. Prior to September 11, relations between the hawkish Bush administration and China were strained, with senior members of the administration openly treating China as an enemy, and nationalist anger stirred up over the downing of an American spy plane. Bush’s treasured National Missile Defense was more or less openly aimed at the Chinese nuclear program, and the Rumsfeld Defense Department curtailed the high-level confidence building and transparency talks begun under Clinton. China is passing through a dangerous transition period, with serious unresolved questions over the future leadership of Jiang Xemin. It appreciates a little breathing space, as well as the reduced criticism over its own treatment of dissidents. What is more, to the extent that Chinese leaders expect the Iraq campaign to be difficult and expensive, and to undermine American leadership, it has an incentive to encourage such a campaign in order to weaken its potential adversary.
The French position is therefore the most important and most unpredictable. Virtually the entire UN has rallied around the French approach, a validation of French importance which surely warms the heart of the neo-Gaullist President Jacques Chirac. French public opinion remains deeply suspicious of unchecked US power, and there is little enthusiasm for what is widely seen as an American crusade. The French are far more concerned about Islamist terrorism than about Iraq, and worry deeply about the impact of a war on its Muslim population. The economic reasons frequently cited to explain the French position should not be exaggerated: French exports to Iraq make up only 0.2 percent of the total, and imports from Iraq are only 0.3 percent of France’s total trade. France has been growing weary with the Iraqis for several years, and is not opposed in principle to the Bush administration’s demands, preferring to be influential inside the coalition rather than to protest impotently from outside. French diplomats claim that their tough approach to the resolution ultimately produced the genuine consensus around the inspections which UNMOVIC will need if it is to succeed. France’s agreement to the resolution should not be misread as support for war, however, and the French will continue to resist US moves to war which avoid a return to the Security Council.
If war does occur, neo-conservative hawks paint a picture of a rapid, crushing US victory which sparks a wave of pro-American democracy movements through the region and decisively shuts down Islamist terrorism. But international skepticism about American commitment to Iraqi democracy remains high, especially in light of the desultory efforts in Afghanistan after similar promises had been made. Remarks such as White House spokesman Ari Fleischer’s October 5 suggestion that “one bullet” could solve the problem raise even more doubts. Neither the US nor its major allies have ever viewed Iraqi democracy positively, with fears of Kurdish secession and a pro-Iranian Shia majority crowding out any liberal aspirations. The continuing disarray of the Iraqi opposition in exile, which threatens to derail a major conference planned for the end of November, has done little to assuage deeply entrenched skepticism. Any government emerging in a post-Saddam Iraq which is acceptable to the US will almost certainly rely on strong American military support. On October 11, Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested that the initial post-war period would require direct American military rule for some time before slowly moving to democracy, and Washington is abuzz with scenarios based on the occupations of Japan and Germany. 
US hypocrisy has cost the Bush administration dearly in its battle for political and moral support in the confrontation with Iraq. The public positions of the key figures in the Bush administration make it impossible to place any faith in their democratic rhetoric. The call to fight for human rights and dignities could otherwise command considerable support among progressives, as it did to some degree in Kosovo. The horrors of the sanctions regime might lead some to accept that a forced regime change might be preferable to continuing the Iraqi people’s suffering. But the long US history of supporting dictators all over the world while praising democracy rhetorically has left its mark. American ideas about bringing war crimes charges against Saddam Hussein and a small group of top regime officials, in part as a way to reassure lower-level party and army functionaries that they can safely surrender, are similarly complicated by the ongoing US rejection of the International Criminal Court before which such charges would presumably be brought.
No country by this point retains much patience for the Iraqi regime. Most still would prefer to avoid war, however, and almost none support the idea of an invasion aimed at changing the Iraqi regime. Furthermore, those who hope to avoid war recognize that virtually the only way to do so is an airtight, successful inspections experience which denies the US a plausible pretext for military intervention. In an important October 28 briefing to the Council, UNMOVIC Chairman Hans Blix made clear that his mission can not succeed without strong US support or without strong international consensus.
The new resolution will only command wide international legitimacy if it is seen to genuinely focus on disarmament and the authority of the Security Council. If Iraq is able to divide the Council over the inspections, then UNMOVIC will almost certainly fail. Many still believe that this is exactly what the US wants. A war begun on a flimsy pretext will not command widespread international support, even if the US claims to find authorization in the text of the resolution. International support for the American position will only survive to the extent that the Bush administration honors the spirit of the consensus. If the White House abuses the UN mandate by moving directly to war without returning to the Council, as administration spokesmen contend the resolution allows it to do, all of the hard-earned legitimacy of the new resolution will be squandered.
 For a concise review of UNSCOM’s record, see the October 2002 report by the Arms Control Association, available online at http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2002_10/iraqspecialoct02.asp.