NYT - America moves apart from the UN on Iraq


December 26, 1999

A year ago, the world was mesmerized by the spectacle of exploding rockets lighting the skies over Baghdad as American and British warplanes taught Saddam Hussein a lesson about defying United Nations arms inspections. A year later, it is clear that the fireworks were obscuring another reality: the final retreat of the Clinton administration from a policy of making the United Nations the focal point of policy on Iraq -- and, indeed, from making Iraq a focal point of policy.

Now fixed on the glittering prize of a broader Middle East peace among Israel and its neighbors, the administration has let Iraq slip into the middle distance, where it is likely to remain for the last year of the Clinton era unless President Saddam Hussein does something very foolish and provocative.

American policy, which once put so much focus on United Nations arms inspections to restrain Saddam Hussein's military ambitions, seems to now rely on more quietly keeping him hemmed in with sanctions, period. If his weapons programs get to a really dangerous point, new large-scale bombing is always an option anyway.

For many diplomats here, the most telling sign of Iraq's eclipse was the decision of Richard C. Holbrooke, the powerful new American representative at the United Nations, to give no priority to the issue here when he arrived in the fall, just as final negotiations on creating a new arms inspection system to monitor the Iraqis were reaching a crucial point. That system was adopted by the Security Council a week ago but is likely to take months to put into place -- if it can be put in place at all, given Iraq's immediate outrage at the very idea.

From the vantage point of the United Nations, the American policy on Iraq now seems to be on autopilot. A senior American official recently told a group of foreign policy experts that only a handful of people in the United States either knew or cared about the issue, an indication that the policy was hardly under active review.

For at least two years, the administration has been focused almost exclusively on two projects: first, continuing sanctions to try to weaken the Iraqi government and slow its quest for new weapons of mass destruction, and second, supporting the Iraqi opposition in exile, even though it is fragmented and few people take it seriously as an immediate threat to Mr. Hussein. Many experts say the only possibility of overthrow that Mr. Hussein really fears is a palace coup.

Thus the continuing standoff with Mr. Hussein. No arms inspections are likely soon, and therefore there is no end in sight for sanctions, which Mr. Hussein sees as a gross insult to Iraq's sovereignty, as is American enforcement of no-flight zones in the north and south, where Iraq fires on American planes and the planes keep bombing Iraq's air defenses.

Nine years after the gulf war, many nations have come to disagree with the United States that sanctions by themselves should be the bedrock of an Iraq policy. The Arabs, for example, have said the Americans long ago became cynical about inspections -- that they stopped wanting the inspections to work, because if Iraq ever passed the test it would lead to the liberation of Mr. Hussein from the box into which sanctions help keep him. The inspections also tied American policy to an activity carried out not by Americans, but by the United Nations.

"The fact that the sanctions regime has lost virtually all the support it once enjoyed around the world -- and that Saddam Hussein is still firmly in place -- seems to matter very little in Washington's thinking," said David Malone, a Canadian diplomat who is president of the International Peace Academy, a research organization with close ties to the diplomats at the United Nations.

Moreover, he said, "once it became clear that partners in the Security Council, particularly among the permanent five, were no longer willing to support sanctions, Washington had a choice to make between Security Council solidarity and sanctions" to support its goal of containing Iraq, said Mr. Malone. With the decision in favor of sanctions, rather than any inspection regime the council could readily agree on, it became inevitable that the chief United Nations arms inspection official, Richard Butler, would soon feel a chill wind.

Now, in the final days before his agency is disbanded, there is a palpable bitterness among its inspectors at having been sold out by Washington.

After the effective end of inspections a year ago, it took many months for the Security Council to decide what to do next. It is telling that when the new plan was drawn up, the United States left most of the work to others, stepping in only at critical points to make sure the Iraqis will have months of work to do before they can get to even a temporary suspension of sanctions.

If America's attitude toward working with the United Nations on Iraq has seemed ambivalent and opaque to other countries, so too has the attitude of Secretary General Kofi Annan seemed confusing to Americans and the United Nations' arms inspectors.

It has been almost two years since Mr. Annan went to Iraq to talk Mr. Hussein into a modicum of cooperation with the inspection agency, known as Unscom. The months that followed, in retrospect, can be seen as the moment when the United States began disengaging from the United Nations on Iraq.

Mr. Annan's mission led to sham diplomatic inspections of off-limits Iraqi palaces in the glare of publicity, while Unscom was prevented from doing any real work. But Washington was surprisingly uncritical. Then, after Iraq was bombed in December 1998, administration officials in Washington leaked reports of how the United States had long used Unscom and, by extension, the United Nations for spying on Iraq. Mr. Malone called these leaks "profoundly damaging" to Mr. Butler.

But in a recent interview, Mr. Butler said that much of the blame for what went wrong rested not in Washington but in the secretary general's office, where he found some staff members "deeply sympathetic" to Iraq. "They made it clear to me after a while that this actual pursuit of weapons was inadequately diplomatic," he said, still angry that Mr. Hussein, a documented liar in dealing with inspectors and a concealer of poison gas, germ warfare and a nuclear program, should get white-glove treatment from the United Nations.

There is a paradox here. In recent months Mr. Annan has become very outspoken and self-critical about the mistakes the United Nations makes when it tries to treat abusers of their own populations with the nonjudgmental neutrality accorded other heads of government. Some people are just evil, a recent report on the 1995 fall of Srebrenica and the subsequent massacre of its Muslim population recently concluded. Mr. Annan has been stung in Bosnia, Serbia and Rwanda -- and said so with extraordinary contrition. He has criticized Russian action in Chechnya and supported NATO in Kosovo.

But Iraq? By the evidence of United Nations Human Rights Commission monitors and human rights organizations, President Hussein rules with ruthless terror and is not squeamish about gassing his own population or using the suffering of civilians as a propaganda tool. Mr. Annan's entourage does not dwell on this.

Mr. Annan now has a huge challenge ahead of him. The Security Council has given him a month to choose a successor to Mr. Butler to head a new inspection commission. Signs of American interest are conspicuously absent. Although the strength or weakness of the choice will be important, American diplomats say the United States doesn't have a favored candidate in the race.


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